s people with means retire to Sag Harbor, the Hudson Valley, Martha’s Vineyard, the Outer Banks or any other semi-to-fully-rural retreat in the summer months, it is possible to forget that humankind’s greatest achievement is not some seaside town with quaint stores and large cottages resting on an acre or more of land; it is the city. From Memphis, Babylon and Rome in the ancient world to Shanghai, New York and Paris just before World War II, cities, and their immediately adjacent neighbors known as the inner suburbs, have been the engines of human ingenuity, and the desired locale of both the rich and the poor for most of human history. In post war America, and the rest of the developed world, the ubiquity of the automobile gave birth to the distant suburb (sometimes called exurbs) which was supposed to doom the great metropolises of the nation to irrelevance and eventual death. As Alan Ehrenhalt convincingly argues in The Great Inversion And The Future of the American City (Knopf 2012), the metaphorical funeral mass performed from the largest American cities were not only premature, but (for the most part) unnecessary.
Detroit has most likely gone the way of Sparta and Timbuktu, once great cities that after a few centuries of prominence became a shadow of their former selves. The Motor City, according to The Great Inversion, is the exception, however. From coast to coast, Ehrenhalt sees the revival of regional capitals that sprang to the forefront of the nation prior the Second World War. Affluent White Americans (upper middle class to wealthy empty nesters, college educated young people, professionals who have yet to marry, or when they do, decline to have children) are fueling the urban renaissance. Both Chicago and New York, the two cities most associated with great migration of southern African-Americans to the urban north which was superbly discussed in The Warmth of Other Suns, saw a decline in their Black population over the last ten years, but a rise in their native born White residents. The same is true of that 1990s urban magnet which films like Menace II Society and media outlets like the New York Times deemed the post-Harlem Black Mecca: Atlanta, GA.
As middle-class Black Americans have voluntarily decamped from cities, White Americans have rediscovered them (their ancestor having generally left only one or two generations earlier). The new urbanites are not just flocking to Chicago’s Gold Coast or New York’s Upper East Side. They are taking up residence in Houston’s Fourth Ward, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Bushwick districts, Cleveland’s Cleveland Heights, and Chicago’s Sheffield. These were weak working class neighborhoods at best a generation ago, and many were areas generally described as slums or ghettos. Now they are, or in the process of becoming, trendy residential areas full of higher incomes, rising property values, amenities such as bars, restaurants, banks, retail shopping, and lots of pedestrian traffic during the day and night. When the demographics of a single neighborhood changes in favor of the economically viable it is called gentrification. When gentrification happens in multiple neighborhoods in multiple cities all across the nation, it is called inversion.
To Ehrenhalt’s credit, he does not pass moral judgment on the process. With clear prose that is both informative and entertaining, he objectively states the facts (and presents a great number of voices from immigrant businessmen and local civil servants to politicians from elite African-American families and developers), leaving his readers free to render their own verdict. Unfortunately, his failure to discuss in detail what happens to the poor residents, usually Blacks and Latinos, displaced by the influx of wealthy Whites in what have traditionally been minority inner-city neighborhoods gives the overall impression that the inversion taking place is mostly an unmitigated success for cities and their denizens. A stronger book would have talked about the economic effects on poor people forced to move further from the city center (higher transportation cost, less opportunities to find work near their home as business relocate to the cities, physical separation from the public and private institutions that assist them) and their impact on their new communities, often outside the city limits. The closest Ehrenhalt comes to contemplating these issues at any length is when he presents Texas state representative Garnet Coleman’s novel approach of halting gentrification of Houston’s Third Ward using state funds.
While much of what The Great Inversion summarizes and fails to discuss has already been covered in other works on the topic, Ehrenhalt introduces a new twist to the study of America’s re-urbanization when he discusses the fate of the far flung locals created by a mixture of cheap gas, inexpensive automobiles and the creation of the post-war highway system in the 1950s. His message, with evidence to support it, is clear: suburbs can survive, and even thrive in the aftermath of, the great inversion if they can attract one crucial element: immigrants. With the cost of living in cities rising, not only are the poor within their borders being displaced, but most new arrivals to the U.S. are also unable to afford a place in what has historically been the entry point for immigrants coming to America. They now settle outside of the urban core, sometimes more than thirty to forty miles from the downtown area of a major city. Employing Gwinnett County in Georgia, and Clarendon, the economic center of Arlington County, Virginia, Ehrenhalt shows how suburbs that are able to attract a healthy number of immigrants with access to capital and/or entrepreneurial skills, can become engines of economic development even as they lose the affluent native White families for whom they were built.
Yet, it is true, that not all suburbs are created equal. Those with strong transportation links and enough jobs to initially attract the attention of educated immigrants generally do better than those whose local economies are sputtering and only accessible by car. Those with strong public school systems are better positioned than those with failing educational facilities. Those with a more tolerant, call it cosmopolitan, attitude have a better shot at appealing to the skill rich, ambitious immigrant over those that are provincial in their outlook. The last maxim applies to cities as well. Failure to attract immigrants due to its not so covert hostility to them in the recent past is one of the reasons Ehrenhalt believes Philadelphia has faired much worse than places like New York, Boston and even Pittsburg in it attempts at revitalization.
The Great Inversion and the United Nations agree; the world is becoming more urban by the day. Those with the means, and/or the desire, to better their economic situation and enjoy the spontaneous social interacts that many believe are the essence of a human existence are flocking to metropolises, or the closest thing they can find to them, all over Africa, Asia and Latin America. The United States is no different. The best and the brightest of all stripes are finding their way to cities, and due to historic patterns of discrimination and continuing economic as well as racial inequality, making them more affluent, educated and White in the process while the suburbs are becoming the home of a more diverse population with a greater range of economic viability.