The Great Inversion and
the Future of the American City
By Alan Ehrenhalt
Knopf, 288 pages
New York was once the town of the tenement. Later, Chicago became home to endless “vertical ghettos”—housing projects that were a ferment of malice and misery. Since well before World War II, inner cities have repelled millions of prosperous families, first to fashionable districts set apart from the grime and crime, and ultimately to the safety of the suburbs that have defined the American landscape for more than a half century.
But in the space of two short decades, the laws of urban physics have changed: Prosperous urbanites stopped fleeing the city core. Their universe ceased to expand. Gravity asserted itself and has again drawn in an affluent class that is remaking and restoring the inner city.
This shift is the subject of Alan Ehrenhalt’s fascinating new book, The Great Inversion, which finds that American cities are doing a very un-American thing: reshaping themselves in the mold of European capitals, where the privileged live in the city center, orbited by rings of immigrants and other strivers in the poorer suburbs. The American dream has been turned inside out; the suburbs are starting to look like a step down.
Ehrenhalt begins his brief volume in the glittering Paris and Vienna of the mid-19th century, which fashioned a “raucous street life” in their boulevards and bustling cafés. Outside the center lay ugly and unsanitary suburbs, where immigrants and laborers chipped away at making a living. But in the humming city vortex, every sleepless hour was an opportunity for public display. As one Parisian critic wrote in 1862: “We like to pose, to put on a show, to have an audience, a gallery, witnesses to our life.”
That wasn’t quite the speed of things on the lower tip of Manhattan in 1970, where that year’s census found only 833 residents, barely one-thirtieth of the downtown population of 1800. Wall Street employed some of New York’s richest citizens, but by the close of business every day, they skittered uptown to fancier digs and left the Financial District a ghost town. “It’s not absolutely clear why people wouldn’t find Wall Street a decent place to live,” Ehrenhalt writes, “but for nearly 200 years, virtually no one did.”
A Rip Van Winkle of our time, having fallen asleep at the intersection of Wall and William Streets in 1972 and awakened 40 years later, would be agog. Offices that emptied out on 9/11 have been converted to apartments, residential towers have sprouted up, and elementary schools are full to overflowing. “By 2007, every building on the south side of Wall Street, with the sole exception of the New York Stock Exchange, had become a residence.” Life returned to a corner of the city that was once desolate by the afternoon, and the population has swollen to about 50,000 people. “The strollers have reached Wall Street,” Ehrenhalt contends, “and they are not leaving.”
In the Second City, factories that once made urban life unpleasant have been shuttered and the vertical ghettos replaced by “high-rise villages.” Well-heeled newcomers are no longer gilding the Gold Coast and are instead creeping north and west of downtown, adding another hue to neighborhoods such as Sheffield, a gang stronghold as recently as the 1970s. This influx has unleashed Chicago’s most profound demographic shift: the collapse of its black population, down 177,000 in the last decade. Enter a new kind of racial friction, spelled with a capital G.
Gentrification has become a dirty word, but that is not why Ehrenhalt, a veteran Washington journalist and author of an acclaimed urban elegy published in 1995, The Lost City, shuns it. “What is happening in American cities…is a much larger force than the coming of ‘gentry’ into previously dilapidated neighborhoods,” he writes. “We are witnessing a rearrangement of population across entire metropolitan areas. Gentrification is too small a word for it.”
Which brings us to the suburbs. To Atlanta’s northeast lies rural Gwinnett County, which was 90 percent white in 1990, a homogeneous middle-class enclave of cul-de-sacs and two-car garages. Today, it is a majority-minority community. Macy’s has been replaced by an Asian Mega Mart. And every Sunday, a single church in tiny Lilburn holds services in English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Haitian, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Ethiopian. Just 4 percent of foreign-born newcomers to Atlanta are settling in the city proper—the rest are going suburban. And while Gwinnett is a singular example, “suburbs all over America are moving in the same direction.”
It’s not as though cities have ceased to draw immigrants, but they’re being beaten at their own game: In 2005, about 4.4 million immigrants moved to U.S. suburbs and only 2.8 million moved to cities. Instead of landing in cities and moving out when they prosper, immigrants are setting up far from downtown in areas where it’s cheaper to live and work. The old model that was the bedrock of Baby Boom America is being upended.
