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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 288-294

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Talk of the Town

Robert Twombly

Robert M. Fogelson. Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. x + 492 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $35.00.

Downtown recounts the speculations of prominent people—mostly in a half dozen large American cities over a seventy-year period—about the impact of rapid transit, skyscrapers, automobiles, and slum clearance on the place downtown which is, writes Robert M. Fogelson, professor of urban studies and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a city's business district. Downtown does not examine cities per se but concentrates on four aspects of one part of a handful of cities from the time that part is said to have risen circa 1880 to its circa 1950 fall. Downtown is acknowledged to have existed before rising but that, like its "take-off" and current situation, is a subject Fogelson is "happy to leave to other historians" 1 (p. 397).

Such matters are "beyond the scope of this book" (p. 397), and it is true that pre- and post-industrial cities are their own subjects. But without its pre- and post-history, so to speak, Fogelson's downtown exists in a temporal vacuum—a spatial vacuum as well—all the more so since its "rise" turns out to be not the rise of a place but of the popularity of a name for that place. Its fall is equally intangible, having to do with its being quite different now than the wonder he remembers nostalgically from boyhood (in his evocative introduction). So how downtown was made and what it was, is, meant, and means for city dwellers—its life, that is—gives way in these pages to the repercussions of large-scale construction, demolition, and vehicular traffic—and not even that but what selected eminences thought about that—seen through a glass darkly.

Not seen darkly but more illuminating than anything in the text is Downtown's dustjacket photograph, a breathtaking 1917 view of lower Manhattan from atop the eastern tower of the Brooklyn Bridge. Four behemoths dominate the background: the Municipal Building—McKim, Mead & White's 1914 attempt to package a Renaissance palazzo as a skyscraper—stands a year older and a few blocks northeast of Cass Gilbert's gothicy Woolworth, America's tallest structure once it surpassed Ernest Flagg's 1907 Beaux-Arts Singer Building 1000 feet to the south (in the picture but no longer, having [End Page 288] been razed in 1970 to make way for tepid One Liberty Plaza), which is two blocks north of Ernest Graham's gigantic Equitable Building of 1915 in neo-classical garb, the erection of which contributed to passage of New York's 1916 zoning ordinance, the nation's first comprehensively to regulate building height, bulk, and location by use on a city-wide basis.

These four massive structures—the oldest but a decade in 1917—represent accelerating urban trends: the appropriation by business and government alike of historical architecture with its socially cleansing and power-legitimizing associations, the growth of municipal bureaucracy (signalled by the sheer size of its namesake building), the expansion of service industries (like Equitable Insurance), the consolidation of retail distribution (as in Woolworth's Five and Dimes), and of retail commodity production (like Singer's sewing machines), trends of immense import for cities to which Fogelson pays little or no attention. Collectively these mammoths vastly increased daytime downtown population density, a consequence of the inclination even of corporate owners to set up shop within sight of each other. Downtown amply documents their views on the pros and cons of closepacking but is mute about the thoughts of working people and the conditions under which they labored inside and out of their giant packing crates.

In the picture's middle ground—east of the Broadway spine from which Woolworth, Singer, and Equitable spring—is an immense potpourri of lesser structures, some high-rise but most not, constituting a thriving but functionally older city of tenements with occasional ground floor shops; of wholesaling, retailing...


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