Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

The Difference between Uptown and Downtown

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When in any major city, there are often different regions. The terms “downtown” and “uptown” are commonly used to refer to separate and distinct areas of a community, but the difference between the two is often confusing.

  1. Origins

Both terms, downtown and uptown, are distinctly American. The terms are not generally used in British English because, in Britain, people generally use the term City Centre instead. Both terms originated in New York City. The southern tip of the island of Manhattan was settled first and so downtown referred to this area. Since the city could only grow north, moving upriver, it became common to use the terms up and down when traveling the island.[i]

Eventually, that original settlement area, which contained the only major commercial businesses at the time, became known as downtown. It is also sometimes called Lower Manhattan. Anything north of this area became uptown and is sometimes called Upper Manhattan.[ii]

As populations started moving west through the United States and as additional major urban centers were established, the terms downtown and uptown started to take on a new meaning outside of New York City. Downtown became a generic term that referred to any city’s central business and historic district. Generally speaking, the downtown of a city is often central geographically and commercially situated, with residential neighborhoods along the periphery. During the second half of the 19th century, the term moved through other cities across the United States and even into Canada. Even though it was commonly used, the word was not actually included in dictionaries until after the 1880s, Though, by 1900, it was established as a proper term within American English, referring to a city’s central business district.[iii]

  1. Geographical Context

In New York City and many other cities with an established downtown and uptown, these terms can be taken literally as references to cardinal directions. Downtown can be used to reference anything south of where the speaker is standing and uptown can be considered north of where the speaker is standing. In this sense, rather than denoting a specific area, downtown refers to the geographical direction of south. Conversely, the term uptown references the geographical direction north. This remains true even when technically outside of the bounds of the downtown and uptown areas.[iv]

In addition to a directional reference, downtown and uptown also refer to the vertical height of certain areas. In most large cities, the original settlement was located on the coastline of a major body of water, such as an ocean, lake, or river. As the population grew and as the city expanded outward and moved away from the water, that often meant that it moved uphill as well. This contributed to the widespread use of the terms as vertical references, with downtown literally meaning downward and uptown literally upward.[v]

Most major cities that use the terms downtown and uptown also use the term midtown to reference a section of the city or district that would be located midway between downtown and uptown. While these terms are used by most major cities, both Philadelphia and New Orleans do not use them. Philadelphia refers to its central business district and historical district as the City Center, while New Orleans uses the term Central Business District, or as it is commonly called, the French Quarter.[vi]

  1. Global Use of the Terms

Since the terms are distinctly American, it is no surprise that they are most commonly used in that country. The term downtown is usually used more frequently than uptown, and there are more well-known downtowns than uptowns. In the United States, some of the commonly recognized ones include New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Anchorage, Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Dallas, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Miami, Minneapolis, Oakland, Orlando Phoenix, Portland, St. Louis, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington D.C. The term downtown is also frequently used in Canada, and some of the major Canadian downtowns are Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. The only other three countries that have a downtown are Mexico (in Tijuana), the State of Qatar (Msheireb Downtown Doha), and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Al-Balad, Jeddah).[vii]

The term uptown is used less frequently and is exclusive to North America, specifically the United States and Canada. Some cities that have well-known uptowns include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Chicago, Richmond, Dallas, Hartford, Houston, Minneapolis, Oakland, Seattle, and Atlanta. While New Orleans refers to its downtown as the French Quarter, it does have a neighborhood that is referred to as Uptown. Also, while Washington D.C. has a downtown, it refers to its uptown as Northwest. There are several uptowns that are well known in Canada, including Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.[viii]

  1. Media References

Since downtowns and uptowns are very common in major urban centers, it is no surprise that they are both found heavily in the media, again more so for downtown than uptown. This includes music, television, and film. Some of the more popular references for downtown include Downton Abbey, which is a contemporary British television series, and Downtown Train, a 1985 song by Tom Waits.[ix] The word uptown has fewer references in the media; however, the most common one, a song from Billy Joel called Uptown Girl, is incredibly well-known.[x]


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References :


[0][i] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[1][ii] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[2][iii] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[3][iv] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[4][v] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[5][vi] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[6][vii] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[7][viii] Uptown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uptown

[8][ix] Downtown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downtown

[9][x] Uptown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uptown

[10][x] Uptown. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uptown

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