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Downtown Davenport, looking east on 3rd Street from Brady, around 1900.
In a photo taken in the early 1950s, the Molline J.CPenney store was located on 15th Street between 5th and 6th avenues.
In the not-so-distant past, the downtown of Any City, USA, was the place to be. It was the business hub, shopping capital, and anyone who was anyone called the area home. Today, in the world of big-box department stores, shopping malls and parking lots, the average city is fighting to keep its downtown alive and relevant.
Norm Moline, an Edward Hamming Professor of Geography at Augustana College, specializing in spacial science and cultural geography, says this phenomenon, known as "urban sprawl," began with the prevalence of the automobile. When more people own cars, more people want to travel. When more people travel, more parking is needed.
"That's why in the late '60s, early '70s, there was an emergence of shopping malls -- they had abundant parking," he explained. "And I think businesses and customers went there without knowing it could be the end of 'downtown.'"
Mr. Moline also explained that new habits and routines were quickly set and people became used to traveling further distances to get what they wanted. The convenience of easily moving from one shop to the next couldn't be beat -- and still can't be beat.
"This made it difficult for stores in downtown areas to make it," he said, adding that the limited parking of downtown areas didn't, and doesn't, help.
So while downtown shopping began to decline, residents began leaving downtowns in favor of the fringes for another reason: housing.
"With the exception of the big, solid housing, like brick, after 75, 110 years they're (the downtown-area houses) going to start to deteriorate," said Mr. Moline.
As houses near and around downtown areas began to age, many were sold or abandoned in favor of houses located on the fringes of town, where there was ample land and easy access to the new shopping malls. The deteriorating houses were often sold to lower-income families or "slumlords," and when coupled with age and a lack of resources, many quickly fell into a state of further disrepair.
Locally, Mr. Moline said the Quad-Cities experience more urban sprawl than most comparably sized cities because of the multiple communities sitting next to each other in the area, and because of a unique barrier -- the Mississippi River.
"Because of the river, there's only one way Davenport and Bettendorf can grow, and that's north," explained Mr. Moline."There's also only one way Moline and Rock Island can grow, and that's south. The fragmentation of the cities hurts because each city wants some sort of growth. If we were a single city we could target one area for sprawl, but here, each city has its own sprawl."
Alan Carmen, planning and redevelopment director for the city of Rock Island, said expansion in Rock Island is further limited to one direction because the city is a peninsula of sorts.
"We have the Mississippi on one side, the Rock River on another, and Moline to the east," said Mr. Carmen, explaining where growth in Rock Island is hindered. "But southwest Rock Island has a few opportunities for growth."
With the increase of urban sprawl to areas like 53rd Street in Davenport and John Deere Road in Moline, downtowns have needed to recreate themselves, often becoming less of a shopping center and more of an arts, entertainment and business center as a means of surviving, said Mr. Moline.
"Downtown has to take on a different culture," said Mr. Moline. "Arts and entertainment, banking, offices. If you get enough office functions you can get enough people to support a few more restaurants.
As an example, Mr. Moline points to downtown Moline. He said the placement of The Mark of the Quad Cities has been crucial to the creation and success of The John Deere Commons.
"The Mark could have easily gone on the edge of the city, but instead it was placed near downtown, which was good for Radisson, and then T.G.I. Friday's. ... if we didn't have The Mark, it would be difficult to support those businesses."
As for Rock Island, Mr. Carmen thinks new housing opportunities have been key to revitalizing the downtown area. He credits the addition of 150 new downtown housing opportunities in recent years to adding a great deal of life to the area.
"But what's that critical mass that results in more retail?" asks Mr. Carmen. "We're not sure what that number is, but we're trying to cultivate more. There already has been some effects, but it's a long process."
In the end, Mr. Carmen and Mr. Moline both say it's important for a city to balance downtown redevelopment with new "fringe" development.
"Downtowns are different from new developments," said Mr. Carmen. "Downtowns are different from suburbia, and they're supposed to be."