Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Shoppers once flocked to the centers of American cities during the holidays. Today, boosters are using the season to spur urban revival.
For the first half of the 20th century, Christmas happened downtown.
Take Detroit: The Hudson’s department store, which stood at the corner of Woodward and Gratiot Avenues, was the tallest in the world. As Detroit’s industry boomed, so did the store. Shoppers—as many as 100,000 a day—browsed 49 acres of space spread across more than 25 floors. At its peak, the store stocked 600,000 wares. The enormous building was especially mind-boggling at Christmas, when it served as the epicenter of the city’s festivities.
Beginning in 1924, the store operated the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade, heralding the start of the holiday season with milk wagons tugging floats through the streets. Eventually, the parade concluded when Santa and a character named Christmas Carol would climb up onto the store’s marquee, where the mayor would hand them the key to the city. Santa waved to a sea of revelers flooding the street below.
Throughout the holiday season, throngs of pedestrians shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalks, as a traffic cop’s directions boomed from a loudspeaker mounted on the side of the store. Christmas trees marched along the façade facing Woodward Avenue, and a nine-story illuminated tree twinkled on the building’s side.
Fifty animated holiday windows wrapped around the ground floor, and holiday music was piped out on to the sidewalk, where vendors sold popcorn, chestnuts, and hot chocolate. Each season, 250,000 kids made their way to the 12th floor, where they’d traipse through an enchanted forest with trees, snowbanks, and lights. To meet the demand, teams of Santas would work six at a time, stealthily separated by partitions. The downtown store was a major attraction for families, because it featured shopping, dining, rides, window displays, and more, says Michael Hauser, the co-author, with Marianne Weldon, of Hudson’s: Detroit’s Legendary Department Store.
In many cities across the U.S., crowded city sidewalks held a festive appeal. The rush kindled a sense of community. “The feeling that everybody is out doing their Christmas shopping, windows are all lit up, was a key shared experience,” says Jan Whitaker, a social historian and author of the book Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.
And the stores aimed to be knitted in to a city’s infrastructure, part of residents’ daily lives. The downtown hub was a “crossroads of urban life, a quasi-public space that blurred class divisions and proudly saw itself as part of the city around it,” Robert David Sullivan wrote in the Boston Globe back in 2011. Holiday celebrations were firmly rooted in department stores, and the stores, in turn, were at the center of local life.
How the suburbs stole Christmas
In 1953—close to the peak of Detroit’s urban population—Hudson’s sales topped $153 million. But then the city’s shopping district was hit with a one-two punch: shrinking population and new suburban malls.
Hudson’s may have even helped sound its own death knell in 1954, when the company bankrolled the construction of the Northland Center, a large suburban mall designed by Victor Gruen. Northland, and other complexes in nearby suburbs, quickly siphoned shoppers from the flagship store as white residents fled the city. Some 7,200 downtown retail stores shuttered between 1958 and 1972, the Detroit Free Press wrote in a 1983 obituary for Hudson’s.
After 90 years in business, the downtown store closed in 1983. “It was like the domino effect up and down Woodward,” Hauser says. Other department stores and variety stores, including Crowley’s and Kresge’s—some of which hosted extravagant Christmas celebrations—had vanished, too. Former storefronts were boarded up all along the corridor.
The Hudson’s building sat vacant, and stayed that way more than 15 years. While numerous redevelopment pitches fell flat, the “big beloved landmark started to become one big eyesore, more noteworthy for its broken windows and trespassers than its big sales and Santa,” the Detroit Free Press reported. The behemoth building was imploded in 1998, sending 660 million pounds of rubble tumbling to the street in a heap 60 feet high.
As downtown department stores contracted across the country, the shopping centers and plazas that took their places had to decide whether to preserve or shrug off longstanding holiday traditions—often to residents’ chagrin. In Boston, a freshly chopped tree and strings of lights “can’t hide a ghost at the center of it all: the cheerless facade and huge hole in the ground that used to be Filene’s,” Sullivan wrote.
