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?

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

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....”

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.”

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

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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