More Cities That Never Sleep Night Life

By Jillian Lloyd, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

More Cities That Never Sleep Night Life


Jillian Lloyd, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Not long ago, in cities across America, downtown districts darkened at the close of business hours, and workers filed from office highrises back to their lives in the burbs. Like empty commuter-rail cars at day's end, city streets stood hollow and dim.

But a transformation of urban life is quickening nationwide: Downtown lights now twinkle into the wee hours, and the buzz of nightlife spills from restaurants and theaters in cities from Denver to Miami.

The return of life after dark symbolizes a reinvention of American cities in the twilight of the 20th century. For decades, downtowns have been centers of commerce and, more recently, places where young adults and "empty nesters" have taken up residence in refurbished brownstones.

Now they are increasingly becoming outdoor playgrounds as well. From the return of jazz clubs in downtown Kansas City to cafes along Philadelphia's new "streetscape," cities are building on their heritage and expanding their roles as the centers of leisure and culture in American life.

The return of people to Boston's Newbury Street and Denver's "Lodo" district is driven in part by the improved financial conditions of cities. "There has been a fairly steady increase in cities' revenue since 1990," says Michael Pagano, an urban economist at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio.

Yet city officials are also increasingly banking on the past to chart their futures. "Americans have finally come to appreciate older things," says Doyle Hyett of HyettPalma, a downtown-redevelopment consultant in Alexandria, Va. "Europeans have never abandoned downtowns, but Americans have long held a 'build it up and knock it down' frontier kind of thinking."

William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis and a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute, agrees. "There's an important transformation going on - a transition to the past. People are tired of the endless sameness of the suburbs." Fast-food chains and suburban malls can't compete with the diversity and individual character cities offer, he maintains. Moreover, "You can't be a suburb of nothing," he says. "It's important to hold a central core: You don't want your city to become a doughnut, with all the development on the beltway."

These days, urban areas are developing a new allure as entertainment hubs in particular. "Downtowns are becoming entertainment districts - cultural and social centers as much as business districts," says Mr. Hudnut, who is completing a book on rebounding cities. And while city workers are lingering downtown through the evening, even noncommuting suburban dwellers are increasingly being lured by city lights to take in a ball game, enjoy a concert, or savor a gourmet meal.

"It's a festive environment," says Kent Crippin, a consultant to Kansas City's Downtown Council. "In many respects, the suburbs don't provide that."

Making cities swing

Such is the case in Denver's lower downtown, a 25-square-block area that until a decade ago was one of the city's most unsavory locales. But a national historic designation, combined with an ambitious city plan to renovate the district's warehouses and dilapidated 19th-century buildings, has transformed it into the city's hot spot. Now called LoDo - after Manhattan's SoHo - the district is an artful medley of trendy loft apartments, restaurants, and shops, and features the largest collection of restored historic buildings west of the Mississippi.

With the addition of Coors Field ballpark in 1994, the success of the district was sealed. Baseball fans flock here by the stadium-full to watch the Rockies hit home runs under the open sky. And LoDo is well on its way to becoming the biggest tourist attraction in the state.

But these transformations take time, and a lot of planning. Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District (CCD), a business improvement initiative, points out that the upswing in Philadelphia's night life has been several years in the making.

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