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The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City

From Brooklyn to Philly to Houston: Is the American city of today becoming more like Paris?

By Richard Horan / April 23, 2012

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City By Alan Ehrenhalt Knopf Doubleday 288 pp.

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It used to be that as Americans moved up the ladder, they moved farther away from the city. Not anymore. According to political scientist, Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, they’re flocking back in droves these days. For example, at the time of 9/11 there were 15,000 people living south of the World Trade Center. By 2007 there were 50,000. “The strollers have reached Wall Street…. Take a walk down there some Saturday and you will see for yourself.” In other words, our manifest destiny is no longer toward wider open spaces and bigger homes; it’s more like a refrain from the famous Petula Clark song:  “Downtown, things’ll be great when you’re Downtown....”

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Inspired by his hero, the grass-roots activist and urban planner, Jane Jacobs, Ehrenhalt, walked around many of America’s big cities over the past 10 years – Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix – trying to understand how they were changing. What he discovered was a “radical rearrangement in which people who possessed money and choice were increasingly living in the center, while newcomers and the poor were settling in the suburbs, often in the outer reaches of suburban territory. In short, many American metropolitan areas were coming to look more like the European cities of a century ago....” This cultural phenomenon, unobserved and underreported, convinced Ehrenhalt that American society was, in fact, demographically inverting right under our noses, hence the term “demographic inversion” (as opposed to “gentrification”).

With a “quick glance backwards,” Ehrenhalt offers up Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s redesigned Paris of the 1860s (with a few references to fin de siècle Vienna) as the paradigmatic city, with its percolating street life acting as “a theatre for living,” and, in Ehrenhalt’s mind, “what the “millions of people with substantial earning power or ample savings ... are moving toward” in the future.  

Then starting with Sheffield, a neighborhood three miles north of downtown Chicago as a prime example of this great demographic inversion, Ehrenhalt takes his reader on a tour of the changing American cityscape, pointing out the salient features that have given rise to the transformation of this once shabby, working class neighborhood into one of cosmopolitan chic: the proximity to downtown Chicago, the mass transit station, the nearby university, the charming Victorian cottages, and the commercial corridor. And that’s just Sheffield. Chicago’s entire Loop (five miles north and south of downtown, and a mile from Lake Michigan) exploded by 48% in just seven years between 2000 and 2007.

Ehrenhalt cites a few other near-center, arrondissements that have similarly burgeoned over the past decade, namely Portland, Ore.; and Clarendon, Va., eight miles due west of D.C. He implies but does not come right out and say that the linchpins for their success are three-fold: 1) jobs 2) readily accessible light-rail transit, and 3) charm, which – in James Kunzler’s words from "Home From Nowhere," a similarly themed endeavor – “promotes the intersection of relationships and invites one set of patterns to interact with other patterns, including the complex patterns of individual human minds.”

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