Some surviving downtown stores under new ownership try to maintain hybridized versions of local lore. An annual music-and-light show still dazzles at Philadelphia’s former Wanamaker department store, which is now a Macy’s. The scale, however, pales in comparison to the elaborate sets that decorated the store in the first half of the 20th century. In Chicago, visitors still stand in line for hours to dine in the 111-year-old Walnut Room restaurant in the former Marshall Field’s store, which was acquired by Macy’s in 2005, to the horror of many local fans. "I meet women who take their kids to the Walnut Room, even now it's owned by Macy's, because their mothers and their grandmothers and their great-grandmothers went every Christmas,” the author Leslie Goddard, who lectures about the history of Marshall Fields, told the Lake Zurich Times. “There aren't many traditions that go back that far."
For the most part, when stores migrated away from city centers, they didn’t carry those more extravagant celebrations with them. “Branch stores never had the full anything that the downtown store had,” Whitaker says. Shoppers trundled from gridlocked parking lots straight to the door—there was no need for elaborate window displays.
Moreover, as suburban sprawl rolled on, the very definition of “downtown” seemed to fray. “People don’t even quite know what downtown means,” Whitaker says.
Very merry placemaking
But recently, some cities are using Christmas celebrations to help define and revive their downtown districts. For the seventh year in a row, Phoenix residents can sip hot cocoa beneath a 36-foot-tall Christmas tree and can strap on ice skates and glide across a sprawling outdoor rink. But a decade ago, this scene looked a lot different.
If you typed “Phoenix, AZ” into Google Maps back in 2005, the pin would drop here at the junction of Central Avenue and Washington Street—the intersection from which all of the city’s addresses counted. The nearby blocks were poised for big changes: A light rail system, convention center, hotel, and biomedical campus were all scheduled to open, backed by city, county, and state funds. But the blocks didn’t look like much. “Smack dab in the middle of all of this were three vacant surface parking at the nexus of this universe,” says Jeff Moloznik, the vice president of development at the real estate firm RED.
Moloznik’s team bought the lots and began noodling over the question of how to build a downtown hub from the ground up. “The first thing we had to do was get people to acknowledge that a downtown existed,” Moloznik says. “You can have incredible design, but if there’s no people, it’s not going to feel good. We knew that we needed to populate an area that, for generations, has never been populated.”
CityScape, a $500 million mixed-use development, has rolled out in phases over the past ten years. (The third installment, including a grocery store, retail space, and 300 apartment units, kicks off next year.) Holiday celebrations have been at the project’s core.
The Phoenix Parks Department dedicated two acres to the project; those parcels have become CitySkate, the outdoor rink open from Thanksgiving to early January. The team drew inspiration from the rink at Central Park in New York, Moloznik says, where the rink is highly visible to passersby, and looked to the beachside rink at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado for proof that a balmy climate wouldn’t necessarily melt the chilled cheer. To boost a sense of community, they aspired to build an “organic and natural public space that’s deliberately loosely managed because we want it to be inviting to everyone,” Moloznik adds. He estimates that the rink drew 40,000 skaters last year, plus many more revelers.
Meanwhile, the former Hudson’s site in Detroit might finally be coming back to life, too. Since demolition, the site has spent the years as a parking lot while re-use schemes have been floated and dashed. Dan Gilbert, a local real-estate magnate who owns nearly 100 properties in the city, has now proposed a high-rise tower reaching up from the site. Plans have yet to be made public, but Crain’s Detroit Business predicted a mix of residential and commercial spaces.
Already, Hauser says, the city has ramped up holiday decoration on lampposts and in parks in recent years. Many of those efforts seem to be concentrated along the Woodward Avenue corridor—now the nexus of some of the city’s splashiest revitalization efforts, including the recently laid streetcar line, which runs from Campus Martius to New Center.
This is the 13th year that Campus Martius park has installed a giant Christmas tree—currently, it’s a twinkling 60-foot Norway Spruce. There’s also an ice rink, plus carriage rides, visits from Santa, and decidedly adult evening events: craft beer festivals, ugly sweater parties, and pairings of bourbon and BBQ. Nearby pop-up shops feature a rotating cast of retailers. Some of the holiday season tenants—many drawn from the surrounding suburbs—have transitioned into long-term leases in the city. “It’s amazing how people flock to Campus Martius now,” Hauser says.
There’s no guarantee that Santa will return to his old stomping grounds in the footprint of the former Hudson’s store. But he’s found a new home downtown.