Downtowns were once the lifeblood of cities and communities, even regions.
People worked downtown and lived there. They shopped there. They sought out entertainment and socialized there.
In the mid-20th century, downtowns began their long decline, as people, jobs and other amenities relocated to the suburbs. Storefronts closed and theaters shuttered. Manufacturing jobs dried up. Neighborhoods emptied out and blight became pervasive.
Related: Outlook 2017, The Gazette's annual guide to business and technology in the Capital Region
The impact of these trends can be seen all over America, in cities large and small, and in the Capital Region specifically. Schenectady, Albany, Troy, Amsterdam and Gloversville have all lost population and seen good jobs disappear.
It’s a sad story, but there’s reason to hope for a better future.
Cities are experiencing a resurgence, as people rediscover the benefits of living, working and playing in urban centers.
The progress is visible in downtowns throughout the Capital Region, and the best example of a downtown on the upswing might just be Schenectady, which over the past decade has seen new restaurants, businesses and arts venues open and thrive.
The revitalization of downtown is great news for nearby neighborhoods and towns. Even people who don’t live downtown benefit from the excitement and activity that a lively downtown brings to an area.
“It’s very difficult for a region to attract investment when the area that shapes the identity of a place is unattractive,” said Gene Bunnell, professor emeritus in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University at Albany. “Downtowns are engines of investment and economic growth.”
“When you think about it, downtown is often the first exposure somebody may get to a community,” said Jim Salengo, executive director of the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation.
People who don’t live downtown often visit for entertainment, dining and other, more practical reasons, such as medical treatment. People who do live downtown enjoy the walkable neighborhoods, nearby parks and ease of attending a concert or going out to eat.
“Young people don’t always aspire to own a single-family home on a detached lot,” Bunnell said. “They’re more aware of the environmental impacts [of driving]. They’re very keen on bicycling. Young people with businesses want to locate in downtowns — they don’t want to be in an office park.”
Salengo agreed, noting that downtowns are also attractive to retirees. “They don’t always want the burden of taking care of a yard or a driveway,” he said. “There’s just a lot more interest in sustainability, in living, working and entertaining yourself in a concentrated area.”
All of this activity has an economic impact that is both far-reaching and local.
“There’s a great concentration of local businesses downtown,” Salengo said.
The Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation encourages visitors to do more than one thing when they visit Schenectady — to eat at a restaurant and see a show at Proctors, for example.
“The more you do, the more familiar you get with downtown,” Salengo said. “We’ve got arts, and the arts support restaurants. We’ve got a great historic district downtown. We’ve got great museums.”
Capital Region cities remain works in progress, and they do have notable flaws.
The infrastructure is often rundown, sometimes even falling apart. Property taxes remain high, although homebuyers often find that the downtown housing market is much cheaper than its suburban counterpart. The school systems, with their lower graduation rates and large populations of students who do not perform at grade level, are often perceived, fairly or not, as being substandard, even poor. Retail options are increasing, but still not as robust as in nearby suburbs.
Despite these challenges, Bunnell and Salengo both predicted that the downtown resurgence would continue.
“I don’t think there’s any sign of it diminishing,” Bunnell said. “This is the trend. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for living in walkable urban centers.”
“Downtowns are really cool,” Salengo said. “There’s so much potential in downtowns. They were so down, and it’s really remarkable how they’ve come back.”