Q&A: Alison Isenberg on Downtown America

Q&A: Alison Isenberg on Downtown America

Downtown America was once the vibrant urban center romanticized in the Petula Clark song — a place where the lights were brighter, where people went to spend their money and forget their worries.

But in the second half of the twentieth century, “downtown” became a shadow of its former self, succumbing to economic competition and commercial decline. And the death of Main Streets across the country came to be seen as sadly inexorable, like the passing of an aged loved one.

Downtown America cuts beneath the archetypal story of downtown’s rise and fall and offers a dynamic new story of urban development in the United States. Moving beyond conventional narratives, Alison Isenberg shows that downtown’s trajectory was not dictated by inevitable free market forces or natural life-and-death cycles. Instead, it was the product of human actors—the contested creation of retailers, developers, government leaders, architects, and planners, as well as political activists, consumers, civic clubs, real estate appraisers, even postcard artists. Throughout the twentieth century, conflicts over downtown’s mundane conditions—what it should look like and who should walk its streets—pointed to fundamental disagreements over American values.

Q&A

What inspired you to write this story?

The spark behind Downtown America lies in two Connecticut cities: Hartford (where I’m from) and New Haven (where I went to college). As a Big Sister in New Haven’s Big Brother/Big Sister program, I once bumped into my Little Sister in the (now-defunct) downtown Chapel Square Mall. It struck me that this was a rare part of the city where a Yale student and a fifth grader might cross paths, since residential neighborhoods seemed largely segregated. At the time I wondered whether this reflected the downtown as a “democratic” place, and just how “democratic” that ideal was. After college I continued to think about urban space while working in parks planning and affordable housing in New York City for five years before starting history graduate school.

Fig. 1: The original 1928 photograph on which the Moorhead, Minnesota, postcard was based show the uneven assets of most early-twentieth-century Main Streets, ranging from muddy, rutted roads to decorative streetlights. Fig. 2: Postcard artists cleaned up the Moorhead photograph according to the new standards of downtown housekeeping and city planning. They paved the roads, fixed curb lines, and eliminated unsightly utility poles and wires. Here on sees the alterations under way. Fig. 3: The artists’ reinforcement of the curb, streetcar, and building lines unified the Main Street corridor. In addition, the colorizing process harmonized, beautified, and animated Main Street postcards in ways that planners and municipal housekeepers could only dream of. The result was a cleaned-up and visually enticing urban scene. All photos courtesy of Lake County [Ill.] Discovery Museum, Curt Teich Postcard Archive.

When time came to choose a dissertation topic I discovered there wasn’t much historical research on downtowns. I thought I’d write a national study, inspired by Ken Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier on suburbs. My dissertation committee pushed back against the national study, explaining that at most I could compare two cities. That critique was based on an older urban historical research model which said you have to immerse in a specific city. They calculated I would only have time to do that twice. So I wrote my dissertation proposal on New Haven. Then I made my first research trip to a national downtown organization active in the 1950s. From those sources I saw I could use a national lens to follow downtown investment over the 20th century. I wrote my first chapter draft (on the 1950s) as a national story, and my committee agreed the approach was viable. I never revised my dissertation proposal. I remind graduate students that their proposals are a means to an end, not something to perfect or agonize over.

What was the biggest surprise you uncovered during your research?

I’d highlight two surprises. The first was a research discovery about main street postcards. I had planned to study postcards to see how traditions of depicting downtown changed over time. I spent two days at the Curt Teich Postcard Archive (then outside Chicago) reviewing albums before I realized that the archivists were carrying around old folders. These turned out to be production files from the 1920s which included client correspondence, original photographs, and the alterations done with tiny brushes by postcard artists. Suddenly I had layers of evidence to understand the intentionality behind the cards. I was able to tie the postcards as economic and cultural artifacts more closely to city planning initiatives of the early 20th century, including infrastructure campaigns and social ideals.

