The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
By Alan Ehrenhalt
Knopf Doubleday - 2012
Reviewed by Greg Lindsay
It figures that Tom Wolfe, while doggedly hunting facts for his fiction, would stumble upon the scene of what Alan Ehrenhalt calls “the great inversion” almost as soon as it began. In his 1998 novel, A Man in Full, Wolfe described Georgia’s Buford Highway as “six lanes of hard blacktop bounded by blasted heaths of concrete and hard-baked dirt” running through exurban Gwinnett County northeast of Atlanta. There, Wolfe spied “the Pung Mie Chinese Restaurant,” whose presence offered a hint of what was to come.
Gwinnett County’s population would soar from 588,000 in 2000 to 808,167 a decade later. The formerly quaint country towns and lily-white cul-de-sacs gave way to a majority-minority county, as first Hispanics, then Vietnamese, Indians and Koreans arrived in successive waves, bypassing Atlanta to join its fleeing African-American middle class in suburbia. Whites surged back into the city during the same period, nearly displacing its historically black majority.
This reversal spelled the end of American urban growth first described by the University of Chicago sociologist Ernest W. Burgess in 1925 — a downtown surrounded by rings of industry, then the immigrant and working class inner city, and finally wealthy suburbia beyond. Moving up the economic ladder meant moving out. Not anymore. “The exurbs will be ports of entry for newcomers and minorities who will either not be attracted to, or not be able to afford, life in the center of a metropolitan area,” Ehrenhalt writes in The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. “This is what demographic inversion is about.”
The former executive editor of Governing, Ehrenhalt convincingly argues that just as affluent Boomers once bought their way out of cities, they and their Millennial children are now buying their way back in, displacing immigrants and the poor to the periphery. The socio-economic poles of cities and suburbs will reverse, and this new arrangement will be reinforced by stubbornly high gasoline prices that will punish commuters further. This would explain why Gwinnett County’s poverty rate has doubled since 1990 to 9%, and why the number of suburban poor grew by 25% between 2000 and 2008, according to the Brookings Institution — almost five times faster than cities. “It is why Chicago in 2030 will look more like the Paris of 1910 than the Detroit of 1970” — an affluent core encircled by poverty.
Ehrenhalt stresses that demographic inversion does not necessarily mean a net-positive migration; “it can occur in cities that are growing, those whose numbers are flat, and even in those undergoing a modest decline in size,” he writes. But he believes enough Millennials will choose cities to transform Wall Street into a residential strollerville, gentrify once-gritty neighborhoods like Chicago’s Wicker Park and Houston’s Fourth Ward, and even prompt mayors in Charlotte, Dallas and Phoenix to create walkable downtowns practically from scratch. He spends most of the book reporting from these places, with a keen eye for detail and trenchant observations. But Ehrenhalt is more worried about whether Millennials will approve of Tysons Corner’s transit-oriented retrofit than he is with the bigger challenge facing urban America, which is what to do with places like Gwinnett County.
There, we learn, the dominant urban feature is strip malls owned by Korean entrepreneurs and inhabited by Vietnamese nail salons. Meanwhile, “Buford Highway, built for automobiles and almost entirely lacking in sidewalks, has grown dense with pedestrians, mostly Asian and Hispanic women who are not afraid to walk long distances down the six-lane road,” where crossings are spaced as far as a mile apart. The Vietnamese are the most fervent believers in homeownership, partly due to speculation and partly because of large families. Unluckier Hispanic ones have been sundered by the housing crisis, with male breadwinners leaving to find construction jobs elsewhere while their wives and children crowd into dilapidated “extended stay” motels for a year or more.
Rather than throwing these families a lifeline, several towns have passed ordinances outlawing such arrangements, while the (white, Republican) Gwinnett County Commission strives to balance the competing demands of their angry constituents and the bullishly pro-immigration Chamber of Commerce. They are keenly aware of what happens to suburban politicians who too eagerly embrace immigrants, such as the mayor of Herndon, Virginia who was ousted in 2007 for creating a public gathering place for Hispanic day laborers. That Herndon lies twenty-five miles west of Washington D.C. in one of the most affluent counties in America only underscores how suburban immigration has become — in 2005, Ehrenhalt notes, 4.4 million immigrants arrived in suburbs, while only 2.8 million landed in cities. And the gap has only widened since.
So what will happen to Gwinnett County? Ehrenhalt, who is something of a transit determinist, holds up the example of Clarendon, Virginia as a best-case scenario. Clarendon was the commercial corridor of Arlington County until it was nearly destroyed in the 1970s by the construction of the Washington Metro. Once again, Vietnamese immigrants stepped into the void of empty storefronts, leading to what locals nicknamed “Little Saigon.” A cycle of Asian immigration and gentrification began, eventually producing the walkable neighborhoods which are the darlings of urbanists like Brookings’ Christopher Leinberger. Ehrenhalt gives credit where credit is due: “It was immigration that brought those old buildings to life.”
Will the same happen in places like Gwinnett? Not likely. It currently has “what must be the single worst public transportation system of any large county in America,” Ehrenhalt writes. Voters twice refused to participate in MARTA, Atlanta’s transit network, and were instrumental in July’s crushing defeat of T-SPLOST, a 1-cent sales tax increase that would have raised $8.5 billion for transit. “Gwinnett County isn’t really a melting pot,” he quotes a local developer as saying. “It’s more like a petri dish. It’s a real social experiment,” perhaps to see whether places like these will succeed in spite of themselves.