Book Review: The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City

Alan Ehrenhalt

Review by: H. Blount Hunter

The Great Inversion looks at a broad social change—often called “gentrification” at the neighborhood level—that could redefine the urban landscape in the U.S. Alan Ehrenhalt describes the movement of affluent, creative people from suburbia into central cities as a broad-based trend that is causing American cities to more closely resemble traditional European cities and great cities around the world. IDA members will be able to relate to Ehrenhalt’s central premise through his references to Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Washington, DC and other cities.

The “inversion” is attributed to several factors including the deindustrialization of the central city, a sustained reduction in violent urban street crime, rising energy prices, the shifting age profile of the U.S. population, changes in family composition (especially the increase in people who choose to remain single and growth in the number of couples who opt not to have children), and success of BIDS and downtown organizations in creating lively, desirable places for people to socialize. Because this trend is simultaneously occurring in so many cities, Ehrenhalt distinguishes it from localized gentrification.

“What would an American city in the full grip of demographic inversion actually look like? In one plausible scenario, like many of the European capitals of the 1980s: an affluent and stylish urban core surrounded by poorer people and an immigrant working class on the periphery.” As an example, the demographic rearrangement of Chicago has resulted in a metropolitan area that is considerably different than it was just 20 years ago.

Suburbanization of America following World War II caused cities to lose their street life. Ironically, suburbia is almost uniformly criticized for its lack of street life. Coffee shops, outdoor cafes, street festivals, re-envisioned parks, and a variety of entertainment options have restored street life in many urban centers. “People with widely different backgrounds and modes of living come together on the sidewalks of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and a growing number of other cities in ways that would have been unthinkable in 1980. American cities are also returning to diversity of use.”

The inversion also portends changes in suburbs. The outer suburban fringes of many major U.S. metropolitan areas are attracting immigrants seeking reasonable housing costs in close proximity to service jobs and other entry level employment. These suburban areas mirror the European suburbs of 150 years ago. Inner suburbs are “caught in the middle” and often represent highly diverse populations with income characteristics that reflect the quality of the housing stock (or lack thereof).

Ehrenhalt states “It is now possible to live in relative comfort in the middle of most of the big cities in America. This may mean doing without a few of the amenities that many middle-class adults like to have, such as a drugstore or grocery store within walking distance, but for others the convenience of walking or taking other quick transportation to restaurants, entertainment, and downtown jobs is a sufficient benefit.” But, the author continues, “People do not move to the center of cities merely to be able to get to and from work a quarter of an hour faster. They 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. This is the direction I think we are headed in.”

The Great Inversion is recommended to IDA’s members as a thoughtful examination of a trend that is already transforming the geography and social forces of major metropolitan areas including Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York. BID staffers and downtown boosters will appreciate the author’s praise for recreating lively central cities that have the power to attract people who are seeking a place to enjoy or live that fulfills their lifestyle needs. Great central cities provide an element of choice for those who appreciate their unique attributes.

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