Today the term nightlife typically refers to social activities in urban commercial spaces—particularly drinking, dancing, dining, and listening to live musical performances. This was not always so. Cities in the 18th and early 19th centuries knew relatively limited nightlife, most of it occurring in drinking places for men. Theater attracted mixed-gender audiences but was sometimes seen as disreputable in both its content and the character of the audience. Theater owners worked to shed this negative reputation starting in the mid-19th century, while nightlife continued to be tainted by the profusion of saloons, brothels, and gambling halls. Gradual improvements in street lighting and police protection encouraged people to go out at night, as did growing incomes and decreasing hours of labor. Nightlife attracted more women in the decades around 1900 as it expanded and diversified. Dance halls, vaudeville houses, movie theaters, restaurants, and cabarets thrived in the electrified “bright lights” districts of central cities. Commercial entertainment contracted again in the 1950s and 1960s as Americans spent more of their evening leisure hours watching television and began to regard urban public spaces with suspicion. Still, nightlife is viewed as an important component of urban economic life and is actively promoted by many municipal governments.
Peter C. Baldwin
J. Mark Souther
Prior to the railroad age, American cities generally lacked reputations as tourist travel destinations. As railroads created fast, reliable, and comfortable transportation in the 19th century, urban tourism emerged in many cities. Luxury hotels, tour companies, and guidebooks were facilitating and shaping tourists’ experience of cities by the turn of the 20th century. Many cities hosted regional or international expositions that served as significant tourist attractions from the 1870s to 1910s. Thereafter, cities competed more keenly to attract conventions. Tourism promotion, once handled chiefly by railroad companies, became increasingly professionalized with the formation of convention and visitor bureaus. The rise of the automobile spurred the emergence of motels and theme parks on the suburban periphery, but renewed interest in historic urban core areas spurred historic preservation activism and adaptive reuse of old structures for dining, shopping, and entertainment. Although a few cities, especially Las Vegas, had relied heavily on tourism almost from their inception, by the last few decades of the 20th century few cities could afford to ignore tourism development. New waterfront parks, aquariums, stadiums, and other tourist and leisure attractions facilitated the symbolic transformation of cities from places of production to sites of consumption. Long aimed at the a mass market, especially affluent and middle-class whites, tourism promotion embraced market segmentation in the closing years of the 20th century, and a number of attractions and tours appealed to African Americans or LGBTQ communities. If social commentators often complained that cities were developing “tourist bubbles” that concentrated the advantages of tourism in too-small areas and in too few hands, recent trends point to a greater willingness to disperse tourist activity more widely in cities. By the 21st century, urban tourism was indispensable to many cities even as it continued to contribute to uneven development.