The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
Alan Ehrenhalt
Knopf
1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019; www.knopfdoubleday.com.
2012. 288 pages. $14.95 paperback.


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This remarkably perceptive book not only validates a grand diagram that has been reshaping and re­­arranging metropolitan areas from downtowns to the exurbs, but it successfully delivers the reader to an unfolding real-life scenography. Gaining even greater velocity over the last decade, and to the consternation of the experts, this reshaping process can now be seen in the most unlikely locations. Journalist Alan Ehrenhalt, a former executive editor of Governing magazine, has come up with a compelling name—”the great inversion”—and he casts about from neighborhood to neighborhood in a probing critique that covers about 20 locales. He peppers the text with numerous but cautious insights that strike a delicate balance between what he sees happening on the ground, what his finely tuned instincts tell him, and what the latest census data indicate.

Reversing the pattern of the decades following World War II, when the move was up and out of the city, the move now is decidedly back toward the center. Here is where an ever-increasing cohort of retirees, hipsters, milennials, and others are choosing to reside. These arrivals are determined to cope with the escalating price of housing as long as they can have a lifestyle that at least approximates a semblance of Jane Jacobs’s urbanity.

Meanwhile, the metropolitan periphery is increasingly the place where members of the working class—in particular, the large cohort of newly arrived immigrants—are staking their turf. In 1970, most of the foreign-born were still settling in cities; by 2005, however, the trend had reversed, with an estimated 4.4 million going to the suburbs versus only 2.9 million going to the center. Gwinnett County, Georgia, located almost 20 miles outside Atlanta, had virtually no immigrant residents in 1990. Now, it not only has exploded in size, but it has also become a mix of nonwhite nationalities. This is where 31 percent of all Indian immigrants in the state of Georgia reside, for example.

The author correctly perceives, in places closer to central cities, like the Woodlands and Sugar Land outside of Houston, or Stapleton and Belmar near Denver, a newer brand of mixed-use town centers as strands within the grand diagram, implying that many suburbanites are seeking at least a sense of faux urbanity, even if it lacks connectivity to transit and leans toward a much bigger-box version of Greenwich Village than one might have wished.

There are many surprise neighborhoods featured in this book— Bushwick in eastern Brooklyn, New York; Sheffield in northwest Chicago; the Third Ward and the Fourth Ward in Houston; and Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to name a few. Some are faring very well and others are fraught with complications. But perhaps the most startling is in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street. The 1970 census indicated a mere 833 residents living there, mostly in single-room-occupancy apartments. In 2010, conservative estimates put the population at 50,000—an increase of 35,000 since the September 11 attacks.

So much is unpredictable, cautions the author. What will gasoline prices be in 2020? Even if they do not rise much more, will that really matter if commutes become an even bigger nightmare? Will the newly formed suburbs of the late 20th century turn into the slums of 2030? Will iPhones and social media supplant face-to-face contact on the sidewalk or at the grocery store?

In capturing the forward thrust of how the American metropolis continues to reshape itself, Ehrenhalt’s balanced account is unsurpassed by many similar attempts of the past year, and it deserves a place at the top of one’s reading list.