Why do some cities have an “uptown” and others a “downtown”?

uptown charlotte

Road Sign for Uptown Charlotte, NC.

In everything from America’s biggest cities to her smallest rural towns, the central business district is called “downtown.” Except when it’s not. In some cities, the city center is referred to as “uptown.” As a North Carolinian, the city that sticks out most for the use of this bizarre term is Charlotte. If you’re going into the heart of Charlotte, you’re going to “uptown Charlotte.” Apparently, the city of Greenville, NC has also recently adopted use of the term. So, where do “uptown” and “downtown” come from? And why aren’t we being consistent? Read on to find out!

The uptown/downtown terminology apparently comes from late 1800s New York. The city was originally built at the southern tip of Manhattan, which is where most of the early development occurred – and where the center of the financial district still exists today. As the city grew, it spread northwards “up” the island of Manhattan. Thus, over time, people began to refer to the city center as “downtown” and the new growth as “uptown.” Eventually, other cities caught on to the “downtown” terminology and started referring to their central business districts as “downtown” as well. So that’s why most cities and towns have a downtown.

mr wilhelm

“Oh no, you’ve got to go downtown, George. It’s all downtown. Just like the song says.”

Unfortunately, what we’ve learned about Manhattan has only made the “uptown” question more confusing – in the New York case, uptown was used to mean areas that were outside and away from the central business district. In other words, uptown was the opposite of downtown. So why do some cities refer to downtown as uptown? The answer seems to be unique to the cities in question.

Charlotte, for example, seems to have started using the term “uptown” long before copying New York’s “downtown” terminology was the cool thing to do. In fact, Uptown Charlotte likely started as a reference to the fact that the elevation in the center of the city is slightly higher than elsewhere. If you were going into town, you were literally going up. In the middle of the 1900’s, the city (likely following New York’s example) was using the term “downtown” for at least some of its business. It started a “downtown renewal corporation” to revitalize the center city area. Apparently, some local business leaders pitched a fit over the use of the term “downtown,” eventually leading the mayor to issue an official proclamation that the heart of the city should be called “uptown.” It’s been Uptown Charlotte ever since.

Interestingly, the creation of Uptown Greenville also seems to have been based on an urban renewal program. In 1994, the Greenville Downtown Steering Committee recommended that the city council establish a non-profit entity to organize investment in re-opening and revitalizing some of the streets in the center of town. The city council thought this was a good idea and chartered the non-profit… which decided to call itself Uptown Greenville. The term has now become synonymous not only with the non-profit organization, but also with the central business district it was working to revitalize.

So, there you have it. New York started using the “downtown” terminology and it spread organically to the rest of America from there. The cities with uptowns (or, at least the two I researched) have somewhat more unique histories, and both had an explicit decision by an organized body that resulted in the adoption of the term. It’s stuff like this that keeps the world just a little bit more interesting for history buffs… and a little bit more frustrating for people with OCD.

1 Response

  1. Holly November 14, 2014 / 5:28 pm

    A fascinating move in Cleveland over the past several years is the rebranding of a certain part of the city, previously designated as “University Circle,” as “Uptown.” Downtown Cleveland is definitely the business center of the city. University Circle, however, is home to the Cleveland Clinic, one of the best hospitals in the nation, and most of the cultural arts centers other than the theater district, e.g. museums, gardens, orchestra halls, etc. The moniker University Circle is logical, as the center of the area is Case Western University, and with it comes an obnoxious traffic circle. I believe the rebranding is an attempt to indicate to outsiders that there is a second important business district in Cleveland, albeit slightly smaller, that they should take note of, but as with any rebranding process, there is definite pushback from the locals.

    Of course, “Uptown Cleveland” is actually about 2 miles East of Downtown Cleveland, but literally going Uptown would land you in the lake.

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