In my earlier research on the women workers at the Remington Rand plant in Elmira, New York, I conducted an oral interview with a woman who talked about going “overtown” to shop in the department stores in downtown Elmira; I’m old enough to remember three good department stores in Elmira in the 1960s: Rosenbaum’s, the Gorton Coy, and Iszard’s. None of them are there now, nor even exist, but shopping in them was a big deal in the middle of the twentieth century.
Syracuse, New York, also had very good department stores in its downtown, including Dey Brothers (1893-1995- see photo above) and Sibley’s. To understand the shaping of “downtown”, I’m reading urban historian Robert M. Fogelson’s Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. He discusses the term “downtown”, and how its meaning changed from just a geographical term to a social/commercial/economic term.
One of the most interesting chapters is his chapter on the 1920s, because he examines the roots of the decline of downtown. As rapid transit – streetcars, subways, and els – made it easier for workers to live outside the city, these workers would gradually demand that shopping and cultural opportunities be available to them outside the city. This is fascinating – it changes the narrative of urban decline by moving the time frame from after 1945 to well before 1945.