I owe Alan Ehrenhalt a huge apology.
Ehrenhalt is a contributing senior editor for Governing Magazine, and previously served for 19 years as the magazine’s executive editor. In addition to his editing work for Governing, he’s had a busy career as a fellow, visiting scholar or adjunct at Harvard, Cal-Berkeley, the University of Richmond and the University of Maryland. He’s also the author of four books: The United States of Ambition, The Lost City, and Democracy in the Mirror were his first three. His most recent book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, published in 2012, is at the heart of this apology.
The Great Inversion is a book I had intended to read upon first hearing of it. I was intrigued by its premise. I had seen it in bookstores, read reviews — and then summarily forgot about it. I had not forgotten about its themes, however, and they spurred me into investigative mode to identify the trends behind a growing phenomenon.
Readers may have noticed that in recent posts I’ve documented some startling demographic trends within metro areas that fit with general perceptions I had regarding cities going back five years or so. I recently attempted to put those data findings into a broader context, and even tried to come up with a catchy phrase — the Great Exchange — to describe the phenomenon.
Nope. Ehrenhalt has already covered this territory. He did it first, and he’s done it well.
A commenter on the blog mentioned that my thesis was similar to Ehrenhalt’s in The Great Inversion, and I realized right away that I could not claim any sort of prescience on the idea. I then grabbed a copy of the book from my local library and read it over the last couple days. Ehrenhalt establishes his thesis early on by focusing on demographic changes in Chicago between the late ’70s and now:
“In the years since 1979, Chicago has undergone changes that are routinely described as gentrification, but in fact are more complicated and profound than that. A better term is “demographic inversion.” Gentrification refers to the changes that happen in an individual neighborhood, usually the replacement of poorer minority residents by more affluent white ones. Demographic inversion is something much broader. It is the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place at roughly the same time.
Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city — Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center are those, some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white, who can afford to do so.”
Ehrenhalt acknowledges that the phenomenon can have a racial element as he discusses how it plays out in Atlanta and Washington, DC:
“Atlanta, for example, has long been overwhelmingly black, but between 2000 and 2010, according to census figures, the percentage of African Americans within the city fell from 61 percent to 54 percent; in 2009, the city came within a few hundred votes of electing a white Republican mayor. Within a few years, demographers agree, blacks will be a minority there. This is happening in part because the white middle class is moving inside the city borders, but it has more to do with blacks moving out. In the past two decades alone, two of Atlanta’s huge suburban counties, Clayton and DeKalb, acquired substantial black majorities, and immigrants arriving from foreign countries began settling in overwhelming proportions in suburban counties, not within the city itself. The numbers for Washington, D.C. are strikingly similar to those of Atlanta. Washington, once roughly 70 percent African American, is now barely 50 percent African American.”
Again, emphasis added.
Ehrenhalt nailed this, going on five years ago.
He goes on to describe the life and living patterns of 19th century Paris, London and Vienna, and how, through different means, the affluent came to inhabit city centers and the poor and working classes settled on the outskirts. In Paris and Vienna, design played a leading role in attracting affluent residents; Baron Haussmann’s grand design to reshape 19th century Paris with beautiful boulevards led to affluent settlement, while Vienna’s Ringstrasse ring road that replaced the city’s walls created a dividing line between the affluent and working classes (incidentally, an argument could be made that Chicago’s boulevard system that encircles several of the city’s innermost neighborhoods is its version of the Ringstrasse). In London, a rigid class structure that separated affluent residents from the working classes led to a more diffuse yet bifurcated inversion pattern that is perhaps more similar to current U.S. metro areas.
Ehrenhalt then goes on to describe the demographic inversion process in nine American cities: Chicago, New York, Houston, Phoenix, Washington, Atlanta, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Denver. The process is not taking place at the same pace in every city, and the local and regional economies and policy responses are creating some slightly different outcomes. Cities like New York and Chicago have been at the forefront of the phenomenon and are seeking ways to mitigate its negative impacts. Some cities, like Phoenix, wish to create a vibrant city center that serves as an anchor for its own inversion. Others, like Atlanta and Denver, are trying to lead the way in the development of more urban, walkable and dense suburban town centers. Whatever the response, Ehrenhalt shows that the phenomenon is not only regional or national, but global — cities in Central and South America have long been known for having glittering city centers surrounded by outlying poverty, and developing nations in Asia and Africa increasingly exhibit the same characteristics.
Ehrenhalt takes great pains to note that in mature nations like the U.S., the transformation is not one that is a complete overhaul of metropolitan areas. It is gradual, incremental, and long term. The slow process leaves plenty of room for argument between ardent urbanists and suburban supporters, who can each find data points to advance their view. Much like past and current debates about climate change, we won’t all agree that it’s real until it’s actually here. But it is coming.
So I want to acknowledge that Ehrenhalt noted this trend some time ago, and if I came across as trying to be the prophet, I am quite clearly the disciple here. If there is any contribution I made to this debate it is in finding and writing about the data that shows the trend, and perhaps how it is moving onward from our first-tier large cities to second-tier and even third-tier cities.
Now let’s focus on the implications and what, if any, policy responses are necessary.