DENVER — Not long ago, in cities across America, downtown districts darkened at the close of business hours, and workers filed from office highrises back to their lives in the burbs. Like empty commuter-rail cars at day's end, city streets stood hollow and dim.
But a transformation of urban life is quickening nationwide: Downtown lights now twinkle into the wee hours, and the buzz of nightlife spills from restaurants and theaters in cities from Denver to Miami.
The return of life after dark symbolizes a reinvention of American cities in the twilight of the 20th century. For decades, downtowns have been centers of commerce and, more recently, places where young adults and "empty nesters" have taken up residence in refurbished brownstones.
Now they are increasingly becoming outdoor playgrounds as well. From the return of jazz clubs in downtown Kansas City to cafes along Philadelphia's new "streetscape," cities are building on their heritage and expanding their roles as the centers of leisure and culture in American life.
The return of people to Boston's Newbury Street and Denver's "Lodo" district is driven in part by the improved financial conditions of cities. "There has been a fairly steady increase in cities' revenue since 1990," says Michael Pagano, an urban economist at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio.
Yet city officials are also increasingly banking on the past to chart their futures. "Americans have finally come to appreciate older things," says Doyle Hyett of HyettPalma, a downtown-redevelopment consultant in Alexandria, Va. "Europeans have never abandoned downtowns, but Americans have long held a 'build it up and knock it down' frontier kind of thinking."
William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis and a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute, agrees. "There's an important transformation going on - a transition to the past. People are tired of the endless sameness of the suburbs." Fast-food chains and suburban malls can't compete with the diversity and individual character cities offer, he maintains. Moreover, "You can't be a suburb of nothing," he says. "It's important to hold a central core: You don't want your city to become a doughnut, with all the development on the beltway."
These days, urban areas are developing a new allure as entertainment hubs in particular. "Downtowns are becoming entertainment districts - cultural and social centers as much as business districts," says Mr. Hudnut, who is completing a book on rebounding cities. And while city workers are lingering downtown through the evening, even noncommuting suburban dwellers are increasingly being lured by city lights to take in a ball game, enjoy a concert, or savor a gourmet meal.
"It's a festive environment," says Kent Crippin, a consultant to Kansas City's Downtown Council. "In many respects, the suburbs don't provide that."
Making cities swing
Such is the case in Denver's lower downtown, a 25-square-block area that until a decade ago was one of the city's most unsavory locales. But a national historic designation, combined with an ambitious city plan to renovate the district's warehouses and dilapidated 19th-century buildings, has transformed it into the city's hot spot. Now called LoDo - after Manhattan's SoHo - the district is an artful medley of trendy loft apartments, restaurants, and shops, and features the largest collection of restored historic buildings west of the Mississippi.
With the addition of Coors Field ballpark in 1994, the success of the district was sealed. Baseball fans flock here by the stadium-full to watch the Rockies hit home runs under the open sky. And LoDo is well on its way to becoming the biggest tourist attraction in the state.
But these transformations take time, and a lot of planning. Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District (CCD), a business improvement initiative, points out that the upswing in Philadelphia's night life has been several years in the making. It has taken the cooperation of center-city businesses, the tourism industry, and the mayor to increase the city's appeal.
In 1991, Mr. Levy employed a fleet of street cleaners to spruce up the downtown district. Teal-uniformed "good will ambassadors" were put on the streets to deter crime and help visitors find their way around the city. In 1992, CCD kicked off the "Make it a Night" program to encourage people to stay in the city after work on Wednesdays. Restaurants offered discounts, businesses and museums stayed open later, and parking was free or greatly reduced.
A $26 million streetscape improvement initiative, "Walk! Philadelphia," is nearing completion. Pedestrian-friendly streetlights have been installed, paving and landscaping upgraded, and direction signs erected.
Phoenix is another city relying on a community partnership to breathe new life into its urban core. Its renovation plan has turned the city into a national model of urban renewal. The incessant noise of jackhammers is the sound of music as far as city planners are concerned. Over the past 10 years, $1.5 billion in public and private investments has meant the completion of 67 projects in the downtown area.
"Ten years ago, downtown was a sea of surface parking lots," says Margaret Mullen, head of Downtown Phoenix Partnership Inc., the nonprofit group that masterminded the rebirth. "There was absolutely no one here after 5 o'clock. Now there are more people here on nights and weekends than during the day."
New attractions include a library, science and history museums, a concert pavilion, 24-screen movie theater, and - like Denver - sports arenas. The latest and greatest is the $335 million Bank One Ballpark. The stadium includes a retractable roof, heated pool pavilion, baseball museum, and 50,000 square feet of retail space.
Kansas City is highlighting the arts and its jazz past to keep the city humming at night. In February, voters approved $176 million toward the Power & Light District. Plans for it include shops, a 30-screen movie theater, hotels, restaurants, and a live-performance theater.
A few miles to the southeast, the restored 18th and Vine district is nearing its first anniversary. The project, which cost more than $24 million, includes the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Kansas City Jazz Museum.
From mean streets to cozy ones
A hopping night life benefits more than city coffers - it creates a feeling of community and turns mean streets into cozy ones. "[Denver's LoDo] is more of a neighborhood than any place I've ever lived before," says Dan Du Bois, director of Lower Downtown District Inc. "You walk into people you know whenever you go out." Crime statistics show LoDo has become the safest place in Denver. "With all the activity, it's like having a big dog in front of your house," says Mr. Du Bois.
That's another benefit of urban revival, experts say: Simply sprucing up an area helps the crime rate fall. "There is safety in numbers," Hyett notes. "Police officers have a saying: 'If you keep a rat's nest, what do you expect to attract?' As these areas are cleaned up and become more animated, retail gets better, housing gets better, and they tend to start functioning as neighborhoods."
The Old City section of Philadelphia has experienced a similar renaissance. Standing outside the fashionable Rococo restaurant, suburbanite Steve Warshaw comments on the difference in the diverse nightscape. He points to the increase in foot traffic and the improved lighting in downtown neighborhoods - a marked contrast from the city where he was born and raised.
"It wasn't a place you really cared to come. There weren't the kind of restaurants that you have today. It wasn't clean downtown. I don't know if I was afraid to come downtown, but it wasn't as safe feeling."
CCD's Levy concurs: "The safest sidewalks in a city are the busiest sidewalks." He notes that since CCD was established in 1990, there has been a 30 percent reduction in crime and an elimination of graffiti in the downtown district. He says those factors have contributed to the surge of new businesses in the city.
Night life is a key to the formula, Denver's Du Bois says. "The more hours of the day you can fill up with activity, the better a mixed-use neighborhood works."
* Stephanie L. Baum of Philadelphia, Kathy Khoury of Phoenix, and Roberta Schneider of Kansas City contributed to this report.