Book Review: What Killed Downtown?

Michael Tolle’s book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania from Main Street to the Malls, details the rise and fall of Main Street in one American small town. His case study relies on interviews with many Norristown residents who lived through the growth and decline of downtown alongside detailed analysis of downtown retail statistics. Tolle paints a picture of Norristown dating back to the time of William Penn through 1975, at which point he pronounces downtown dead. The depth of history in this case study including both economic trends and urban policy dating back to the town’s Colonial origins puts the story of the city’s street grid in a historical context that is not often available in urbanist literature.

Of particular interest, Tolle details the policy debates in Norristown surrounding traffic and parking dating back to the 18th century. This includes a description of Norristown’s location near the intersection on the Native American trails fanning out from Philadelphia, to the transition from turnpikes and toll bridges, to free, public roads. He explains the origins of the town’s original street grid, with 50-feet wide streets and 24-feet wide alleys and covers in detail the Borough Council’s more recent debates on parking meters and the move to making downtown streets one way. Even having never been to Norristown, I was engaged by Tolle’s descriptions of Norristown’s retail, restaurants, hotels, and personalities.

In the first chapters, Tolle explains that downtown Norristown grew increasingly successful with the advent of railroads and streetcars that made it easier to travel to and within Norristown. While the growth of highways in the following decades increased the ease of automobile travel passing by Norristown, frustrations with traffic and parking on Main Street mounted. The Borough Council implemented parking meters as a step toward managing parking supply. Initially their revenue was promised to go toward creating off-street parking in the downtown area, but instead the Borough Council siphoned this revenue stream into the general fund. Because parking meters had a one-hour minimum, they also hurt businesses and customers by discouraging short shopping trips. Some of Donald Shoup’s insights, such as the importance of allowing parkers to pay for only the time they need and allocating meter revenue to parking benefit districts may have reduced downtown Norristown’s troubles.

Tolle explains the town’s original 1934 traffic ordinance which came about as the competition for space for both traffic flow and parking increased:

This struggle would divide Norristown internally, and be a recurring irritant to a borough government and population that increasingly had to struggle to survive in a fundamentally changing world. While the issues of traffic and parking and their many ramifications would become lost in their own complexity, they at all times operated within a physical reality that was hard, simple, and unchangeable. Downtown Norristown between Arch and Markley streets was just under six-tenths of a mile long, a little more than 3,100 feet.

In the midst of Main Street’s rapid decline following World War II, downtown banks got together to finance a pigeon hole garage, designed to provide efficient parking for cars on a small lot. Unfortunately the technology failed, leaving downtown without new off-street parking and leaving the banks stung from financial loss on the garage effort. Tolle explains in detail how downtown Norristown never solves its parking problems. Even though downtown Norristown has fallen far from the shopping destination that it once was, downtown parking meters remain a contentious issue with the need to manage parking supply through prices bumping up against demand for free short-term parking.

He ends with an analysis of the “suspects” that killed downtown, including local and county government, the downtown merchants, and shopping malls. He assigns a share of the blame to each subject, but ultimately concludes that the largest share of blame lies with the people who chose to start shopping at suburban locations rather than historic downtowns as they had the opportunity to do so:

Ultimately, we have to admit the truth. We did it. We killed the downtown. We did it by falling in love with our cars, and with everything they came to represent for us: independence, possibilities, expanded horizons, status.

He concludes that cars and urban street grids are fundamentally incompatible, leading to the slow decline of areas on historic street grids as customers hear the siren song of “free, ample parking.” Further, Tolle connects this decline to the loss of social capital that comes with a downtown where shoppers know the owners of the stores that they frequent. While he is certainly correct in part — the option of free, ample parking outside of central business districts has proved insurmountable competition for some American downtowns — I find this an unsatisfying conclusion.

American downtowns are thriving in spite of cars in cities as small as Burlington and as large as New York with street grids comparable to Norristown’s. Boston’s street network is even less hospitable to cars than a grid but supports plenty of shopping districts. However, even when these historic downtown areas have profitable retail districts, often they are filled with more mall stores rather than the type of independent retailers that Tolle favors. It seems that the trend toward chain stores is driven by factors outside of urban form and even if urban policies allowed downtown entrepreneurs the agility to compete with malls, their profitability might require having chain stores as key downtown tenants.

Tolle provides a very well done case study that explains how parking and traffic policies combined with a failure to adapt contributed to one small town’s downtown decline and its relevance for other small cities across the country. He provides a thorough history and a portrayal that will be interesting to anyone interested in the lessons learned from a thorough statistical and narrative portrayal of what happened to one American city’s historic core.