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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?

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From there, the great inversion is not so ... great.

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The Bushwick section of Brooklyn, for example. Long synonymous with grim poverty, gangs, and drug dealers, it is today a happening bedroom community for New York’s young artists. Be that as it may, there are still “long, dreary blocks lined with abandoned textile factories and large strips of vacant land.” Cheap, yes, lively, sure, but still uglier than a stump full of spiders. Philadelphia is another not-exactly-there-yet city that Ehrenhalt examines. Yes, Philly has an elegant central core along Walnut Street with “a lunchtime pedestrian count of more than two thousand a day,” but it also has more violent crimes per capita than any of the other 10 largest cities in America, and, according to the Brookings Institute, “the largest proportion of abandoned properties, 36.5 for every one thousand residential units.” Not exactly an American Vienna.

Ehrenhalt shows us the suburban side of the story in Gwinnett County, Georgia, a suburb outside Atlanta. This was once a rural expanse of 437 acres, and today the quintessence of our “suburban immigrant nation.” There’s even a new Taj Mahal there, called Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushoram Swaminarayan Sanstha temple (BAPS for short), situated next to a Walgreens in Lilburn, Ga. Gwinnett used to have great football teams, but with the influx of Asian immigrants, its highest scores are now recorded on the SATs. The demographic is split right down the middle 50/50 white to non-white.

Then there are, to use Ehrenhalt’s own analogy, the Pinocchios:

Phoenix, is a central-coreless sprawlscape that is trying its hardest to make itself over into an urban center, and though they are investing heavily in miles of transit lines and new centers of urbanity, their plan at present is to build nine urban centers. Nine! And Denver, which has emerged as the “capital of the suburban town center phenomenon,” has converted an unused airport ten minutes from the city’s downtown into a new urban experiment in the retrofitting of suburban America with shops and residents all in one. So much for Haussmann’s 1860s Paris.

"The Great Inversion" is an enjoyable and engaging read, especially for those considering a move back to the city. It is solidly researched with great questions asked and plenty of hard facts and anecdotal answers provided. And though Ehrenhalt manages to keep his objectivity throughout most of the book, at the very end he reveals himself to be a cockeyed Eur-optimist to wit, “[people] are settling in cities – those who have a choice – in large part to experience the things that citizens of Paris and Vienna experienced a century ago: round the clock street life; café sociability; casual acquaintances they meet on the sidewalk every day; merchants who recognize them. This is the direction I think we are heading in.” His research certainly bears out some of this opinion; however, he might want to make note of the fact that McDonald’s and Walmart announced record profits in 2010 and GM did the same in 2011. Vive Les États-Unis

Richard Horan is a novelist and the author of "Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton."  His latest work, "Harvest: A Picaresque Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms," is due out this summer from Harper Collins

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