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U.S. Downtowns: Decline or Re-Birth?

Updated on January 26, 2014

What do you see in the downtown area of your city?

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Olympia, Washington
Olympia, Washington | Source

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thought, that is nice to hear since I was just basing it on observation and common sense. It's always nice to know that someone with more background agrees. Thank you for dropping by and adding to the discussion.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      Awesome look at a great subject. My focus in school was the growth of urbanization on the frontier in the 19th century. Your analysis of the root problems of modern towns is spot-on.

      Voting up and sharing!


    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Natasha, you raise an excellent point. It is up to the citizenry to step up or step down. Relying on government is always a risky undertaking. Thank you once again for your support.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      I think it's really up the community to decide. With things like the growing cash mob movement (which will celebrate its first ever National Cash Mob Day on March 24), there are people willing to step up and take responsibility for their downtowns. I have lived in one small SC town where the downtown was eviscerated by a strip mall/WalMart, and another town that has a very lively downtown in spite of two area WalMarts simply because residents have made a choice.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hi Savanah; always nice to see you drop by. I love it at Leavenworth too and I really need to go back and visit soon. I hope you are doing well; have a wonderful day in rainy Washington.

    • savanahl profile image

      savanahl 5 years ago

      What a sad truth for so many cities, but it's nice to see that some cities do make a comeback. I think that Leavenworth is probably one of the greatest comebacks ever. I absolutely love it there. Hopefully your city will make a comeback as well. :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Sonya; this isn't like my regular stuff but I need a break from the heavy emotions every once in awhile. I appreciate you greatly and happen to think you are an exceptional writer as well.

    • Sonya L Morley profile image

      Sonya L Morley 5 years ago from Edinburgh

      This is a really interesting article, you write so well billybuc. Always a pleasure to read your work.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Rasta, there are for sure quite a few cities that are on the upswing; it's a good thing to see where it is happening. I hope my city makes a decision soon to save this downtown area. Thank you for your support.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Linda, it's sad to see what is happening here in Olympia; I hope things turn around soon because it really is a lovely spot to live...for now! I'll soon be in the country so I guess it's a moot point for me. I just wish more cities would take care of the legacies that are decaying. Thank you for stopping by and your support.

    • rasta1 profile image

      Marvin Parke 5 years ago from Jamaica

      I have noticed an increase in street children in some of the U.S. cities I regularly visit. I have also noticed improved infrastructures and developments.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      You made some great points Bill. I grew up in a small town on Long Island and according to my kinfolk the town isn't doing well. I've been in Orlando 26 years and I've seen many changes. Since this area is frequented by tourists from all over the world the downtown area is well kept. I live in community that actually has it's own downtown that's like a little taste of heaven. We could walk to the grocery store, doctors, dentists, bank, school and parks. All areas are different. It's the people who live there who could make it or break it. Awesome hub!!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Wayne, thank you and boy did you ever bring back memories. I loved the pizza at Jo Mama's but sadly it has closed along with many more of my favorite shops. You are right on in your assessment of process and result. Thanks for a great comment!

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 5 years ago from Texas

      You make some great points here, Billy. At one time in America, downtown was the center of the universe and everyone went there to witness it. Big box retailers and the points you make have pulled us from that center and in all directions...we don't have a center anymore and that is sad. I lived for five years in Lacey, WA and spent lots of time in Olympia. I remember being in Ralph Rydman's little tire shop down the street from the capitol plaza and eating some great pizza at Jo Mama's in the house on the hill up the street from downtown. Raw oysters in the bar on the Sound...lots of memories there. That was the late 1970's and I am sure much has changed since then. You and I are about the same age and we have seen a lot of change in our time. One thing that saddens me about technology is that there is no longer and attempt to understand the "process"...the young only care for the result. That is a flawed perspective in that if one does not understand the process, then how can they fully understand and comprehend the result? Thansk much! Rated Up! WB

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ardie, it is sad to me; I had great memories growing up of the downtown area and the fascinating things to see and do....sigh...a sign of progress? I hope not. Thank you my dear for dropping by; you are appreciated.

    • Ardie profile image

      Sondra 5 years ago from Neverland

      I would love to see my little downtown go back to what it was when I was really young and following Mom around the city blocks to do errands. Sadly the crime has gone up, the business has gone down, and the decent people moved out of the area. I do see some small signs that the city is ready to take back its glory days...but it will be an uphill struggle.