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Research: The Future of the Center: The Core City in the New Economy

Joel Kotkin

Part 5: The Quest For A Sense Of Place

With the rise of mass-merchandising, the internet, and telecommunications, downtowns, whether in small towns or big cities, offer one thing all too often missing: a sense of place. In an economy where technology has spawned the notion and created the reality of "placelessness," the ultimate, telling irony is that place—geography—matters now more than ever before. If people, companies, or industries can truly live anywhere, or at least choose from a multiplicity of places, the question of where to locate becomes increasingly contingent on the peculiar attributes of any given location.

In this new geography, lifestyle quality has replaced many of the traditional determinants of locational choice. Historically, people have lived somewhere to be close to such things as natural transportation points (e.g., ports or rail junctions) near vital raw materials, a low-tax environment, and low-cost labor. These traditional factors, of course, still matter, for example, if a company needs to establish a large scale manufacturing facility, such as a semiconductor plant, but increasingly matter less in "knowledge value" fields dependent on creative people or industries tied to cross-cultural trade.

Most particularly, the emergence of a digitally-oriented society places a greater emphasis on individual choice in terms of location . The primacy of such subjective factors—such as preferred lifestyle options, climate, and physical attractiveness—helps repeal many of the traditional drivers of economic development. In the process an expensive, highly regulated city such as San Francisco remains among the wealthiest and most economically successful places in the nation and also explains why aesthetically unpleasant places such as Fresno, inexpensive and located in a magnificently fertile valley, rank near the bottom in terms of economic health.

Just as new suburbs often offer better schools, newer infrastructure, and the rural countryside's physical beauty, the central cores of towns and cities supply a unique sense of placeness, of history, and meaning that are themselves unique assets in an increasingly homogeneous—and cyber-dominated—commercial world. Like an increasing number of city officials, Ellen Dean, economic director of Downers' Grove, a Chicago suburb, sees the best hope for her town in the restoration of its historic core, with its odd collection of old shops, a vintage movie theater, and brew-pub:

We think specialty retailers like the ones here are the future and so is downtown. The future is more interactive and people friendly. Downtown provides something unique—the entertainment, meet and greet venue. This can't be duplicated on the internet at all. Virtual reality is not reality. This is.

The drive to recover the central space involves not only retail development but also the creation of new cultural institutions. Dallas, San Diego, Cleveland, Dallas, and West Palm Beach have invested heavily in creating new cultural institutions, usually in and around their urban cores. Some 600 museums—from the gigantic J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum—have been built since 1970. By the end of the decade, there were upwards of 50 science centers, and over 30 aquarium projects and specialized museums.

Preserving a sense of the past has been a critical part of this strategy to revivify the central space. Since the Minneapolis Historical Society opened its new building in 1992, the number of visitors has soared from 40,000 annually to well over a half million. Even the most desperate cities see promoting culture as a way to mythologize themselves out of decline. Bereft increasingly of a central economic role, cities see themselves as cultural centers since this is one area where suburbs are particularly deficient. Newark has built a Performing Arts Center as an unlikely boon to civic renewal, while Detroit has placed great stock in its new Museum of African-American History. Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—won after fierce competition with other, arguably more attractive locales—has replaced industrial decline as that city's preferred image to the world. Rena Blumberg, community relations director of WDOK, a local Cleveland radio station, explained:

We need something to say, ‘Come to Cleveland.' The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a signature piece for Cleveland. It is a combination of everything that is best in America, a great repository of what we all share, which is music.

On a less grandiose level, smaller towns like Downer's Grove focus their identity-building activities by bolstering often-neglected Main Street shopping districts. This approach is already being adopted by midopolitan communities like Bay Shore on Long Island, Mountain View and Redwood City in the Bay Area, and Alhambra in the San Gabriel Valley, as well as Sherman Oaks, Toluca Lake, and Studio City in the onetime mecca of the mall-rat, the San Fernando Valley. The revival of traditional downtowns throughout Virginia—including Roanoke and Petersburg—in the 1990s has added $400 million in new investment and created an estimated 15,000 jobs.

Even as some towns and cities seek to restore their historic role, others seem determined to undermine the very concept of preserving their authenticity and distinctiveness. Authenticity is, by its nature, an imprecise term, yet it is nevertheless recognizable to those who seek it. Authenticity represents a natural outgrowth of a place's past or a reflection of its current distinct reality; for urban centers, this sense of the past constitutes among their greatest intangible assets.

