Friday, June 20, 2014


Just about every week I get an email from a group called Downtown Santa Cruz, which lists some events they think I might want to know about. When I worked down there, I used to be more aware of what was going on downtown than I am now, but it turns out it's easy to be a bit out of touch when you're not in the midst of it, so I appreciate this. And in truth, downtown Santa Cruz is a pretty vibrant place these days. It's got not only the roller derby but the symphony, a First Friday art walk, a standup comedy night, and so on. For whatever reason, it seems to have been able to defy the trend of blight that has fallen on so many small downtowns, although it has its problems and controversies like any other.

a blanket sit-in protesting a new city ordinance last year

I started thinking about the word 'downtown' when I got the latest bulletin. When I was a kid, my mom used to tell us that we would be going downtown as a special treat, and I have to admit that I didn't entirely know what downtown was. For her, it meant not the downtown of Santa Monica, Venice or Buena Park where we successively lived in that era, but Downtown, meaning the business district of L.A. At that point, my grandfather and my aunt both worked in that area, and there were thriving department stores and fancy places to have lunch. Downtown L.A. lost its way for awhile after that, but these days, with the Disney concert center and other draws, it seems to be coming back.

But what is 'downtown' It has a nice bouncy sort of ring, of course, but why is the center of a town called a downtown?


Well, I've come across several explanations, all of which seem to think that they are authoritative. The old reliable Online Etymology Dictionary has it that it came into print in 1835:

"The notion is of suburbs built on heights around a city."

Now, while it's true that our downtown is down from a lot of other parts of oour town, it doesn't seem that would be true for a lot of other cities, such as L.A. on the one hand and San Francisco on the other. While you can understand that a lot of cities may have begun along rivers and at ports and grown around them, it isn't the case that the suburbs are all necessarily hillside retreats.

Wikipedia goes in for the idea that the first use of downtown was in New York City. Apparently the town started at the southern end of Manhattan and grew north from there. The up would refer to that sense of up you get when looking at maps, so New York has an uptown as well as a midtown. There is no reason why north should necessarily be 'up', but I succumb to the convention as much as the next  person, and used to be amused by friends saying things like "well, I'm going down to Sacramento" when the state capital was clearly north. My amusement was not really warranted.

In any case, we seem to have a convergence of ideas. Down as in lower than the hills, down as in down by the river port, which of course would be the lowest place in town, and down as in the southern end.

Downtown seems to be mainly a Northamerican term. Whether it has spread to parts elsewhere I don't know, but it seems that Europeans are more familiar with the idea of a city center, or more likely 'centre'.

No post about the word downtown would be complete without it's most famous artistic representation. But this of course only leads to more questions. Why is a Brit singing about downtown in the first place? And why, with the reintroduction of flower names for girls in recent years-I know a Dahlia, a Daphne and a Violet just off the top of my head--why isn't there a resurgence of Petulas? (Or at least Petulias.)


  1. I thought it was because the numbered streets got lower nearer Main Street.

  2. Yet another interesting possibility, Nancy.

  3. Be careful if you visit Philadelphia. What would be downtown in most cities is called Center City here, and Downtown is a named used, especially by longtime residents, for South Philadelphia.

  4. I have to say that Center City makes a lot more sense. But probably not as good a song.

  5. Oh, I don't know. I can think of at least three words that rhyme with city.

  6. Granted. But pity doesn't really make you want to go to Center City.

  7. And neither does the excrementally oriented one.

  8. Just for fun, I'll try to think of every song or slogan I can that contain "pretty" or "gritty"--then swap the words.

  9. try itty bitty while you're at it.