Demographic churn is changing the nature and definition of cities and suburbs. We need policies that keep up with those changes.
If you live in a metropolitan area that has adapted well to the post-industrial economy, you have almost certainly noticed a few changes in recent years: high-rise luxury apartment buildings going up downtown, abandoned factories being converted into live/work loft spaces, decayed urban neighborhoods becoming overrun with yuppies. But this is not just the same old gentrification story, going back to the 1970s, of low-income urban neighborhoods with attractive building stock being discovered by artists and, after them, white-collar professionals. New residential buildings are going up in office-only areas that not so long ago turned into ghost towns at night. And it isn’t just happening in the handful of artistic and cultural meccas like New York and San Francisco. Cities from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Houston, Texas, are seeing, and helping, young professionals reinvent their downtowns.
The changes are also occurring beyond city limits. If you live in the suburbs, you may have noticed a totally different demographic trend: the diversifying of suburbia. Maybe it’s the Vietnamese nail salons and pho joints that have filled up the old suburban strip malls, or the sudden emergence of Latino pedestrians walking home along busy roads or congregating in convenience store parking lots. Immigrants and minorities, from the working poor to the affluent, are arriving in suburbia. Some are following job opportunities that have been dispersed around the urban perimeter. Others are priced out of the city. Many are seeking the same virtues—space, good schools, low crime—that drove whites to suburbs throughout the twentieth century.
Alan Ehrenhalt’s new book ties these threads into one common phenomenon that he calls demographic inversion. Our metropolitan areas, he argues in The Great Inversion, are being turned inside out, with the wealthier white people living in the cities, while those who aspire to be the first generation in their family to achieve the American Dream—frequently immigrants and African Americans—move to the suburbs. Ehrenhalt argues that this constitutes a return to form for the modern metropolis, pointing to nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna as cities that invented the template. Major cities in developing countries, such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, already fit this mold. In fact, the United States, with the poor in cities and the wealthy in suburbs, has largely been a global exception. But that is ending. “The roles of cities and suburbs will not only change but will very nearly reverse themselves,” he predicts, in about 20 years’ time.
What exactly is different between the gentrification of a generation ago and today’s changes? Now the protean stages are sometimes skipped entirely—the bankers and other professionals aren’t waiting around for artists to walk point for them. They are moving directly into brand new apartment buildings in central business districts. As for the new suburbanites, their migration also represents a historic shift—and a potentially disruptive one. Previously homogeneous communities have become increasingly multicultural, a development that has been welcomed by some in white suburbia and resented by others.
This inversion raises a number of questions. What do the changes mean for the poor, who are being pushed out of cities? Will they be consigned to peripheral areas from which they cannot access professional and educational opportunities without spending increasingly unaffordable sums on gasoline? And will the diversity of urban neighborhoods, always a draw for liberal yuppies, erode over time as more and more of them move into the same areas?
The answer to these questions and others will depend largely on public policy choices. Whether suburbs in general will become more accessible to nondrivers—be they poor, elderly, immigrants, or the disabled—is shaped by policies at the national, state, and local level. The early signs from policy-makers are not promising. Congress recently passed a surface transportation bill that cuts funding for bicycle lanes and sidewalks and gives states more flexibility to focus solely on the construction of new highways at the expense of fixing older roads and improving mass transit. This, of course, is the opposite of what we should be doing to address the trends that Ehrenhalt describes—aging Baby Boomers and young professionals moving to cities to avoid driving, poor people and immigrants who cannot drive or cannot afford cars moving to suburbs. If Ehrenhalt’s book depicts a country undergoing major changes, a glance at our political landscape suggests that our leaders have yet to adjust to the upheaval.
Ehrenhalt is a journalist—editor, for nearly two decades, of Governing magazine, and author of three previous books—and, thankfully, he writes like one. The Great Inversion takes us on a tour of wildly different inner-city neighborhoods (Bushwick, Brooklyn and downtown Phoenix), inner-ring suburbs (Cleveland Heights, Ohio and Stapleton, Colorado), and booming exurbs (Gwinnett County, Georgia). Ehrenhalt doesn’t hide his affinity for the city, and his depiction of the comeback of the American city underscores just how radical the urban revival we all take for granted has been:
American cities all but lost their street life in the last decades of the twentieth century; anybody walking downtown Philadelphia or Boston or Chicago after five in the afternoon found the streets deserted and dangerous. Today, in various forms, street life is returning…. Much of this activity, as in the Paris or Vienna of another time, is clustered around entertainment… And there are cafes. One can make fun of the ubiquitous presence and the uniformity of Starbucks, but the fact remains that just twenty years ago, the idea of coffeehouses in urban centers seemed a quaint vision of the vanished past.
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