Urban authenticity usually emerges out of "bottom up" grassroots marketplace realities; it is rarely the product of civic engineering or subsidized "urban renewal." In a shopping district, it is often reflected by the presence of individual, locally based merchants, who often sell products and services that are different, or at least delivered in a different manner, than ubiquitous chains found in prototypical suburban communities.

Bereft increasingly of a central economic role, cities see themselves as cultural centers since this is one area where suburbs are particularly deficient.

In some places such as Baltimore's Westside and Chicago's Maxwell Street century-old traditions of retailing—tied to the essence of their city's history—have become battlegrounds between homogenization of urban geography and its restoration. In Baltimore, this can be seen in a massive $500 million plan to bulldoze large parts of the historic commercial core, which is now dominated by Asian, African-American, and other small specialized businesses. Although some historic structures would be restored, the character of the area would be changed significantly into what may best be seen as a "mall in brick," an urban version of suburban mall, with all the predictable stores.

A similar plan threatens to destroy the last remaining vestiges of Chicago's Maxwell Street, which for generations served as the central marketplace for working-class African-Americans, Jews, and other ethnics. With its famous hot dog stands, blues clubs, and specialized retail stores, it epitomized the brawling, diverse, and dynamic culture of the great midwestern city. Yet plans initiated by the nearby University of Illinois campus would essentially destroy the last vestiges of the street, except perhaps to preserve some facades of the historic storefronts.

Steve Balkin, an expert on informal markets and a professor at Roosevelt University, believes that the university and its allies largely miss the critical importance of Maxwell Street—and its brand of dynamic grassroots capitalism—for the long-term viability of Chicago. Over a "Polish Dog" at Jim's Hot Dog Stand, the short, balding Balkin, sweating in the high '90s summer heat, asserted:

The competitive advantage of a place like Chicago is its uniqueness, the feel of the buildings, yes, but also the interaction. This is not preservation but living history. Here you can smell what your grandparents smelled.

This search for a new sense of "place" also can be seen in such things as the reaction against the imposition of a corporate standard—such as Disney—on communities, whether around the historic Manassas, Virginia battlefield site or along New York's Times Square. Such efforts can also, as one writer observed, turn a city or town into "a giant theme park," robbing it of its essential historical and community character.

Concern with the loss of authenticity and history—and its impact on place—has been rising for much of the past century. In the 1930s, J.B. Priestly observed what he saw as a trend towards sameness, emanating from America, but settling in his beloved England. The island nation, he complained, had improved materially but was also "standardized" and monotonous. "It is a large-scale, mass production job, with cut prices. You could almost accept Woolworth's as its symbol."

Urban authenticity usually emerges out of "bottom up" grassroots marketplace realities; it is rarely the product of civic engineering or subsidized "urban renewal."

By the 1950s, the emergence of this conformist, suburban-oriented retail culture had become obvious to many observers, including the great urbanists Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. Both decried the movement of the marketplace from the city streets to suburban shopping malls. This transition, suggested the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, deprived consumers of the pleasures of spontaneity and unexpected experiences, which she saw as "one of the missions" of cities. As in more tangible products like bread or furniture, consumer tastes in media are diversifying as well, appetites further fed by the growth of cable, satellite broadcasting, and the internet.

Much of the spontaneity Jacobs saw on the streets of her beloved lower Manhattan back in the 1950s is no longer so evident. As cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston have recovered at the end of the millennium, their retail environments have tended to take on ever more the character of their suburban counterparts. Even the most exclusive districts such Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, San Francisco's Union Square, or New York's Fifth Avenue no longer exercise dominion over taste and fashion; the same stores are now duplicated in high-end malls from Costa Mesa to Long Island.

But preserving the physical space is not enough to fully exploit the authentic advantage of urban places. Even where the exterior environment has been lovingly restored, the commercial essence of many of these cherished streets is that of a "mall in brick." The dynamic is easy to explain. Old merchants, and adventurous newcomers, come to a district and often bring it back to life. Then the specialty chains arrive. What former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole calls the "chain store massacre" begins. Rents rise. The independents leave. The highly differentiated soon dissolves into the all-too-familiar. "Nothing remains authentic for too long," suggests David Webber, a consultant at the New York- based "branding" firm of Siegel and Gale. "Our efficiency drive leaves us to duplicate them, and eliminate the authenticity."

This can be seen in cities such as Annapolis, Maryland, which decades ago had a downtown dominated by locally owned businesses. Rents in the 1960s were about $9 or $10 a square foot. In the 1980s the rent rose to $30 or $40 a square foot. By the late 1990s they had risen to as much as $50 a square foot, about 18 percent faster than inflation. "You can just about count on one hand the remaining independent operators downtown," notes Annapolis native and local real estate agent Bill Greenfield. "None of them are paying the high-dollar rents. That's the key."

