At Home In The Big City

The building was fine when it was built in 1874, a 21/2-story Victorian with 12-foot ceilings, a home for the burgeoning middle class of downtown Indianapolis. By 1981, when Susan Williams and her future husband, David Rimstidt, bought it for $15,000 in cash, it was a dilapidated wreck on a street of flophouses. The only bank willing to make a renovation loan assessed the property at exactly $0. And now the mysterious workings of the American economy have brought it back into fashion, along with the whole Chatham Arch neighborhood and much of downtown Indianapolis itself, where city officials are emptying housing projects as fast as they can find places to move the families--and selling them to developers to convert into apartments and condominiums. Asking price for a similar house on Williams and Rimstidt's block today: $300,000.

Less than a decade after Joel Garreau proclaimed the triumph of the "edge city"--a cluster of office parks, malls and subdivisions plunked down at the intersection of two interstates--the hottest new neighborhoods in many cities are the places that were settled first. A study last fall by the Brookings Institution and the Fannie Mae Foundation looked at 24 cities around the country and found that all of them expect downtown populations to grow over the next decade--even cities whose populations have been shrinking for decades, like Philadelphia and Detroit; even cities whose names are bywords for sprawl, like Atlanta and Los Angeles. The absolute numbers are often tiny--Denver, say, projects that the population boom of the next decade will increase its downtown population from 3,480 (as of 1997) to all of 9,250. But this isn't just about demographics, it's about seizing the high ground of market value from suburban "glens" and "estates." The action now is in the prosaic old place names that didn't come from some developer's marketing consultant: the Mill District (of Minneapolis), the Armory District (of Providence, R.I.), the Denny Regrade (of Seattle) or just "downtown."

The shift is driven, in part, by the economics of sprawl. At some point, land values for all but the most distant suburbs rise so high that downtown becomes a plausible alternative. Once, it was thought that only New Yorkers were desperate enough to live in old brick-walled industrial lofts, a trend pioneered by impoverished artists in the 1960s. But in Spokane, developer Ron Wells built a seven-unit condominium project around what had been one of the first gas stations in the center city. In Houston, the famous old Rice Hotel had been slated for demolition in 1996, when developer Randall Davis arranged for the city to buy it for $3 million and lease it back to Davis and his partners to renovate into apartments. In Atlanta, the 19th-century Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, the heart of a working-class neighborhood called Cabbagetown, is being renovated, 20 years after it closed, into 500 apartments. They offer the usual retro-industrial architectural features--brick walls, exposed timber beams, ceilings as high as 18 feet--but the cachet of the place has improbably carried over into the little frame shotgun houses surrounding it, where prices have doubled or tripled since the early '90s, according to Peggy Williams, director of an agency that provides affordable housing in the area. "There are people in the neighborhood," she adds, "who have Realtors knocking on their door once a week asking if they want to sell."

Demographically, new downtown residents are, unsurprisingly, mostly young singles and couples with grown children, people with the least need for suburban amenities such as schools and lawns. Living downtown obviously cuts commuting time for most people--even for some whose jobs are actually in the suburbs, like Michael and Linda Olson, who recently moved into a condominium in a converted turn-of-the-century office building in downtown Houston. Olson, an aerospace engineer, and his wife, a university administrator, both work 30 miles away in Clear Lake, but the wrong-way commute takes only half as long as the trip from Clear Lake to downtown. When they lived in the suburbs, they made the round trip four times a week anyway, for the theater or concerts.

But living downtown has a psychological dimension also. It is a way of setting one's self apart from the middlebrow denizens of shag-rugged rec rooms. "The people who live downtown here are hungry for an urban experience, and that has been difficult to achieve in Houston," says Minnette Boesel, a historic preservationist turned real-estate broker. "I find it more mentally stimulating here," says Seema Scholl, who with her husband, Matthew, moved last fall to downtown Seattle from a ranch near Aspen--downsizing their real-estate holdings in the process from 220 acres to 700 square feet but gaining thousands of new and ethnically diverse neighbors in Belltown. "In Aspen," she says, "there was one black person, and that was it." The tolerance that downtown living imposes has an obvious appeal to gays, like Karl Reichert, who lives near the Loring Greenway, a flower-lined path in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. "Minnesota is not that diverse," he says, "but the diversity is growing. My neighbors are very interested in urban living, very open-minded."

But slowly families are filtering back into downtowns, as well. In 1997, Meg Denton and Dave Estlund, unhappy with the public schools in their affluent Providence neighborhood near Brown University, bought a rambling 1876 Victorian downtown. They fixed it up, rented out part of it to graduate students, and found that, with their tenants essentially paying the mortgage, they could afford private school for their three children. Not far away is a 12-block historic "arts and entertainment district" in which resident artists (the definition embraces a broad range of creative occupations) are exempt from state income tax. Once artists move in, says Patricia McLaughlin, a city lawyer who helped design the program, "next come lawyers and doctors who want to live around the artists, then the middle class. It's very chic to have a home in Florida and an apartment in the theater district." It is, of course, the dream of every American city for the past 30 years to reclaim the middle class, which fled the old downtowns for the seemingly limitless horizons of suburbia. Now those horizons are closing in, a reminder that in the history of human settlement, there has never been such a thing as a suburban civilization.