Nostalgia is Not Urban Planning

A cover story in yesterday’s Boston Globe asked “Would car traffic bring back the crowds?” for Boston’s historic retail district Downtown Crossing. A partial pedestrian mall since 1978 (commercial traffic is allowed), the Globe pondered whether the “solution” to the neighborhood’s woes would be a return of automobile traffic. The story quotes business owners who recall busier days in the 60s and 70s:

“There was a constant flow of cars, stopping and going; it was very active, very busy, like a typical city street,” said Steve Centamore, co-owner since 1965 of Bromfield Camera Co., on Bromfield Street, part of which is open only to commercial traffic. “There were people coming and going. It didn’t seem to impede any pedestrians. It was a lot busier. People could just pull up and get what they needed. Now, it takes an act of Congress to even get through here.”

Formerly the home to two large department stores (Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, today Macy’s remains at the Jordan Marsh site) the neighborhood has long been a major retail hub, home to hundreds of retail stores. However the district has lost its historic luster. The redevelopment of the huge old Filene’s building fell through last fall, leaving a literal gaping hole in the neighborhood after construction work stopped abruptly. A number of storefronts are vacant, and a stabbing and shooting last fall remains fresh in people’s minds. Nevertheless the area remains busy by day with thousands of people crowding city streets.

The problem with the Globe’s proposal is that it completely ignores the massive transformation in the region that explain the changes in Downtown Crossing. In 1970, 23% of the metropolitan area’s population lived in the City of Boston. Today, barely 10% of the region’s population live within the city limits. Since 1976 dozens of shopping centers, malls, and other retail space has opened outside of downtown Boston. As an example, just across the Charles River and several T Stops from Downtown Crossing the Cambridgeside Galleria opened in 1990. Its 120 stores include a 44,837 square foot Best Buy, 23,767 square foot Borders, 122,445 square foot Macy’s, 22,419 square foot Macy’s Home Store, and 120,570 square foot Sears. The point is that the city’s population has dispersed and there has been an explosion in competition for Downtown Crossing, even within the city itself.

The Filene’s building should be rehabbed, storefronts should be filled, and the area can and should be spruced up. However, Downtown Crossing will never again regain its historic role as a regional shopping hub. With or without re-opening the streets to cars.

> Boston Globe: Would Car Traffic Bring Back the Crowds?

  1970   2007   Change, 2007-1970
Boston   641,071   608,352   -32,719
Metro Area (MSA)   2,753,700   5,977,504   3,223,804
Boston population as percent of MSA   23%   10%   -13%

Data sources: 1970 Census, Census 2007 Population Estimates

Flickr photos by Wallyg, and deafredbear.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. That’s really a great point. The population and market have changed and clogging the streets with cars won’t change that. Many cities would love to have a pedestrian district they shouldn’t throw that away for traffic.

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