Morris: Downtown — A City’s Quandary

October 31, 2022

by Leo Morris

Should we give up on “downtown” as a concept whose time has come and gone, admit that trying to keep it on life support is a futile effort?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps there isn’t one, at least one that is knowable before a lot of other people ponder it.

I ask it not as a penny-pinching conservative or a cynical pragmatist but as a country boy who has always regarded cities with awe and wonder.

I was 12 when we moved from rural Kentucky to Indiana, and to my eyes, Fort Wayne was a vibrant metropolis pulsating with vigor and energy. To this day, I sometimes have to catch my breath when I round a curve on the highway and see a city skyline, and it makes me feel the way pioneers must have when they rounded a bend in the river and saw mountains pointing to the sky.

I have this romantic notion of city centers as places where weary travelers find rest, merchants and the arts thrive and friendly neighbors gather to celebrate the communal solution to isolation and loneliness. But it’s a hard notion to hold on to.

Only a few years after my family’s arrival came the great downtown panic. Two malls – Glenbrook on the north side and Southtown on the other – were stealing all the customers, and inner-city retailers were suffering. Could we end up with a ghost town in the heart of the city?

Of course, the complaints had it backward. The customers didn’t follow the shopping. It was the other way around. People fled to the suburbs, and the retail trade followed them.

It was just one of the upheavals downtowns suffered throughout our history as residents adapted their lifestyles to social stresses and advancing technology.

In the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, industries started moving to outlying areas where land was cheaper and taxes were lower; improving transportation helped them move goods, and the telephone allowed them to keep in touch with faraway customers.

The Great Depression hit at the end of a building boom in the cities, so many vacant properties were demolished in favor of revenue generators like parking lots. As the economy recovered, space was at a premium, so rents soared.

Automobiles and the highway system created a great exodus, and all the services and institutions people needed followed the flow, creating hubs of activity all across urban areas. Why go far when everything was near?

What highways and telephones started, the Internet and online shopping have accelerated. People work and shop from home, video chat with friends and have online visits with their physicians and accountants. The few things we still went out to do came to a halt during the pandemic, and a lot of them still haven’t come back. Many won’t.

It’s been a long, long process of decentralization, and public officials keep trying to herd us back together into huddled masses, and I wonder, to what end? We keep dispersing, and they have spent billions of dollars in an endless effort to redefine and revitalize inner cities.

As I write this, Fort Wayne officials are getting ready to celebrate the opening of a mixed-use facility they have engineered out of an abandoned General Electric facility downtown. I have been in and around that area for all my Fort Wayne time, and for the life of me I can’t see it succeeding. It’s a depressed area that will still look like a depressed area, so how often are people going to be thrilled about going there to shop or have a bite to eat?

Even if it works, what will be the point? The money people spend there would have been spent elsewhere in town. There are only so many shopping and entertainment dollars to go around. Why invest so much time and energy to concentrate them in one area?

I do know that answer – because the romantic notion I have is shared by most other people. We all see downtown as a symbol of a successful city – if it is vibrant and exciting, the city is working. If your city has a local TV newscast, what does the station use as a background photo for its closing credits? The downtown skyline. If that symbol disappears, what will replace it?

An even better question might be: Does congregating satisfy a deep human yearning, or did we congregate only because we needed to?

Now that the need has gone, will decentralization become the norm? If we need central gathering places, and downtowns don’t work, where will we go? Will the spaces even be physical? Can we still thrive as an increasingly virtual society?

I can’t see around the next bend. It won’t be a mountain or a skyscraper, but I hope it is something more than a shape in the digital mist.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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