And upended in more ways than one. Places such as Brooklyn have gentrified in the usual way: waves of white newcomers following other white pioneers. But in Arlington, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington, there’s been a revival in reverse. Arlington’s commercial district was a wasteland of empty shops and storefronts in 1980, uninviting to most everyone except a cluster of Vietnamese refugees and other immigrants who jumped at the chance to spend less on rent and set up shop there. Their restaurants and stores, along with easy access on the Metro, proved an unstoppable draw. Affluent whites have moved in, no surprise, but the twist is that it took a baseline of poor immigrants to bring them there.
Yet there’s an important caveat to all this talk of upheaval: The numbers aren’t really there to support it. “We are not witnessing the abandonment of the suburbs, or a movement of millions of people back to the city all at once,” Ehrenhalt admits. As compelling as Ehrenhalt’s book is, some of his argument rests on anecdote. The fact is, the inversion stalled during the recession, and despite all he describes, in the last decade more people moved to the suburbs than downtown.
But some of this stalling is occurring by design—and here comes that G-word again. Houston has yet to attract many residents to its downtown, even though 140,000 workers waste their time and gas money commuting from the city’s outer reaches. Its historically black (and now mostly abandoned) Third Ward is closer in and primed for development, but few new folks are moving in. That has very little to do with the recession and everything to do with Garnet Coleman, a powerful and canny state representative determined to block gentrification by blacks, whites, or any humans with padded bank accounts.
Coleman seems positively chilled by signs his ward is getting safer—any evidence of a yuppie invasion makes him queasy. So he’s been using city investment boards to buy up land and prevent the ward from being developed. The result: The Third Ward remains desolate, but Coleman has succeeded in preventing a reprise of the bulldozing of Houston’s long-black Fourth Ward, which was essentially obliterated and resettled in the 1990s. Coleman seems to embody the tug-of-war over urban racial makeup in Houston and beyond. As Ehrenhalt says, “there is no one quite like him in any inner-city neighborhood in America.” So much the better.
Other cities are held back by their own circumstances. Philadelphia’s downtown has been completely revived, but the rest of the city remains beset by crumbling housing and high crime rates. It is a queer animal, “a fashionable center surrounded on two of its four sides by a periphery of seemingly endless poverty…a pleasant playground that might as well have a medieval moat around it.” Not so different from those glittering European capitals, now that you mention it.
So why do some cities prosper? And why are the affluent returning? There’s no magic formula for success, but Ehrenhalt argues that the key is the “thirst for urban life among the millennial generation,” a desire for those bustling boulevards, and for shorter and cheaper commutes as well. Many Americans are seeking escape from cul-de-sac suburbia, which cuts off “not only streets, but diversity and the casual outdoor life they feel is crucial.”
The yuppies may have visions of Jane Jacobs dancing in their heads, and Ehrenhalt is mostly optimistic—sometimes bafflingly so—that American cities will live up to their fantasies and retain the values that traditional urbanists like Jacobs have always considered essential (as in the community ties and casual sociability of her beloved West Village). Ehrenhalt may be right that “choice is what the urbanism of the next generation is all about,” but he frustratingly ignores what is perhaps their defining “choice”: They’re opting to live alone.
That is, he pays no heed to another great inversion, one that NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg has called the most important demographic shift since World War II. In 1950, just 4 million American adults lived alone, a mere 9 percent of households. Today, 31 million adults live alone, some 28 percent of households. The numbers are far higher in the city; more than half of Manhattanites are going solo. And this effect can be intensified by the Internet, which was never present as a distraction or as an introvert’s solace when Jane Jacobs was around.
So it’s hard to accept Ehrenhalt’s contention that the Internet addict glued to a laptop in a Chicago café is not so different from his predecessors in Paris and Vienna. “He remains a social animal,” sure. But much of his social landscape is built online, not on the street or in the city itself. City dwellers still desire “an audience, a gallery, witnesses to our life,” but today these witnesses are far-flung, invisible, and very often emotionally absent. If the solitude that they are choosing while young becomes a lifelong condition, this is a problem that the physical closeness of the city cannot resolve.