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THE GREAT INVERSION AND THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN CITY
By Alan Ehrenhalt
Ever since the surge in crime that began in the 1960s, cosmopolitan Americans have been on a quest for urbanity, looking for a metropolitan culture that had been lost to social breakdown. They sought safety in the suburbs or in urban enclaves, but they were forced to give up the civic spaces, parks, boulevards and bustling street life that had made cities so stimulating in the past. Alan Ehrenhalt’s 1995 book, “The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s,” subtly evaluated all that had been forsaken.
Ehrenhalt’s new book, “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City,” moves in the opposite direction. It is a progress report of sorts on the reclamation of public space and the “rearrangement of living patterns” that are now taking place. Cities organized around manufacturing may have gone through difficult decades, he says, but while they lost middle-class industrial jobs, they are now becoming centers of postindustrial upscale living. “The late 20th century,” he writes, “was the age of poor inner cities and wealthy suburbs; the 21st century is emerging as an age of affluent inner neighborhoods and immigrants settling on the outside.”
The title of his book refers to both the growth of downtown living in once forbidding neighborhoods and, contrary to expectations, the movement of immigrants into the suburbs. Cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, he argues, are “gradually coming to resemble” European cities like Vienna or Paris in the 19th century, when the well-to-do lived in the center city and the working classes lived in the suburban rings around the downtown.
And according to Ehrenhalt, today it’s not even necessary to move downtown to achieve a sense of urbanity. He’s right, although he doesn’t cite the specifics. New shopping areas like the Glen in suburban Chicago have been built to suggest the feel of an old city center. Similarly, older suburban downtowns in Highland Park, Ill.; Downingtown, Pa.; and Westfield, N.J., have built on their architecture to create thriving districts with chic restaurants, cafes and boutiques. “Much of suburbia,” he argues, “will seek to reinvent itself in a newly urbanized mode.”
Ehrenhalt is most persuasive when describing the texture and feel of gentrifying neighborhoods. “The young and hip” are drawn to Brooklyn’s grim Bushwick, with its decaying manufacturing sites and dilapidated housing, by low rents and people of similar tastes. “Art fairs in Bushwick . . . look for all the world like celebrations designed to shock conservative sensibilities, except that there is scarcely anyone with such sensibilities around to be shocked. These are in reality projects through which a small coterie of local artists seek to display their sheer edginess to one another.”
Admittedly, it’s not all success stories. As Ehrenhalt reports, despite more than a billion dollars in subsidies, Phoenix, with its large overhang of new but empty condos, has largely failed to build a vibrant city center. If downtown Phoenix has a future, he argues, it’s because Arizona State University is expanding in what was supposed to become a commercial and residential hub.
Charlotte, N.C., has attracted dozens of restaurants to its downtown but, despite considerable effort, virtually no retail establishments. Perhaps that’s because, as Ehrenhalt says, “Charlotte, for all the local excitement it generated about upscale in-town living, still has no more than 12,000 residents downtown.”
Ehrenhalt has a hard time explaining what the successes of the new urbanism add up to, though he refers to the writings of Joel Kotkin, whom he describes as “perhaps the most prominent of the downtown debunkers.” Kotkin has claimed, on the basis of census data, that the downtown revival Ehrenhalt applauds is merely a niche phenomenon. It is confined, Kotkin says, largely to singles, childless couples, wealthy empty nesters and recently graduated students transitioning to a delayed adulthood.
This argument shadows Ehrenhalt throughout his book. With Kotkin seemingly in mind, he repeatedly qualifies his conclusions.
“It is true,” Ehrenhalt acknowledges, “that the return to the urban center has up to now been modest in absolute numbers.” In recent years, he goes on, “more people still moved to the suburbs than moved downtown.” But “more,” he insists, doesn’t capture what is happening. It may be true that over the last decade, 91 percent of metro area population growth has been in the suburbs, but Ehrenhalt is making a qualitative case, not a quantitative one. “The importance of the movement” into downtowns, he asserts, “rests on the character of the new population group rather than on its size.” But with that statement, he gets to the heart of what has actually been going on.
The new urban high-end living depicted in “The Great Inversion” represents part of a larger social sorting and class stratification that has accompanied the relative decline of the American middle class. Ehrenhalt writes of “Gazillionaires Row” in Sheffield, a revived Chicago neighborhood not far from the Loop that’s thriving. But this new wealth isn’t producing new private-sector middle-class jobs. The largest employer in Chicago is the federal government, followed by the public school system. Other major employers are the City of Chicago itself, the Chicago Transit Authority, the Cook County government and the Chicago Park District.Meanwhile, new private-sector jobs are coming mainly from servicing the expanding urban class and the wealthy. In Philadelphia, Ehrenhalt rightly describes the vitality of Center City, but notes that just a few blocks away in neighborhoods like Kensington the squalor and violence are overwhelming.
Even the successful cities have become top and bottom affairs. For all its new glitter, Chicago, bedeviled by the cost of public-sector pensions, is flirting with bankruptcy. It has lost 150,000 jobs over the last two decades. In order to meet current payrolls, it has been forced to lease its Skyway toll road for 99 years and its parking meters for the next 75. The upshot, notes Aaron Renn, who has written extensively on Chicago, is that the city’s meld of high taxes and low-quality services has pushed the region’s black and white middle-class families into the exurbs, where they bear the burden of high gasoline costs but avoid paying for Chicago’s huge public sector.
Philadelphia is in an even more perilous condition. As with Chicago, the downtown is well policed, but crime is rampant immediately adjacent to the core. Burdened by a wage tax levied on every job, it has a very low jobs-to-residents ratio, and the largest number of abandoned homes per 1,000 residential units in the country. Philadelphia hasn’t sold its parking meters yet, but it has tried to force bloggers to pay a licensing fee. Like Chicago, it is in economic thrall to an alliance of machine politicians and public-sector unions that show no signs of releasing their expensive grip.
Ehrenhalt writes that while the great recession has temporarily frozen people in place, thus stalling the return to the cities, the long-term trends — like the rise of childless individuals living alone — bode well for the future of the new downtowns. Maybe. The quest for urbanity will no doubt continue among those who can afford to pay for private policing and private schools. But so far, for all the upbeat articles on the clustering of “the creative class” and the very wealthy in the new downtowns of Chicago and Philadelphia, millions in the private-sector middle class continue to head for the exits.
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