Downtown America

A History of the Place and the People Who Made It


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 20th 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 20th 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.

Isenberg reveals how the innovative efforts of these participants infused Main Street with its resonant symbolism, while still accounting for pervasive uncertainty and fears of decline. Readers of this work will find anything but a story of inevitability. Even some of the downtown’s darkest moments — the Great Depression’s collapse in land values, the rioting and looting of the 1960s, or abandonment and vacancy during the 1970s — illuminate how core cultural values have animated and intertwined with economic investment to reinvent the physical form and social experiences of urban commerce. Downtown America — its empty stores, revitalized marketplaces, and romanticized past — will never look quite the same again.

A book that does away with our most clichéd approaches to urban studies, Downtown America will appeal to readers interested in the history of the United States and the mythology surrounding its most cherished institutions.


“America’s downtowns, if the daily papers and the local chambers of commerce are to be believed, are tottering on the brink of destruction once again. . . . Yet Alison Isenberg holds out a ray of hope in Downtown America. Her endlessly fascinating book argues that Main Street has always been an idealized dreamscape, a kind of Shangri-La of perfect civic bliss that never did quite measure up to its own image.”

— Karal Ann Marling, Chicago Tribune Books

“This is a book that I will be recommending and referring to often in the years to come.”

— Francis Morrone, New York Sun

“With a social historian’s consciousness, [Isenberg] appropriately analyzes the roles played by race, class, gender, and age in shaping cityscapes. Isenberg’s ample use of illustrations is exemplary as is her inclusion of representative cities throughout the North and South. . . . A welcome contribution to all collections addressing aspects of 20th-century urbanization, community relations, and real estate history.”

Library Journal

“Now that big cities are again big destinations — albeit for hipsters and empty-nesters more than the middle class — this cultural history of the images of “downtown” in the 20th century is timely. There’s an entire chapter devoted to those idealized Main Street postcards that show cities trying to look grown-up, for instance, and another on the historic preservation craze born in part at Ghiradelli Square. Ultimately, Isenberg suggests the only constant is evolution: If prosperous downtowns today resemble lifestyle zones of wine bars and chain stores, it’s because that’s what people want — no matter what they say.”

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“Inventive in its themes and imaginative in its selection of evidence, Downtown America is a perceptive and fascinating study of the never-ending adaptation of downtown retailing in the 20th century. . . . Well written and amply illustrated, this is an outstanding book.”

— R. A. Beauregard/ Choice

“Isenberg . . . argues against idealizing downtown as a democratic mecca or framing its history in terms of a rise and fall. . . . As this book insists, downtown is what people struggle to make of it: it’s as much a state of mind as a physical place.”

Financial Times

“This is likely the definitive book on America’s downtowns. . . . It is not yet available in paperback, but when it does become available it should be a must read for anyone concerned with charting a new future for San Francisco and urban America.”

— Randy Shaw, Beyond Chron (SF)

Downtown America is not only an interesting look at the history of commercial interests in urban business districts, but in the people and issues surrounding commerce and urban investment — gender and race, economic failure and revitalization. Scholars of women’s history, material culture, and urban history will find this book a valuable contribution to their reading lists.”

— LaDale C. Winling, Journal of Social History

“This study opens a doorway of intellectual curiosity for many who are interested in urban. intellectual, cultural, and social history. It is also highly recommended for urban planners, sociologists, economists, and the general reader. This examination greatly contributes to our understanding of the centrality of the city as a distinct place. . . . A ‘must read’ for all who are interested in urban change.”

— Cornelia F. Sexauer, The Historian

“A must read for students of the urban scene. . . . The book’s liberally annotated bibliography is a goldmine for those seeking further information on the forces shaping downtown.”

— David T. Stephens, Pennsylvania Geographer

“Isenberg’s sophisticated analysis will forever alter our view of Main Street as it highlights the people who repeatedly created and contested the ideals it represented. . . . Its contribution lies not only in what it reveals to us about the past, but what it can tell us about the present and future.”

— Tanya Gogan, Enterprise and Society


  • Ellis W. Hawley Prize, Organization of American Historians
  • Historic Preservation Book Prize, Center for Historic Preservation
  • Lewis Mumford Prize, Society for American City & Regional Planning History
  • 2005 Honor Book, New Jersey Council for the Humanities