In 1963, Petulia Clark’s “Downtown” hit the top of the charts. It described downtown as the center of things, its bouncy lyrics running “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, and go…Downtown..Things will be great when you’re… Downtown…Everything’s waiting for you.”
Today, in many places, we are still trying to bring back the downtown, but can it ever be the place where "everything's waiting for you"? Driving in Washington DC last week, 14th Street certainly looked like downtown, but Columbia Heights, five metro stops to the north, had its own kind of energy, with a Target, Staples, Best Buy, and Marshalls all stacked into one tall building, and plenty of new apartments and bars surrounding a plaza across the street. And there are dozens of other places in the DC metro area like that one. If downtown isn't the center of things now, where is?
Perhaps nowhere. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a tourist zone anchored by a Cheesecake Factory. Hipsters are moving to Brooklyn, not Manhattan. Wall Street has become a place where people actually live. Rather than one center, one downtown, we are now in the era of the multi-centered city, the network city. The real model of the future may be less New York than Los Angeles, which was laid out as a network of places with towns and cities like Santa Monica, Long Beach, Pasadena and Glendale anchoring the hinterlands around them. These used to be separated by farms and ranches, but today the gridlock on the freeways forms a new kind of separation, forcing people to go local in both their work and play, leading to the creation of more face-to-face places. This isn't downtown, "where the lights are so pretty", but it is a very 21st century way of living, one we need to recognize both in how we position places and how we allocate the public investment.