Our efficiency drive leaves us to duplicate them, and eliminate the authenticity.

This process is being accelerated by the automation not only of form, but also of the technology of retail construction. As traditional Main Streets battle an invasion of chains, malls and new developments have learned how to duplicate faux environments ranging from Italian piazzas to western villages. As Roberta Perry, executive vice president of Edwards Technologies, an El Segundo, California creator of kiosks and other products used in the theming industry, explains:

Competition is doing this to everyone. I get calls from retailers every day. Shopping has boiled down to choice or chore—and most retailers would much more like to make it a choice. Even for a sandwich shop, just having a good sandwich doesn't do it anymore.

Firms such as Edwards help merchants create "a sense of place" by seeking to provide an "experience" in a commercial setting. In this new retail paradigm, merchants don't merely go for the sale; they seek to "transform" the customer through the recurring use of particular themes. Although clearly the cutting edge of place development, the new "theme" mall often ends up morphing into the most predictable of places, particularly as they begin to proliferate. In Orange County, California alone nearly five such "entertainment" oriented centers have been built since 1993. And this does not include the biggest themed-retail project of them all, the expanded Disneyland.

For some, such as Yves Sistron, a partner at Global Retail Partners in Los Angeles, the quest to create an environment for localized, authentic places is foredoomed as large firms gobble up everything from coffee shops to dry cleaners and developers rush to embrace the newest "theming" trend. The independent merchant, the distinctive symbol of the old Main Street, ends up, inevitably, largely a marginal player:

Who gets beat—the smaller, independent stores the Mom and Pops. I'm not saying it's not dreary but it's true. If you want to see what Main Street used to be down the road, it's going to be Main Street, Disneyland.

To this picture, electronic commerce now adds yet another dimension . Now, for the first time, consumers are being presented with greater choices, convenience, lower prices, and more engaging graphics on the internet. The electronic casbah could prove the final undoing of the culture of retail that has predominated in cities for millennia.

Yet even as cyberspace evolves, and commerce automates, there remains compelling evidence—as seen in Downers' Grove and cities across the country— of a growing market for something that seems, or feels, real. People still feel the need to shop in a "brick and mortar" environment and a large, if somewhat undetermined, proportion of the population seems to desire something other than the prepackaged and predictable— something different, authentic, rooted in a specific place—a town square, a downtown, along a river or bayside.

In the 1990s, this spirit was reflected in the widespread popularity of "new urbanist" development, which, despite its name, really sought to recreate the ideal of the small town or village as opposed to the densely packed urban community. Indeed, most of the major showplaces of the "new urbanist" design were in decidedly nonurban locations such as Laguna West in suburban Sacramento; Kentlands, Maryland; Celebration and Seaside, Florida. To date, new urbanism functions more as an "alternative to suburban sprawl," to "make new development more town-like."

Ultimately the appeal of new urbanism is about what one of its leading advocates, Peter Calthorpe, calls the "aesthetics of place"—a reaction against the rampant "modernism" that seems out of touch with the human values associated with traditional village life. As growth moves to the periphery, there is a growing need for new centers that are accessible to the growth parts of the metropolis. Notes urban theorist Arthur Sullivan:

Most cities in the United States are experiencing the urban-village phenomenon. Subcenters are developing in the rapidly growing Sunbelt cities…as well as cities with less rapid growth. . . . The development of the urban village is explained by the suburbanization of retailers and office firms.

Yet the "new urbanism," largely driven by architects and planners, often misses the essential components of authenticity, such as the importance of locally owned and distinctive shops. Often "new urbanists" concern themselves not so much with the survival of local cultures or businesses, but respond to the disgust with aesthetic concerns such as the predictable, often unattractive architecture associated with malls and other retail projects. Adjusting signage and blending in with older buildings usually suffices for such critics, who often object more to a Rite-Aid or Burger King than to high-end boutiques.

The appeal of new urbanism is the "aesthetics of place"—a reaction against the rampant "modernism" that seems out of touch with the human values associated with traditional village life.

"What it really boils down to," suggests Helen Bulwik, a retail specialist at Andersen Consulting, "is who is the customer that the particular store attracts, and whether that kind of person is the kind of person [the resident] wants to see in the community."

