U.S. Downtowns: Decline or Re-Birth?
What do you see in the downtown area of your city?
To those of you who are young let me tell you something you may find hard to believe: there are advantages and joys associated with growing older.
Life is more precious for this wanderer now that I am in my sixty-third year. I enjoy the little pleasures of life now where once I took them for granted. My senses are on high alert now as I study the texture of a rose and savor the scent of a woman. I smile more, frown less and am able to give of myself unconditionally and there is great happiness associated with all of those changes.
One of the other things I have noticed is that I have gained a certain perspective about life. One sees the passage of time and realizes that one of the few constants in life is change. I clearly remember my grandfather cranking his Model T Ford to start it and their ancient telephone that required cranking as well. Heck, the home I grew up in had party lines on the first telephone we had and when I was in First Grade we used fountain pens with ink wells. You should by now have an appreciation for why I have a degree of difficulty with technology today.
Sadly during this time span I have seen the decline of many U.S. cities, in particular their downtown sections. One need only do a little travelling around our country to see the validity in my words. Certainly there are many downtown areas that are thriving but this article will take a closer look at those that, for whatever reason, have fallen by the wayside.
I am going to highlight three cities that I am familiar with, each with similar stories and markedly different results: Tacoma, Leavenworth and Olympia, all in Washington State.
First let’s take a look at a few reasons for the decline of so many downtowns across the United States.
THE DECLINE AND FALL
The reasons are numerous and varied for the decline of many downtown areas and the ensuing urban decay. Let’s take a look at a few of the more obvious reasons:
1. The Interstate Highway System of the 1950’s led of course to…
2. Suburbia and a gradual shift away from the downtown area, which of course led to….
3. Shopping malls, meaning that many downtown areas were visited less often
4. Manufacturing decline; once the stalwart of many a city, the trend slowly shifted away from manufacturing which of course led in part to …..
5. Decline in downtown real estate prices and….
6. Unemployment and….
7. Shifting population which further led to….
8. Urban decay.
There are of course many more reasons for the decline of downtown areas but time and space leave me with no choice but to stop there for now.
Follow me now as I take a look at three cities in Washington State that I am quite familiar with; I will briefly tell you what it was like for each of them, what they did to counteract the decline and what they are like now.
THE CITY BY THE BAY
I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, so I actually witnessed up close and personal the decline and then rebirth of this city on Commencement Bay. During the 50’s and 60’s while I was growing up Tacoma’s downtown area was THE place to be. All of the movie theaters were downtown as well as the major department stores. I loved Christmastime in Tacoma, roaming the streets lined with historic buildings; the bright Christmas lights lining each street and the great, animated Christmas displays in the store windows. It was a safe place to grow up, a medium-sized city of over 100,000 that had a small town feel to it. All of that changed as the Sixties came to a close.
The Interstate System opened up, people moved to the suburbs, shopping malls took shoppers away from downtown and a once strong manufacturing base slowly disappeared. By the late 70’s downtown was looking haggard and it was no longer a safe place to visit even in the daylight.
Kudos go to the city officials for recognizing a dead-end problem and doing something about it. Rather than give up on the core of the city they modernized it, coaxed new businesses to the city, pushed out the crime element and made it once again a place that was worthy of visiting. Today you will find a satellite campus of the University of Washington downtown as well as museums and art galleries and special boutiques and the people have returned in numbers just as they had left in numbers thirty years ago.
A TINY PLACE WITH HUGE DREAMS
Leavenworth, Washington, was once a mining and logging town in the central part of the state, a bustling little city that rode the crest of two major industries until that crest was flattened by changing times. Once the railroad shifted to nearby Wenatchee the writing was on the wall and by 1960 Leavenworth was slowly rotting on the vine.
In 1962 some rather forward-thinking community leaders decided to step up and save their city. Forming an action group called Project Life (Leavenworth Improvement For Everyone)they set about transforming their town from a dying symbol of the past into a replica of a Bavarian town in the Alps.
Today this once dead-from-the-neck up city is the ultimate holiday town and a destination for hundreds of thousands of vacationers year round.
THE CAPITOL CITY OF WASHINGTON
I moved to Olympia in 1992 and have lived here ever since. When I first moved here I loved the downtown area and would walk there often during the day or night enjoying the small-town feel of it and the friendly people who walked the streets with me. With a lovely harbor and boardwalk, a first-class Farmer’s Market and some great historical buildings, Olympia was an enjoyable place to kill an afternoon.
My how times have changed! Shop owners have slowly deserted the downtown area for the mall five miles away and urban decay has set its hooks into this once prosperous downtown area. The feeling of safety is gone as the homeless far outnumber the shoppers and panhandling has become a fine art form. Where once you would find an abundance of funky shops you now see an overabundance of taverns, tattoo shops and for lease signs. It is, for a fact, a sad place to visit.
The Capitol grounds are still lovely although the Capitol Building itself is dirty and un-appealing. The Farmer’s Market is still a good place to spend a sunny afternoon as is the Boardwalk and harbor, but residents and visitors alike know better than to roam the streets of downtown alone.
What is the solution for Olympia? If the city government has a plan it is being guarded well. Pockets of positive change occur but there certainly is no discernable long-term plan at work. What the future holds for Olympia is anyone’s guess at this point.
THE UNITED STATES UNDER A MICROSCOPE
Three cities in Washington State, similar stories and markedly different approaches to the slow death of their downtown areas; I suspect that this story could be told about many cities in the United States and Europe. The next time you take a road trip or fly to a different area, look for yourself at the cities you visit and see if they are part of the problem or part of the solution. I, for one, hope to live long enough to see the United States rebound from this slow downward trend and rise again economically so that once beautiful downtown areas can regain their luster and be a great place for residents to live and play.