Columnist: Urban U.S.A. Remade: A 'Grand Inversion'

May 14, 2012

By Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON -- How fast are our downtowns, neighborhoods and regions truly changing? Are cities on a clear comeback path? What's the future of suburbia? 

Opinions abound. Some analysts predict a spirited and expanding revival of once-neglected center cities, even while far-out, "drive 'til you qualify" suburbia virtually withers on the vine. Others contend that suburbia and America have become synonymous, that our love of space will in time refuel sprawling housing tracts expanding to the farthest suburban frontier, no matter if gasoline prices soar. 

If you'd like a clear-eyed view, check Alan Ehrenhalt's new book, "The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City" (Alfred Knopf). Ehrenhalt leans to the side of cities on the rebound. He makes a strong case for how today's young adults, in sharp contrast to the choices their parents made, are opting for lively, walkable urban streets with parks, shops, transit and school choices. 

But it's not just urban hype. Equally important, Ehrenhalt notes: Large numbers of African-Americans are moving out of cities into once typically white suburbs. And high proportions of recent immigrants aren't repeating the historical choice of inner cities, but selecting suburbia instead. 

Atlanta offers a prime example. The center city is on the brink of losing its black majority as whites move in and blacks move out. Two huge Atlanta suburban counties, Clayton and DeKalb, now have black majorities. In the meantime, a melange of Hispanics, followed by foreign-born from India, Vietnam, South Korea and Eastern Europe, have flooded into once overwhelmingly white Gwinnett County on the region's outskirts. Anglos are now a minority in Gwinnett. 

To a significant degree, the same massive population shift is being repeated nationwide. The population of lower Manhattan, south of the World Trade Center, doubled to 50,000 in the decade after the terrorist attack of 2001. Chicago saw its fashionable lakeside "Loop" soar 48 percent in population in just seven years. 

Such cities are clearly taking on the demographic pattern of 19th-century Europe today -- the better-off middle-to-upper classes heavily represented in the historical and colorful city centers, the poor and newcomers living in the outskirts. 

This is Ehrenhalt's "great inversion," a division of people, the more fortunate to the urban centers, the less fortunate to the outskirts. It's a pattern that's arguably typified most cities through most of history, with post-World War II America the grand (but perhaps temporary) exception. 

But the pattern will surely not be consistent. Our affluent, established suburbs aren't about to depopulate. A steady and increasing inflow of youth, joined by the affluent and comfortably retired, is predictable for the centers such as Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. But surely not for our Buffalos and Detroits, and in much more modest numbers for such cities as Cleveland, Charlotte, St. Louis, Houston and Phoenix. In many places, Ehrenhalt notes, cities are trying consciously to attract youth and the affluent. But with notable exceptions, the population gain -- so far -- has been "modest in absolute numbers." 

There are obstacles to rapid "inversion." One is worry about the quality of schools -- though it's also true that schools (including the country's growing number of charters) tend to improve after the middle class arrives. Another is fiscal: high city taxes, exacerbated by a menacing overhang of cities' pension obligations. 

But today's pro-city trends are arguably much greater. First, choosing tighter space in town seems increasingly feasible as many people remain single and delay marriage, cohabitation rises, and families have markedly fewer children than a generation ago. And there's a growing retiree group with high numbers of healthy and active adults in their later years. 

Plus, the safety and quality of urban life have increased. Random street violence has declined dramatically, with crime levels far below those of the 1970s and '80s. The massive high-rise public housing complexes that generated crime and fear in post-World War II America -- St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green, Baltimore's Murphy Homes and others -- have mostly met the wrecker's ball. 

None of this means all is well in our big cities. They still have their sections of massive devastation, like North Philadelphia. Some areas -- New York's South Bronx is a shining example -- still have poverty but have witnessed heartening recoveries. 

But there's one huge difference from the '60s, '70s and '80s -- the problems are no longer exclusively those of the central cities. More and more of the poorest, most destitute Americans have moved to once white suburbs. It's no longer possible to equate "suburb" with "success" or -- as youths moving to our urban centers proves -- "city" with "poverty." 

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group 

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.