The origin of downtown

Center City PhiladelphiaMarch 8, 2013 – Driving home from work one night I was treated to the oldie but goodie “Downtown” on the radio. Not the Lady Antebellum song they play today, but the Petula Clark classic from the 1960s that pays homage to the part of a city that never sleeps.

As my head bobbled from side to side and I sang along, I began thinking about the concept of downtown, where the word originated and why they refer to the city that way. Shameful I don’t know, especially when I have an entire category dedicated to “Downtown” on this blog.

In Philadelphia, where I live we have a few names for the downtown district. We call it center city or the “city” for short. We also refer to it as downtown, of course, or simply the mondo cool version, “town”, such as “I am happening because I hang out in town.”

Referring to this area of Philadelphia as center city makes sense because it is located in the center, surrounded by many colorful neighborhoods. But downtown is another story. It works for me because I live north of “town” and have to travel down to get there; but for someone who lives south of center city, they travel up to get to downtown Philly. Where is the sense in that?

Perhaps whoever came up with the word wasn’t thinking direction, but rather rhyming because that can be fun; Nutter Butter, Lean Cuisine, Reese’s Pieces, or Ronald McDonald, anyone? It makes it easy to remember.

A little research put an end to the mystery, and I learned that it did indeed originate from a direction. Downtown is a term that refers to a city’s “core”. The term was coined in New York City, where it was used in the 1830s to refer to the original town at the southern tip of Manhattan. As the city grew, and the only direction it could move was north, so that area became known as uptown and the original area became downtown.

I’m a little disappointed the reason is more adventurous than that. Still, the word downtown caught on big time since it is used by dwellers in many major cities throughout the United States and Canada, and the very city Clark sings about, London. To think she followed up that hit with the odd little ditty, “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”, which makes be believe she really had her finger on the pulse of the big city. Wise advice, for sure.

So remember, “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown…”

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