The Death Of Downtowns

An essay by Lileks.

I remember when this happened to Flint. When I was a kid, downtown had two movie theaters, a Walgreens (I think, or maybe it was a Ben Franklin) and Smith Bridgman’s and JC Penny were the major department stores. In the late sixties, the Eastland Mall opened on the eastern border of town, with a movie complex, and downtown started to die. Later, another was built on the west side, called Genessee Valley Mall (Genessee was the county) anchored by a Hudsons, the major Detroit department store that sponsored Detroit’s Thanksgiving parades. That finished the job.

Personally sadder to me, though, was the north end of town, where my grandparents liked. It was two blocks from Flint Park, an amusement park with a roller coaster, Ferris wheel and other rides, a dance hall and concert venue, as well as carnival games. I went to it as a very young child, but it closed in the early sixties. The neighborhood started to go downhill, and it became increasingly black as the prices declined. My grandmother stayed until she was put in a nursing home in the eighties, but the house that my mother had grown up in was demolished. You can now see where the amusement park was, and it would probably be an interesting archaeological dig, but if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never know it had been. It’s a woods, now, gone completely back to nature.

I should note that, like Lileks’ Fargo, the downtown was somewhat revitalized in the 80s, when when a new Flint campus of the University of Michigan was built there, but it’s nothing like the glory days.

16 thoughts on “The Death Of Downtowns”

  1. The switch to parallel parking to create room for an extra two lanes of downtown traffic likely doomed many cities. It cuts the number of parking spaces in half, and thus the amount of customer traffic for local businesses, while making many folks just avoid shopping downtown altogether because parallel parking in heavy traffic can be extremely stressful.

    When that’s coupled with the growth of larger downtown firms in taller buildings, which drawn in their own customers, those customers end up filling whatever nearby parking spaces are left, perhaps like a tumor sucking the blood supply from surrounding tissues, leading to necrosis. Instead of a stream of customers parking for five minutes each to grab a few items at a local shop, someone parks for an hour or two, talking to some loan officer at one of those imposing big bank buildings.

    As the customers dwindle, due to the self-inflicted parking and traffic problems, friendly and formerly convenient downtown businesses start to close, and that leaves less and less reason for people to do their shopping downtown. Instead strip malls start popping up, always built where land is still reasonably cheap, and each with their own convenient parking lots with normal, pull-in parking spaces. And those end up somewhere between the city core and the suburbs, where most of the people moved, and become the natural destination for most shopping trips.

    1. I agree. I avoid shopping downtown because of the parking hassles. Why put up with the annoyance when I can find what I need elsewhere?

    2. Don’t forget the “walking mall” phase many towns went through in the 1970s. Whereby the main street and it’s angled pull-in parking spaces were replaced with walkways, trees and park benches. Making parking even harder and farther away. Shoppers fled the “pedestrian friendly” open air walkways full of the homeless hanging out on the benches for the new outside downtown enclosed malls with no parking or weather issues and mall security.

    3. Diagonal parking with heavy traffic is no picnic either, at least the getting out part.

      My town still has a U.S. highway funneled through downtown, and the bypass options for through traffic are largely incomplete because they would also parallel an interstate and planners probably assume if you’re not going TO downtown you’re not leaving the interstate anyway.

      But the exits are few and far between and not easy to get from one to the next by surface roads, so the U.S. highway is still busy as hell, with two lanes each way on the one-way streets past the courthouse where the diagonal parking still is. Stoplights at each intersection don’t slow things down much.

      I guess downtown is still (or again) pretty lively though, but except for a couple of banks (which have branches elsewhere in the county) it seems to be all restaurants and boutiques.

  2. We lived 10 miles out of “Downtown”.

    A bus ride brought us into the center of things: Library, book stores, movie theaters, music stores, restaurants, mid-scale retail stores, grocers, pool halls, bowling, main post office, parks with water fountains, strip clubs, lounges, all the usual stuff.

    Decades later, wouldn’t be in downtown to be caught dead.

    Down towners are just downers. No rocket science required.

  3. I have lived in a dozen states. Every town always had a “rejuvenate the downtown” program, but none actually seemed to work. Conversely, on at least two occasions, they managed to turn the area surrounding police headquarters into a high-crime area. It is instructive that the city/town/county councils normally held majorities of representatives that owned businesses or properties in the downtowns.

    1. My city spent decades on those “downtown rejuvenation” programs, spending oodles of money and just making things worse. At one point they tore down an entire block of four and five story buildings to build some new shopping/hotel megastructure, and then found out that the big-money backer behind the new complex was probably a figment of a developer’s imagination, so we ended up with a giant empty downtown “basement” for five or ten more years, walled off with orange plastic fencing and plywood barriers. And yet that was just one part of an ongoing saga about how city government just spent tons of money to create downtown business disasters.

