What’s Happening to City Downtowns?

From a Time Insider column by John Otis headlined “How’s It Going Downtown?”:

City life, for many, was changed drastically when the coronavirus arrived. People left major cities like New York and Los Angeles. Offices emptied out. Businesses closed. In some places, crime rates spiked.

Recovery has been sluggish in many places. But other towns and cities have rebounded in surprising ways. The transformation of city centers inspired The New York Times to take a close look at downtowns across America to see how they are faring.

“Downtown can obviously serve different purposes depending on the city and the size of the city,” Meghan Louttit, a deputy editor on The Times’s National desk, said. “We wanted to look at what kind of role they have in American life and how have they changed to adapt to the new world we’re living in.”

Ms. Louttit and her colleague Peter Applebome, another deputy National editor, spearheaded The American Downtown, which was published online on Thursday and appears as a separate tabloid section in Sunday’s newspaper. Eight reporters and 10 photographers profiled 10 cities across the United States.

The goal was to examine a mix of downtowns, big (like Chicago) and small (like Mountain View, Ark.), that are at varying stages of economic recovery.

To begin the process of determining which downtowns to feature, Robert Gebeloff, the database projects editor for The Times, analyzed foot traffic in cities across the country in the month of March over a three-year period, starting in 2019.

Using geographic cellphone data from Unacast, a marketing company, Mr. Gebeloff identified where foot traffic had returned to prepandemic levels — and where it hadn’t.

But where is “downtown” exactly? At first, Mr. Gebeloff said, it seemed logical to define a city’s “downtown” as the neighborhood that was the busiest in March 2019. But that definition didn’t fit in every case.

“In some cities, the busiest parts might actually be a college campus or a shopping mall that isn’t necessarily what you would think of as a downtown,” Mr. Gebeloff said.

So Mr. Gebeloff wrote a program that essentially asked Google Maps to determine the location of each city’s downtown.

Most often, foot traffic patterns and the Google Maps-designated downtown area matched. In cases where they didn’t, adjustments were made manually. Mr. Gebeloff provided data on roughly 300 American downtowns in various states of economic recovery: foot traffic levels in March 2022 compared to levels before the pandemic.

Ms. Louttit and Mr. Applebome also asked Times reporters posted around the country to share their observations of the regions they cover. Reporters’ suggestions were compared with Mr. Gebeloff’s list of cities, and the 10 downtowns were selected, among them places like Seattle, Salt Lake City and Lexington, Ky.

Times reporters spent the summer understanding their city, and started visiting in August and September. Heather Casey, a photo editor, assigned 10 photographers with various specialties to shoot the cities, giving them minimal direction.

“It could either be a photographer’s dream or a photographer’s nightmare, but I left it open-ended,” Ms. Casey said. “Take your style and your approach to photography and be in this downtown.”

Cheney Orr, for example, used a drone to capture images in Lexington. Hilary Swift took portraits of the people who live in Nampa, Idaho. Doug Mills, who is typically a White House photographer, was given the opportunity to turn his lens on a different part of Washington.

Despite the geographic diversity of the locations, Ms. Louttit said she noticed a common thread: Many of the downtowns that were once heavily reliant on some form of office workers have been reimagined to include more offerings that would lure people for reasons other than work.

“You see that thread a lot, of people wanting there to be a robust downtown, to go and spend time and be with people,” Ms. Louttit said.

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