Downtown is the American word for city center according many dictionaries but in reality the two have quite different meanings. Indeed when talking about downtown Americans refer to an economic, cultural and political center which is different from the European idea of city centre. Which are the main differences?
First of all, the architecture. Traditionally in Europe the city centre is the most old area of the city, where the first settlements were posed. Some cities in Europe had origin in the late Greek period, while in the Mediterranean sea there are cities fating far before. This ensures that while walking in the streets it is possible to read the history of a place, just observing the walls, the pavement and obviously the buildings. Everywhere there is a piece of art or a simple remembering the past. I think that the structure of downtown is quite different for two main reasons. Primarily because the historic monuments tend to be located only in a close area, rather than being spread all over the city. Secondly because, as the urban theorist, David Brooks, explains in Our Sprawling Supersize Utopia (New York Times Magazine) American people tend to be more concentrated on their future rather than on their past. This evidently influences the representation and the importance given to their history.
The second element that shows a great difference between Europe, even if I’m mainly referring to Italy, are the architectural features of the city center and downtown. The fact that the former represents the very, historical hearth of the city, ensures two aspects. First that all the buildings have at maximum 5 floors, as most of them have ancient origins. Second that the all area is completely pedestrian ( sometimes it would be simply impossible to drive along a 1,5 meters wide street). This has fostered the fact that the most important and big enterprises open branches outside the very center, often gathering in economic, semi-peripheral area. Evidently this is in deep contrast with what is my experience in Denver. Downtown is the skyscrapers district, where the cars are allowed to go almost everywhere and where all the economic centers are located.
A final observation could be the fact that downtown are inhabited by a group of citizens that is not so easy to find in the city centre. The first time I have been in Denver’s downtown I have been shocked by the number of homeless people, living in the streets. Old, young and also families find hospitality in the front of restaurants and banks in the very center of downtown. This is something that as Italian I am not used to. Indeed, given the fact that I think that the percentage of homeless proportioned to the total population is quite minor, most of them do not live n the city centre but in public dorms or at the worst in the periphery. I think that the fact that so many homeless live in downtown could be considered a positive aspect as their presence make evident to all the other citizen the problem of poverty in USA. In Italy we tend to marginalize this group of men and women in the periphery, while having them the main square or in front of the school could help in giving them more voice and importance. The other citizens would, probably, take more care of them if they could see their poor conditions of life each day, winter and summer.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that the different configuration of downtown and city centre reflect a more general diversity I culture, history and self-representation of Americans and Europeans.