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Downtown is a term primarily used in North America by English speakers to refer to a city's core (or center) or central business district (CBD), often in a geographical, commercial, or communal sense.
The term is thought to have been coined in New York City, where it was in use by the 1830s to refer to the original town at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. 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" (Upper Manhattan), while the original town (which was also New York's only major center of business at the time) became known as "downtown" (Lower Manhattan).
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). Notably, it was not included in dictionaries as late as the 1880s. But by the early 1900s, downtown was clearly established as the proper term in American English for a city's central business district.
The typical 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:
|“||The big central city comes with dirt, crime, subways, stress, congestion, high taxes, and poor public schools. Edge cities are not immune to all of these problems (especially congestion) but for now they largely avoid most of them.||”|
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 City 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 2 mi (3.2 km) 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.
In some North American cities, downtown is the formal name of the neighborhood in which the city's central business district is located. Most major North American cities are located on major bodies of water, like oceans, lakes, and rivers. As cities expanded, people built further away from the water and their historical cores, often uphill. Thus the central business district of a North American city, or the historical core of the city, is often the "down" part of the city. Many cities use the Manhattan model and continue to use downtown, midtown, and uptown both as informal relative geographical terms and as formal names for distinct districts. However, the city of Philadelphia uses the designation Center City, not downtown, due to the business district's central location, as well as Philadelphia's age and circumstances; "Center City" corresponds to the City of Philadelphia prior to its amalgamation with Philadelphia County in 1854, leaving it without a unique name, unlike the former boroughs surrounding it; the center of the city is also where Philadelphia City Hall is located within the city's original plat. New Orleans uses the term Central Business District (or CBD) for their downtown due to the historical French Quarter district taking up what would usually be considered the city's historical downtown district, and another area of the city south of the CBD holding the Downtown definition.
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|Look up downtown in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|