Design: Spiffing Up The Urban Heritage

After years of neglect, Americans lavish love and sweat on old downtowns

Back when city planning was still a matter of deciding which neighborhood to carve up with the new freeway and how many grim apartment towers to insert in a newly leveled megalot, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency decided to move its offices. The agency was stuck in an unfashionable downtown building on grubby, declining Spring Street, so in 1955 the city's official redevelopers fled to new quarters.

Such prescience. Such vision.

During the 1980s Spring Street, like so many other neglected, down-and-dirty streets around the country, is shuddering back to life, becoming a gleaming circa-1920s boulevard. Many of its handsomely...