In some cities, the desire to preserve authenticity has led to ordinances that make it hard for developers to bring in Wal-marts, fast food places, Borders, and even Starbucks, which, it is argued, could drain business away from established downtowns and locally owned firms. Other cities, such as Long Beach, California, have taken a less confrontational approach, passing retail ordinances to slow the building of new restaurants as they seek a better "balance" between chains and locally owned businesses. Much of the opposition to chains is based on the fear that unique areas are being transformed—sometimes seemingly overnight—into "just another neighborhood." Disgusted with the sudden proliferation of Tower Records, Dunkin Donuts, and other chains, realtor Pebble Gifford, president of the Harvard Square Liberation Front, asks:

Why destroy it? Why screw up one more unique place in urban America. The developers' want to leave it quite bland. And what always brought people to the square was the quirkiness, the chance to see the crazies. We just feel so much is done in the name of profit and bottom line is destructive. There have to be other considerations.

But in a fundamentally capitalistic society, such regulatory efforts usually are doomed to fail, often protecting what become entrenched interests from competition. Ultimately, the most important forces defending uniqueness and authenticity must come from the marketplace itself. Even the most successful formula can now fail due to overduplication. The Disney Stores, now spread to hundreds of locations around the country, have become so commonplace as to be losing their appeal, with sales dropping by double digits at century's end.

The most important forces defending uniqueness and authenticity must come from the marketplace itself.

In recent years even such heavily hyped, well-financed "themed" restaurants such as Planet Hollywood, the Official All Star Café, the Hard Rock Café, and Dive! either have gone bankrupt or face hard financial times. "The life cycle of theme restaurants has been a lot shorter than anyone expected," notes Ron Paul, president of Technomic, Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant-consulting chain. "Even in New York, where there's a huge tourist population, the novelty's gone. It turns out that the consumer had a lot more entertainment alternatives."

At the same time, there appears to be a market for more varied kinds of experiences. One sign of this has been the rise of farmer's markets throughout the country, which grew from 1,700 in 1994 to over 2,700 by 1998. A throwback to the earliest markets of antiquity, these food suks bring farmers, cheese, and sausage-makers together with customers. Musicians, itinerant actors, and independent artists all converge on market days—much as occurred from the earliest periods of commerce.

In the 21st century, maintaining these central functions represents one of the key elements behind urban recovery. Clearly the internet and the forces of duplication will threaten the local providers of standardized goods and services, where price and convenience are the prime considerations. Many of the businesses at the mall or on a traditional Main Street— brokers, real-estate agents, travel agents, computer stores, banks, records, flower, and gift shops— are vulnerable to massive undermining by web-based businesses. Travel, p.c. hardware, software, tickets, gifts, toys, books, music, apparel, consumer electronics were all among the hot sellers in this nascent period of the web.

Yet to maintain the city center, something else, perhaps less intangible, must be offered. Some observers, such as land-use analyst William Fulton, believes that the growth of cyberspace—coupled with the "chaining" of America—has reached such a level that shopping districts are no longer expected to provide the "social and cultural glue" holding together the local community. Indeed virtually every traditional linchpin institution, not only Main Street stores, but a community's banks, newspapers, and even hospitals now often appear as little more than a link in a vast national, or even global, corporate chain. As a result, Fulton envisions that the focus of community life, of necessity, will shift from Main Street to elsewhere, to libraries, performing arts centers, schools, and service clubs.

For many cities, this has turned cultural and arts-related activities —art museums, theaters, ballet, and video production—into potential sources for urban recovery. "The downtown already had most of the museums," explains Lois Weisberg, Chicago's cultural affairs commissioner. "It had the most interesting architecture that people came to see. I would say Chicago is pinning its hopes on cultural institutions to redevelop downtown."

Such an approach can be seen even in the traditionally most anonymous suburbs—from the San Fernando Valley to Long Island—that are seeking identity by building cultural centers and either rediscovering their community past, or in newer communities, creating gathering centers from their inception. The construction of "town centers" built around community institutions certainly could take place, but the vitality, the centrality of the marketplace would not easily be replaced as a motivation to bring people out of their homes. Only the lure of seeing, and having the chance to purchase, the goods and services can create a truly spontaneous space; a center unhinged from the marketplace can only serve as a center of spectacle driven by above, rather than a place of wonder, created by the natural diversity and creativity drawn to the central place.

Without retailing, the commercial role of the center or Main Street, the very geography of space, will have been repealed. A library, concert hall, or art museum can lure visitors on special occasions, but only the marketplace can create a true permanent central place. Ultimately, a revived center city, and its successors in the peripheral regions, will have to combine both this community sense and a sense of uniqueness with a strong market-driven commercial appeal.