Q&A: Urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt on the "The Great Inversion"

The Great Inversion examines the current demographic swap that is reshaping America's urban centers.
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Written by Claire Lambrecht on
Tribeca Family Festival, April 2011 (Diana Beato/Flickr)

New York isn't what it used to be. The vacant urban streets depicted in films like The French Connection and Taxi Driverare long gone. Today, families with strollers now compete for sidewalk space near Wall Street. Central Park has become "boringly safe." Even the hipster capital of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, will soon be getting a Whole Foods.

This phenomenon is not unique to New York. From Phoenix, Arizona to Stapleton, Colorado, cities have begun to change. The urban centers that people used to run from are now a magnet for the upwardly mobile, while the suburbs and exurbs are increasingly host to poorer populations. This shift, known as a demographic inversion, is rapidly turning America inside out.

To better understand this process, SmartPlanet spoke with Urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt. His new book, The Great Inversion, examines the current trend of demographic inversion, providing insight into what's in store for America's urban centers.

Demographic inversion is a fairly new phenomenon. What does this mean for America?

The demographic inversion simply means that, contrary to where we were a generation ago, with the inner city meaning “the place where poor people live” and the exurbs being where the affluent flee to; in the future, the center of the city is going to be where affluent people choose to live. Not necessarily by tens of millions, but in significant numbers. Suburbs are going to be the place where immigrants and the poor congregate. That’s an inversion of the pattern of the previous generation.

How is this different from gentrification?

To me, gentrification is the arrival of a middle class or a professional class in what was formerly a lower class, underclass neighborhood. It’s a phenomenon that we usually talk about neighborhood by neighborhood. When you have an entire metropolitan area rearranging itself -- so wealthy people are living in the center and immigrants are living in the suburbs -- then that goes beyond gentrification. That is a true inversion of demographic groups. I think that gentrification is insufficient to describe it. Plus, it’s a loaded word. Everybody has emotional opinions about gentrification: whether they’re for it or against it.

What is contributing to this massive demographic inversion?

Well, in the case of cities there are at least three things. One is the industrial life of cities that used to make them rather unpleasant places to live –the manufacturing that went on in cities -- doesn’t really take place anymore. The center of a city doesn’t smell. It’s not noisy in the way it used to be. It’s a much more livable place that it was. New York today, the lower east side or lower Manhattan, may seem like a noisy and bustling place, but if you compare it to what used to exist 100 years ago – with horse carts and pushcarts and elevated trains rumbling overhead and huge crowds and noise all over the place – it’s a lot more livable than it was then.

In addition to the decline of manufacturing, how else have cities changed?

The city is simply safer than it used to be. Crime is down in almost every big city in the country. The younger generation, in particular, doesn’t worry the way my generation did in the 1970s about whether the guy behind you was a mugger. That’s not something they think much about; not that mugging has disappeared. Violent crime in central cities is far below what it was 20 or 30 years ago. That is a factor leading people to wanting to live downtown. Similarly, crime on transit systems is not what it used to be. That is one thing that has made places in Brooklyn desirable. A place like Williamsburg, for example, is much more desirable because it’s much safe to go there on the train, or people feel that it is, which is an enormous change.

And the third reason, after the decline of crime and manufacturing?

The other is less tangible. That is a desire on the part of Generation Y, the Millennial Generation, for urban life. I can’t explain exactly why that exists. I’m convinced that it does exist. Polls tend to bear this out. People under 35 are interested in cities: particularly if they’re young, single, childless couples, or people with one small child.

Is there something cultural about this generation that contributed to this interest in urban life?

This is the generation, don’t forget, that watched Seinfeld and Sex and the City and Friends -- usually from sofas safe in the confines of the suburbs. I think they find suburban life less exciting than urban life. While they are in a single or childless situation, they’re particularly eager to try it.

Are enough people moving to cities to constitute a critical mass?

This is a very large generation. Next to the Baby Boom generation, Generation Y is the largest generation in American society. A significant decision of even a fraction of Generation Y to try urbanized living is an important decision.

In your chapter on Houston, Texas, you quote a man who says, “Houston is the city of the future.” In 20 or 40 or 60 years, will we see cities like Houston, or are we looking forward to something else?

We’re going to look like Houston in that we will have around every city nodes of urbanization, whether they’re called village centers or town centers or whatever we want to call them. There just isn’t going to be as much space in the literal center city itself for the demand that’s going to exist for urban living. We’re going to have to urbanize other places to create at least the appearance, if not the reality, of urban life in order to satisfy that demand.

How did you arrive at this conclusion?

If you look at the advertising that some of these suburban developments are now pitching to prospective buyers, they tell them how urban they are. That struck me as very unusual. It’s an emblem of how much the people who run these developments and the real estate companies think that “urban” sells.

Much of your book seems to be a conversation with Jane Jacobs. What do you think she would have to say about this Great Inversion?

I think much of it she would applaud. She would like the neighborhood of Sheffield in Chicago. I think she would find it to be a diverse and interesting neighborhood. She would be very much interested in preservation, not, as some would advocate, simply building skyscrapers to create density in the center of cities. Where you have neighborhoods that have been reclaimed, whether it is Sheffield in Chicago or Bushwick in Brooklyn or parts of inner city Philadelphia. I think she would applaud that. Jane Jacobs never thought Wall Street could be a neighborhood. But she was wrong. It is becoming a neighborhood. I think she would be glad to see that. I think she would be fascinated by what is happening right now. And largely would feel positive about it.

Photo: Diana Beato/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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