Research Communications

Anatomy of a Downtown: From urban planning to performing arts, what makes a city tick? 

By Jessica Salerno
Oct. 19, 2012

Big cities such as New York or Los Angeles are known for their exciting downtown atmospheres, but for Marina Peterson they offer the chance to examine how downtown acts as a mirror for what makes a city.

Peterson, an associate professor of performance studies at Ohio University, drew on her expertise in anthropology and performance to develop two recent books that look at downtowns through the lens of globalism and the performing arts.

Sound, Space, and the City: Civic Performance in Downtown Los Angeles is an ethnography of a free summer concert series in Los Angeles. Peterson examined the city’s effort to bring together a multicultural audience through a variety of musical performances—and, as a lifelong cellist, even played in one of the concerts with a hip-hop group.

Illustration by Christina Ullman.

Peterson is interested in public art and performance projects, such as the one in Los Angeles, that challenge common assumptions about society. By hosting the free concert series, she says, the city allowed the public to enjoy a variety of music in an open setting in which anyone could participate.

Although her chapter in her more recent publication, Global Downtowns, also concerns art in a downtown setting, the book covers broader topics of urban development. Co-edited with Gary McDonogh of Bryn Mawr College, the book examines the impact of globalization on the design and development of downtowns in various cities worldwide. Contributors examined modes of transportation and signature architecture, as well as class divisions within cities.

Peterson’s research has taken her all over the world and across the United States to examine the structure of different downtowns. Certain locales, such as Chicago, are very centralized and have created the downtown as the center of the city. Others, such as Los Angeles, are known for urban sprawl, with the city and the suburbs spread outwards over a larger area.

Chicago’s great downtown atmosphere, she says, is due to the efforts of city planners, architects, and politicians over the last 15 years.

“It’s not something that just occurs, it’s not natural,” she says. “Its impact has to be constantly made.”

Peterson notes a recent trend among smaller cities to redevelop their main streets to reflect those of larger cities, offering more entertainment such as bars, restaurants, and shopping.

“Downtown is reflecting in a heightened way some of these trends of globalization,” she says.

Peterson’s newest research takes a look at the link between large cities and rural Appalachian towns. Natural resources such as coal and brick mined and manufactured in those small cities provided the energy, light, and construction materials needed to build modern skyscrapers, she notes.

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, students and staff.