The central business district, often referred to as the “downtown,” was the economic nucleus of the American city in the 19th and 20th centuries. It stood at the core of urban commercial life, if not always the geographic center of the metropolis. Here was where the greatest number of offices, banks, stores, and service institutions were concentrated—and where land values and building heights reached their peaks. The central business district was also the most easily accessible point in a city, the place where public transit lines intersected and brought together masses of commuters from outlying as well as nearby neighborhoods. In the downtown, laborers, capitalists, shoppers, and tourists mingled together on bustling streets and sidewalks. Not all occupants enjoyed equal influence in the central business district. Still, as historian Jon C. Teaford explained in his classic study of American cities, the downtown was “the one bit of turf common to all,” the space where “the diverse ethnic, economic, and social strains of urban life were bound together, working, spending, speculating, and investing.” The central business district was not a static place. Boundaries shifted, expanding and contracting as the city grew and the economy evolved. So too did the primary land uses. Initially a multifunctional space where retail, wholesale, manufacturing, and financial institutions crowded together, the central business district became increasingly segmented along commercial lines in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, rising real estate prices and traffic congestion drove most manufacturing and processing operations to the periphery. Remaining behind in the city center were the bulk of the nation’s offices, stores, and service institutions. As suburban growth accelerated in the mid-20th century, many of these businesses also vacated the downtown, following the flow of middle-class, white families. Competition with the suburbs drained the central business district of much of its commercial vitality in the second half of the 20th century. It also inspired a variety of downtown revitalization schemes that tended to reinforce inequalities of race and class.
Pedro A. Regalado
Entrepreneurship has been a basic element of Latinx life in the United States since long before the nation’s founding, varying in scale and cutting across race, class, and gender to different degrees. Indigenous forms of commerce pre-dated Spanish contact in the Americas and continued thereafter. Beginning in the 16th century, the raising, trading, and production of cattle and cattle-related products became foundational to Spanish, Mexican, and later American Southwest society and culture. By the 19th century, Latinxs in US metropolitan areas began to establish enterprises in the form of storefronts, warehouses, factories, as well as smaller ventures including peddling. At times, they succeeded previous ethnic owners; in other moments, they established new businesses that shaped everyday life and politics of their respective communities. Whatever the scale of their ventures, Latinx business owners continued to capitalize on the migration of Latinx people to the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean during the 20th century. These entrepreneurs entered business for different reasons, often responding to restricted or constrained labor options, though many sought the flexibility that entrepreneurship offered. Despite an increasing association between Latinx people and entrepreneurship, profits from Latinx ventures produced uneven results during the second half of the 20th century. For some, finance and business ownership has generated immense wealth and political influence. For others at the margins of society, it has remained a tool for achieving sustenance amid the variability of a racially stratified labor market. No monolithic account can wholly capture the vastness and complexity of Latinx economic activity. Latinx business and entrepreneurship remains a vital piece of the place-making and politics of the US Latinx population. This article provides an overview of major trends and pivotal moments in its rich history.
Since the early 1800s railroads have served as a critical element of the transportation infrastructure in the United States and have generated profound changes in technology, finance, business-government relations, and labor policy. By the 1850s railroads, at least in the northern states, had evolved into the nation’s first big businesses, replete with managerial hierarchies that in many respects resembled the structure of the US Army. After the Civil War ended, the railroad network grew rapidly, with lines extending into the Midwest and ultimately, with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, to the Pacific Coast. The last third of the 19th century was characterized by increased militancy among railroad workers, as well as by the growing danger that railroading posed to employees and passengers. Intense competition among railroad companies led to rate wars and discriminatory pricing. The presence of rebates and long-haul/short-haul price differentials led to the federal regulation of the railroads in 1887. The Progressive Era generated additional regulation that reduced profitability and discouraged additional investment in the railroads. As a result, the carriers were often unprepared for the traffic demands associated with World War I, leading to government operation of the railroads between 1917 and 1920. Highway competition during the 1920s and the economic crises of the 1930s provided further challenges for the railroads. The nation’s railroads performed well during World War II but declined steadily in the years that followed. High labor costs, excessive regulatory oversight, and the loss of freight and passenger traffic to cars, trucks, and airplanes ensured that by the 1960s many once-profitable companies were on the verge of bankruptcy. A wave of mergers failed to halt the downward slide. The bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970 increased public awareness of the dire circumstances and led to calls for regulatory reform. The 1980 Staggers Act abolished most of the restrictions on operations and pricing, thus revitalizing the railroads.
The tall building—the most popular and conspicuous emblem of the modern American city—stands as an index of economic activity, civic aspirations, and urban development. Enmeshed in the history of American business practices and the maturation of corporate capitalism, the skyscraper is also a cultural icon that performs genuine symbolic functions. Viewed individually or arrayed in a “skyline,” there may be a tendency to focus on the tall building’s spectacular or superlative aspects. Their patrons have searched for the architectural symbols that would project a positive public image, yet the height and massing of skyscrapers were determined as much by prosaic financial calculations as by symbolic pretense. Historically, the production of tall buildings was linked to the broader flux of economic cycles, access to capital, land values, and regulatory frameworks that curbed the self-interests of individual builders in favor of public goods such as light and air. The tall building looms large for urban geographers seeking to chart the shifting terrain of the business district and for social historians of the city who examine the skyscraper’s gendered spaces and labor relations. If tall buildings provide one index of the urban and regional economy, they are also economic activities in and of themselves and thus linked to the growth of professions required to plan, finance, design, construct, market, and manage these mammoth collective objects—and all have vied for control over the ultimate result. Practitioners have debated the tall building’s external expression as the design challenge of the façade became more acute with the advent of the curtain wall attached to a steel frame, eventually dematerializing entirely into sheets of reflective glass. The tall building also reflects prevailing paradigms in urban design, from the retail arcades of 19th-century skyscrapers to the blank plazas of postwar corporate modernism.
In the seventy years since the end of World War II (1939–1945), postindustrialization—the exodus of manufacturing and growth of finance and services—has radically transformed the economy of North American cities. Metropolitan areas are increasingly home to transnational firms that administer dispersed production networks that span the world. A few major global centers host large banks that coordinate flows of finance capital necessary not only for production, but also increasingly for education, infrastructure, municipal government, housing, and nearly every other aspect of life. In cities of the global north, fewer workers produce goods and more produce information, entertainment, and experiences. Women have steadily entered the paid workforce, where they often do the feminized work of caring for children and the ill, cleaning homes, and preparing meals. Like the Gilded Age city, the postindustrial city creates immense social divisions, injustices, and inequalities: penthouses worth millions and rampant homelessness, fifty-dollar burgers and an epidemic of food insecurity, and unparalleled wealth and long-standing structural unemployment all exist side by side. The key features of the postindustrial service economy are the increased concentration of wealth, the development of a privileged and celebrated workforce of professionals, and an economic system reliant on hyperexploited service workers whose availability is conditioned by race, immigration status, and gender.