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Downtown is a term primarily used in North America to refer to a city's core or central business district, usually in a geographical, commercial, and community sense.

The term is thought to have been coined in New York Citymarker, where it was in use by the 1830s to refer to the original town at the southern tip of the island of Manhattanmarker. As the town of New York grew into a city, the only direction it could grow on the island was toward the north, proceeding upriver from the original settlement (the "up" and "down" terminology in turn came from the customary map design in which up was north and down was south). Thus, anything north of the original town became known as "uptown", while the original town (which was also New York's only major center of business at the time) became known as "downtown".

During the late 19th century, the term was gradually adopted by cities across the United States and Canada to refer to the historical core of the city (which was most often the same as the commercial heart of the city). As late as the 1880s, it was not included in dictionaries. By the early 1900s, downtown was clearly established as the proper term in American English for a city's central business district.

Specific connotations

The typical North American downtown has certain unique characteristics. During the postwar economic boom in the 1950s, the residential population of most downtowns crashed. This has been attributed to reasons such as slum clearance, construction of the Interstate Highway System, and white flight from the urban core to the rapidly expanding suburbs. Due to well-intended but ineptly executed urban revitalization projects, downtowns eventually came to be dominated by high-rise office buildings in which commuters from the suburbs filled white-collar jobs, while the remaining residential populations sank further into unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. By the 1990s, even office-oriented businesses began to abandon the tired old downtowns for the suburbs, resulting in what are now known as "edge cities". One textbook, in explaining why edge cities are so popular, stated:

Downtown New Orleans

In New Orleansmarker the term "Downtown" refers to the French Quartermarker as opposed to Uptown New Orleans, encompassing the Garden Districtmarker and the areas near Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane Universitymarker. The distinction has to do with the direction of flow of the Mississippi River, which is there in a northbound crescent such that, by compass directions, Downtown is north of Uptown.

Relative geographical use

The terms downtown and uptown can refer to cardinal directions, for example, in Manhattan, where downtown is also a relative geographical term. Anything south of where the speaker is currently standing, in most places, is said to be downtown. Anything north of the speaker is uptown. In the common New York phrase, "We're going to take the subway downtown," downtown refers to traveling in the geographic direction of south. A person standing on 121st Street and walking ten blocks south could also be said to have walked ten blocks downtown. The term uptown is used to refer to the cardinal direction north.

Such concepts derive from Manhattan's elongated shape, running roughly north/south and nowhere more than wide. As such, most of the train service and major thoroughfares on the island travel in the uptown/downtown directions. The other boroughs are wider, and "downtown" there refers to Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, or some more local business district. Mercantile efforts to promote the South Bronx as "Downtown Bronx" have met with little success.

Manhattan exceptions to the equation of "downtown" with "south" include Cherry Street and nearby parts of the Lower East Sidemarker, where downtown is westward towards City Hallmarker, while south on Montgomery Street is not called downtown since it runs into the East Rivermarker.

In some North American cities, "downtown" is the formal name of the neighborhood in which the city's central business district is located.

See also


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