Will COVID-19 End the Downtown Comeback? Don’t Bet on It.
The factors that led to the revival of our city centers will still be there in the aftermath of the coronavirus shutdown: low crime, a craving for entertainment and the desire for physical proximity.
What’s a good place to go to ward off a mood of depression? I don’t know the answer to that question, but Petula Clark had a solution many years ago:
“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely,” she sang, “you can always go — downtown. … No finer place for sure, downtown. Everything’s waiting for you.” That song sold 3 million records in the United States in 1965.
What’s interesting is the moment when Downtown became a smash hit: In 1965, American downtowns were at a kind of tipping point. Some of their 1950s vitality had yet to wear off, but there were signs of coming decay. Downtown department stores were losing ground in almost every large American city; within a couple of decades most of them would be gone. Petula Clark’s favorite place had begun a process of decline that left many of the storied city centers moribund and largely vacant by the 1980s. Going there didn’t cure anyone’s depression; it made it worse.
Then, as we all know, something totally unexpected happened. Downtown made a comeback, fueled by restaurants, entertainment and eventually, in many cases, a robust residential population. The song turned out to be prophetic after all. It just took a few decades.