“Downtown America” Review

The book titled “Downtown America” by Alison Isenberg brings a new perspective behind Downtown areas and the social issues in public policy choices. The apparent appeal of living-organism and free-market representations has more than economical aspects. Isenberg constructs his arguments by advocating that Main Street has not been the victim of objective economic forces (p. 2). In fact, consumers, protestors, business people, government leaders, design consultants, and real estate professionals are all involved in a social-historical context. Some of these stakeholders are more awakens than others, while Downtown America has a goal of reconceptualizing downtown`s history; to integrate creative efforts to reinvent urban commercial values, even while accounting for uncertainty and fears of decline (p.3)”. The commerce and the social demands have been changed by the time.

In 1920s, the investors decided that a revived urban commerce might rebuild the country`s racial gaps. Isenberg mentioned that: “other strategies, like Reilly`s law of Retail Gravitation and the concept of the 100% district… were equally influential in another way (p.3)”. It was the ideas guiding investment at that time. After 1920, civic work of women`s groups began to grow. The women activism increased and these groups decided to be the change that the city needed. By cleaning the city, women were the key to the future of civil rights in the Main Streets of villages and cities across America. They gained national recognition for their initiatives in beautifying the cities. Women established the municipal housekeeping that focused on the improvement of ordinary downtown street with simple initiatives, such as lampposts and trash cans in order to instruct the public about responsibilities as citizens. Due to the empowerment created by women groups, futures minorities benefited. It is equally important to mention that women had not the right to vote at the time. However, they acted as the best citizens. The women club started to reevaluate their cities for better even they are not part of the society as “real “citizens with the right to vote. The middle-class women were behind the scenes setting the new beautiful and moral turning point to the society. The message was clear “all citizens, not just men and city officials, but everyone from “colored” boys and girls to the businessman, has responsibilities if the community expected to achieve a “perfect clean street” (p. 31). After that, the club became pro racial matters. As a result, they created a Colored Women`s Civic League for the African American community (p.33-34). These movements and goals, such as the right to vote and the equality goals, triggered democratic rhetoric exclusion discursions.

By the late 1950s, suburban women shoppers started to influence commerce as well. In both the public and private sectors, policymakers and stockholders were interested in saving downtown property values by focusing on the rising of women consumers. After women clubs had had significate participation in the public policies and society, these discursions encompass other “excluded” groups and their inclusion in the market as well. The new proximate consumers, the African Americans, for instance, got part of the public attention. There was a negligent gap about them.

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In 1960, the civil rights movements increased. As a result, public authorities wrote new laws to change the previous way to maintain discrimination and segregation. The new era was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the law that was supposed to be a tool to eliminate the mentioned issues sometimes was not very effective. For instance, the suburban malls were not close to all classes of people- within the book refers to minorities or the masses - and few. For this reason, "downtown" was the main shopping district. This fact supports particular cultural values. According to Isenberg, “downtown has been not only linchpin of urban real estate and conspicuous consumption but also an idealized public place and thus a powerful symbol. Like so many aspects of American culture, the downtown meant business, but it was also invested with civic meaning (p.5).” This meaning is constructed by historical context and other individuals involved.

Now, the twentieth-century urban life is complex and deep, and it was the partition of the city and the emergence of worlds. Before inhabited by separate races, classes, genders, and ethnic groups, it also can be a democratic ideal of the downtown. Turn back to the concepts of public spaces; the downtown has the common ground of being a democratic space. To be more specific, the Downtown Street and department store can be a metaphor of American democracy.

From the photographers' view, questions about what is the real meaning of being a “beautiful” city remains because different perspectives of the city had been analyzed by the book. Beauty from a commercial vision, cultural values, or personal preferences were analyzed by Walker Evans, an influential photographer of the American scene who redefined the shape of beauty. In other words, this shape can inspire dignity.

Over time, politician and businessmen have given more attention to the civic righteousness of improved paving, lighting, and commercial aesthetics in their terms. The book mentioned that: “The City Beautiful proved to be something quite different in the hands of politicians, businessmen, and planners from what it was in the hands of Main Street housekeepers (p. 36)”. They start to think about how to increase downtown property values, planning, and gentrification rise as a “solution” to them. “Phenomenal” growth for zoning of stores foster racially and ethnically homogeneous districts (p.102).

Back to 1911, the author quoted St. Paul, Minnesota, defender of planning: “the idea of beautifying the city proposed by the city plan does not contemplate tying pink ribbons to the lamp posts and petitioning the park board to plant a few flowers in Rice Park. It means rather the enhancing of real estate values and making the city attractive to the traveler (p.40)”. Also, commercial real state investors became preoccupied with women shoppers because they recognized that women`s behavior caused apparent decline of small-town main streets. Shoppers` decisions and the future development of downtowns have a connection with salespeople that “repelled some potential consumers as much as it attracted others (p. 100).” Mantras of urban renewal such as “to clear up traffic congestion, or to restore worn-out areas to the tax rolls, or to create the city beautiful (p.170)” are an excuse to the “negro removal”. In contrast to the suburban malls that are designed for a homogeneous market, the downtown was distinctive for drawing its business from diverse people, all ethnic groups and classes of people.

By considering the historical movement and the stakeholders' identity, the real challenge is to reshape values and culture in downtowns. For instance, the World Trade Center disaster was a symbol of this need. According to the author: “the fact that what Americans choose to do with their downtowns is an authentic statement of the nation`s values and its visions of the future (p.315)”

In conclusion, the values and inclusion of more and more participants will chart the course of downtown. In the real estate and urban commerce field, this meaning is part of the agenda. Not only objective economic forces but also now a common challenge to overcome. Thinking about diversity is a good start, and this concept applied in public spaces, downtown, commercial areas, and residential areas. This is the twenty-first-century challenge, according to the author.

Tags: Diversity, Inclusion, history, Alison Isenberg , Downtown America, women movement, public history, public policy, civil rights, Book review