The second surprise relates to the centrality of women and gender to downtown investment throughout the 20th century. I did not start the research with many questions about gender. But I kept coming across cryptic references in sources that I couldn’t explain. In that first research trip to the 1950s downtown organization, I did not understand why a conference speaker digressed from his topic of downtown development to talk about his wife and his neighbors’ wives, and the women’s driving and shopping habits. At the time I thought it was a personal flourish or possibly his wandering mind. Likewise, I found references from urban planners around 1910 saying “it’s not like we’re going to tie pink ribbons around the lampposts.” I decided the phrase had to connect gender to business district improvements–but it took a year to piece together the story. These and other examples helped me see that the gender dynamics in economic development and commercial landscapes are often coded.

How does your story relate to the BLM movement of today?

There’s a chapter in the book that I’ve sent to several journalists by request in the past month, about how pressures for racial integration shaped downtown life across America, and about the impact of 1960s protests on downtowns. I tell the story of the Southern civil rights protests to integrate businesses (and the violent backlash by white supremacists), and the uprisings that also targeted commerce and property. I came to understand the central role of business districts as stages upon which the struggle for equality was waged. It is a story that provides a prologue to the BLM movement today.

Writing in the early 2000s I was surprised how little research there was on the uprisings. Without research, unexamined assumptions flourished, and still flourish today. At the time, people were stuck in old binaries, debating whether the uprisings were criminal or political acts. Protests were often blamed for driving complicated societal trends that had begun much earlier, such as disinvestment, “urban decline,” and “white flight.” People also saw these outcomes as inevitable responses, but in my book I explored the concrete decisions people made about staying, leaving, and everything between. This contextualizes and challenges the old truisms about the downtown’s decline after the 1960s.

I draw attention to 1960s factors that are still relevant today for understanding race and urban commercial life in light of street protests—such as the actual extent of property damage, disparities in who died and under what circumstances, the role of white provocation, the role of police violence and myths about snipers and outsiders, the timeline and nature of investor decisions in the aftermath, the many different reasons people were in the streets, the role of high school students and organized marches within the uprisings, the role of law enforcement and journalism in shaping the story, how widespread the protests were, explaining why events played out so differently in different places and regions, and so on. We tend to want streamlined accounts of the struggles for racial justice; my book adds texture and complexity.

With so little published research on the 1960s uprisings, it is difficult to draw simple comparisons with Black Lives Matter protests. One major difference is the news coverage. Given that current coverage benefits from citizen videos and multi-perspective reporting from the scene, the general public has definitely become more deeply informed and much more sophisticated about distinguishing among different kinds of street protest.

The book I’m finishing now, Uprisings, grows out of this Downtown America chapter. It’s about the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, with one city — Trenton, New Jersey — as my case study. So, I’m going back to the one city model after all. I try to answer some of these questions about the causes, meaning, and impact of the uprisings.

In addition to Downtown America, what three books or articles related to this topic would you recommend?

Several recent books I read this year are really helpful for deepening our understanding of these issues. All three make history vitally relevant today, and each one is creative, brilliant and path-breaking in a different way. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (Norton, 2019). Sarah Broom, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019). And Tyina Steptoe, Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City (University of California Press, 2016). An article that helps explain historians’ limitations in writing about U.S. street protest is: Amanda Seligman, “‘But Burn—No’: The Rest of the Crowd in Three Civil Disorders in 1960s Chicago,” Journal of Urban History 2011 37(2): 230-255.

About the Author: Alison Isenberg is a professor of history at Princeton University and founding co-director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. She writes and teaches about nineteenth and twentieth century American society.

Isenberg’s first book Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (University of Chicago Press, 2004) received several awards: the Ellis Hawley prize from the Organization of American Historians; Historic Preservation Book Prize from Mary Washington University; Lewis Mumford Prize from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History; and an Honor Book award from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Her second book, Designing San Francisco: Art, Land and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay (Princeton University Press, 2017), received the 2018 PROSE Award for Architecture & Urban Planning from the Association of American Publishers, and a John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies.

In winter 2020-21 Professor Isenberg will complete Uprisings (see related article), which she began researching in 2014. Uprisings takes the April 1968 unrest in Trenton, New Jersey as its starting point, offering a window into the volatile weeks after Rev. King’s assassination.

In 2021 Isenberg will wrap up the final chapters of a longstanding book project, Second-Hand Cities: Race and Region in the Antique Americana Trade, from the Civil War to Urban Renewal.