The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
(Knopf, April 2012)
Alan Ehrenhalt does not like the word “gentrification.” That it is fraught with political meanings, that it is charged with racial overtones, and that it, itself, is enough to make urbanologists and city planners instinctively reach for their hypertension meds—these are distinctively not his concerns. For Ehrenhalt, a journalist and scholar of urban development, “gentrification” is “too small” a term.
Perhaps he is right. After all, the world’s population is in motion. American security contractors are moving from Mogadishu to Mongolia. Chinese university students are flooding into Delaware. Young Vietnamese women are trading Ho Chi Minh City for the rural life of southwestern South Korea. Bosnians are settling en masse around the suburbs east of Portland. Given global demographic shifts of unprecedented scale, Ehrenhalt is apt to assert that perhaps something larger than gentrification is changing America’s cities.
To understand Ehrenhalt’s theory of demographic inversion, look no farther than Wall Street. “It’s not absolutely clear why people wouldn’t find Wall Street a decent place to live, but for nearly 200 years, virtually no one did.” Actually, more people lived in the financial district in 1800 than did in 1970. And then, the great inversion. Housing codes in 1996 made it more commercially attractive to convert office space into living space. 9/11 drove businesses out of the area. People moved in. As Ehrenhalt puts it, “The strollers have reached Wall Street, and they are not leaving.”
But city-centric renewal is only half of what he’s getting at. Yes, Walnut Street, Philadelphia and U Street, Washington, D.C. are attracting more and more residents. However, the urbanization of suburban centers—strides taken to create more walkable, open-air commercial districts—should not be left out. “The roles of cities and suburbs will not only change but will very nearly reverse themselves.” In places like The Woodlands, Texas, and Kentlands, Maryland, walkable urbanized suburbia has become the project. Parking lots are rearranged as sidewalks, parks, and new condominiums are jumbled closer together. To Ehrenhalt, this is “ersatz urbanism.”
And just what will happen to your suburban cul-de-sac? Look at today’s Paris or Vienna. Deindustrialization in outer suburbs, along with inconvenient transportation and high unemployment, has taken a toll on new residents, often immigrants. Suburban slums all over Europe offer one potential, dystopian future. Christopher Leinberger of Brookings thinks, “today’s tract homes in the far suburbs will deteriorate into the slums of 2030.” Even Ehrenhalt—who generally subscribes to an optimistic stance—worries about the cities that will, inevitably, be unable to offer the jobs necessary for urban renewal. Chicago and New York have already undergone productive regenerative exercise. Detroit has not. Philadelphia is somewhere in the middle.
The Great Inversion is a quick, relatively pleasant read for all of its warnings. Ehrenhalt argues that demographic inversion “ultimately will do more good than harm.” But urban good is a dicey subject—in whose interest are these creative destructions, like the demolition of historic areas in Houston’s black neighborhoods? The great vision of this book subscribes to Jane Jacobs’s version of community vitality. Jacobs proffered conviviality as the target in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961. For Raymond Williams in 1973, this might have meant “the press and excitement of so many people, with so many purposes.” For Jacobs, Greenwich Village’s Hudson Street was the great exemplar for urban planning. For Ehrenhalt, other touchstones exist.
“Chicago in 2030 will look more like the Paris of 1910 than like the Detroit of 1970.” Vienna’s bounded center city and Ringstrasse of the early 20th century is another model. The Great Inversion wants for American cities of the future what Vienna had a century ago.
Ehrenhalt worries about the influence of technology on the new urbanism. Might millennials seek to live in extremely close proximity to one another merely to callously imitate the geniality of earlier times? Might we end up tweeting at each other from our own insular cul-de-sacs? Finding some comfort amidst these fears, Ehrenhalt concludes, “The 23-year-old student glued to a laptop computer in a corner café in a Chicago neighborhood like Sheffield should not be seen as too different from the Viennese reading his newspaper in a café on Vienna’s Ringstraße in 1910. He remains a social animal.”