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
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
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
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. …