      I suspect part of the problem is that the people who run for city council don’t understand business and push pie-in-the-sky projects that smart business folks avoid like the plague, but young and naive liberal business folks who couldn’t run a hot-dog-stand jump on board to take advantage of the new opportunity to be part of the renovated dynamic downtown urban scene, so it looks like businesses are lining up to back whatever wacky proposal is put forward. The build it, nobody comes, and the whole endeavor struggles along with all involved trying to avoid complete insolvency.

      But eventually an outside developer came in with the idea of making a huge high-end shopping complex away from downtown, modeled on some prior successes in places like Boston. Their model was a bit like a super-high-end strip mall with top-tier stores – and a tiny tiny little parking lot so that it would be urban-pedestrian friendly. But the location is almost completely surrounded by eight or ten lane major arteries that have zero pedestrian traffic, ever.

      People would go to check out the newest hot place to go, cruise the tiny and therefore always packed parking lot of a few times, failing to find anyplace to park, and then drive somewhere else. Customers would tell the store managers things like “I’d come more often but I can never find anyplace to park!” So a few months after opening all the high-end store owners were hiring lawyers to try and figure out how to terminate their lease agreements without paying huge penalties. All the project did was recreate all the failures of downtown stores, but on a major intersection highway intersection far from downtown.

    2. The area around police HQ a high-crime area?

      A win-win! Think of the beneficial reduction in CO2 emissions to make the police travel longer distances?

  4. The high tax environment of the state I grew up in insured that what fire didn’t destroy of the hometown’s “downtown” (a very small town) the excavator did.

    There is nothing left of the 1890s architecture in my old hometown. Where there had been grandiose one or two story brick storefronts once classic mainstays of the mid-western small town are now either the Casey’s gas station/convenience store or empty lot. That also includes a turn of the century two-story brick school house that the town could not afford to keep or update once a more modern one-story elementary school was built.

    Oh and an 1880s tree lined old brick home was razed for a Dollar General Store. Not saying that was necessarily a bad deal, the town needed one badly, just wish they could have built it in town. But they didn’t have enough parking there.

  5. The switch to parallel parking to create room for an extra two lanes of downtown traffic likely doomed many cities..

    IOWs the local population density increased beyond what the building infrastruture could handle. All this worked before the mega city with 100 sq miles of suburbs around them became the norm. I think one of the big ironies of our present epoch is that we solved the population crisis with birth control and feminism which was decreasing the population back to less crowded days – but that doesn’t suit the big corporations or the politicians so – open borders and an ever decreasing standard of living.

  6. I don’t live near anything, but the little town 20+ miles away just eliminated a traffic lane on every road, sandwiching a bike lane between the one remaining traffic lane, and parallel parking by the curb (replacing angled parking). As the local paper asked, “What bikes did they have in mind?” Children are no longer allowed to wander around unsupervised, so the only bikers are a few old drunks not allowed to drive. So far, they haven’t started ticketing the people angle parking in the new parallel lane. Oh, yes, and they replaced a light-controlled intersection with a “roundabout” after a city government field trip to London! This has caused local flooding and a number of accidents.

    1. The nearest excuse for a city near me has those 3-lane roads (the ones with a 2-way turn lane in the middle). Head on collisions are popular. My favorite was a day when, waiting at the curb to pick up my wife, there was a loud blam! Heralding a head-on collision between someone who didn’t notice that cop car coming the other way. I had my window rolled down and heard the cop say, “Well, fuck me.”

      1. Nearly as good as divided highways but without exit or entrance ramps, just crossing intersections. Guess that’s a good way to keep people out of the left lanes out of sheer fear. WRONG WAY signs are *always* something you might want to pay attention to…

  7. I currently live in a population-dense S. FL county. (I knew where Rand lived. I never thought I should show up without an actual invitation). One has to wonder his mental health, voluntarily moving (back) to California. (I’m an Oregonian. We rightfully hate Californians.)

    For several years, I’ve stockpiled the material resources to move to a far less population-dense part of the country. It’s coming.

    No, I’m not moving to California. Nor Oregon, which has been overrun by Californians fleeing their failed state. Now Oregon is failing.

    Stupid bastards.

    1. Nor Oregon, which has been overrun by Californians fleeing their failed state. Now Oregon is failing.

      We have a similar problem in my state.

      You’ll need to find a state with good geophysical and economic borders and strong residency requirements to allow political acclimation before being allowed to vote in elections.

      Pick two 🙁

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