Livin the American Dream

When Professor Moon began this week’s discussion by singing Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, I knew it was going to be a good week. According to author Alison Isenberg, Downtown America is a “history of the place the the people who made it”. The book begins with a section on the City Beautiful movement that caused the clean up of many American cities at the turn of the 20th century. The idea behind City Beautiful was to make downtown a destination for consumers and tourists. Because most of the consumers at this time period were women, downtown should appeal to female customers. Women were very involved with the City Beautiful movement; women’s organizations representing the General Federation of Women’s Clubs played an active role in cleaning up America’s downtowns. This was seen as an extension of women’s household duties into the sphere of public influence. City Practical was a more masculine reaction to City Beautiful. There was distinct gendering in public life at this time. John Nolen and Charles Mulford Robinson were two famous city planners of this time period. The general male population saw these men as feminine for wanting to clean up the city – “women’s work” of the public sphere. Men were following President Theodore Roosevelt’s rough, violent, primal model of masculinity. Men couldn’t be concerned with sweeping up the sidewalk! This is why women spearheaded the City Beautiful movement. Women acted as a police force, enforcing regulations and downtown clean-ups.

In order to make downtown more appealing to consumers, clean-up forces paid particular attention to unsightly wires, poles, curbs, and sidewalks. Streets were being paved (or dirt roads were being oiled), yards were cleaned, restrictions were placed on billboards, signs were regulated, and food displays were being inspected. This attention to detail made downtown a place where women would feel comfortable shopping.

Chapter 2 focused on how postcards were being used as advertising techniques. Lithographs were painted with appealing colors and were almost always painted from a corridor perspective. These postcards were framed, and cropped certain things out in order to show a more cleaned up city that tourists would want to visit. Here is one of downtown Grove City, Pennsylvania from the early 1900s.

The next chapter focused on the identity of the American shopper. The rational economic man was a housewife. There were two contrasting views of female consumers: women as a “flapper” or a “family shopper”. The 100% location of a downtown area was the space where the most customers passed by, but especially women. Businesses needed to be able to predict what women buy and how they buy it. Women’s traditionally irrational shopping habits would now be perceived as rational. This image completely ignored the black economic woman of the time – caretakers and cooks were buying things for white families! This brings us to the point of defacto segregation occurring in the economic centers of downtown America. African American shoppers consumed in completely different areas of commerce, which weren’t the most prominent of places (such as attics or basements). Black business owners organized their own federations such as the NNBL and the CMA to protect their business interests. Black customers also benefited from the birth of chain stores, which made quality, nationally regulated goods accessible to everyone for a low cost.

The chapter also focused on why women were doing so much shopping. Because women now had more free time with the birth of convenience products, they could spend more time shopping. The increase of fashion magazines, women driving cars, and an increased standard of living all added to the shopping craze. Riley’s Law of Retail Gravitation stated that people travel to the most easily accessible, biggest shopping location. This helped business owners realize that shopping centers would attract women customers. Shopping centers were part of zoning plans that separated shopping districts from residential areas in order to reduce the congestion of downtown life.

Lastly, we discussed how consumerism changed in the 1930s with the Great Depression. Buildings were being demolished in order to make room for parking lots. Renovations were under way – business owners used the same space they had and embraced a modernist perspective. Concrete, colored glass, prefabricated materials, and steel helped make old buildings new. Below is the city hall building in Lakeland, Florida that was remodeled in a new, modern style during the 1930s:

Market research was being revamped at this time. Frederick Babcock wrote about property value and real estate. He realized that the definition of “value” needed to be clear. Specific market research and statistical analysis needed to be done in order to determine what property has value. The chapter closes with a short reflection on the effects of WWII on downtown America. Goods such as rubber and gas were rationed at this time. More people were working and living downtown, causing a resurgence after the Great Depression. Babcock warned of the “decaying core” of cities that was masked by the war.

These chapters were interesting because the effects of city clean-ups in the first half of the 20th century can still be seen downtown today. There are still laws about littering and keeping the streets clean, in order to make downtown a more appealing place to live and shop. A few weeks ago I was in Virginia Beach, where there are signs placed throughout the city discouraging swearing. Signs like this remind people that they are in a public setting, and that it is our responsibility to make public spaces comfortable for everyone. I still receive postcards in the mail from far-away cities that make me yearn to visit there. Also, the effects of racial zoning and defacto segregation can still be seen in downtown America today. In New York City, there are separate African American, Asian, Latino, and other immigrant centers of commerce to this day. It is pretty much impossible to buy tortillas or soy sauce in my Aunt Rosa’s neighborhood on 187th street in the Bronx, the heart of Little Italy. It was also interesting to read about how city planners attempted to make their cities beautiful. The lasting effects of these efforts can be seen even today, in places like downtown Fredericksburg, which I learned on Friday…


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