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Julia Vitullo-Martin

Talk of the Town

Questions for postmodern Christians

Last year a friend invited me to lunch at the Harvard Club in midtown New York. He showed up dressed law-firm business style and cast a cold eye over my outfit—black shirt, long black skirt to meet the Harvard dress code, black boots, and Navajo jewelry. "Oh," he said. "I see you're still working downtown." His sense of downtown as hip and slightly insolent is entirely missing from Robert Fogelson's new book, Downtown, which ends in 1950. (Well might you ask, however, whether anything was hip in the United States in 1950.)

Fogelson has set himself the task of writing "the first history of what was once viewed as the heart of the American city." He believes he has traced a retreat from downtown as the premier business district, to downtown as the central business district, and finally downtown as just another business district. But the history of the American downtown is still being written, and it resists being plotted simply as a story of decline.

Downtown equals hip in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other cities in part because artists, actors, and musicians often move into the weakest spots in an urban economy—the only areas they can afford—and then reinvigorate them into a whole new life. With its highly segregated business day—an attribute Fogelson regards as essential to downtown—a financial district becomes perfect for those who are willing to live in odd spaces, eat in cheap restaurants, and come out to socialize at night when the brokers have gone home.

When terrorists flew two jets into downtown New York's World Trade Center, they were attacking a symbol of financial power. What they were attacking, in fact, was Fogelson's downtown of decades past, for downtown New York long ago yielded its financial dominance to midtown and to decentralized financial markets around the nation and the world.

Wall Street, a mere 1.6 kilometers long, still ends at Trinity Church, as it has since 1698, and the great financial names still shine on embossed brass plaques ...

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