2/19/13 - the great urban renaissance

In today's selection -- American downtowns, especially in those pedestrian friendly cities built before the advent of the automobile, are experiencing a renaissance. In the twentieth century, most notably after World War II, there was a decades-long escape of the affluent from the cities to the suburbs, leaving behind increasingly blighted inner cities. There is now instead a growing trend of the affluent moving back to the cities, and the resulting rise in prices is pushing the poor to the perimeters of these cities. Even immigrant populations are now more likely to establish suburban enclaves than urban ones:

"A little more than thirty years ago, the mayor of Chicago was unseated by a snowstorm. A blizzard in January 1979 dumped more than twenty inches of snow on the ground, leading, among other problems, to a curtailment of transit service. The few available trains coming downtown from the Northwest Side filled up with middle-class white riders near the far end of the line, leaving no room for poorer people trying to board on inner-city platforms. Blacks and Hispanics blamed this on Mayor Michael Bilandic, and he lost the Democratic primary to Jane Byrne a few weeks later.

"Politically, this is ancient history. Demographically, it leads us to a picture of what has happened in Chicago over the past three decades. No such event could take place now. This is not because of climate change, or because the Chicago Transit Authority runs flawlessly. It is because the trains would fill up with minorities and immigrants on the outskirts of the city, and the passengers left stranded at the inner-city stations would be members of the affluent professional class.

"In the years since 1979, Chicago has undergone changes that are routinely described as gentrification, but are in fact more complicated and more profound than that. A better term is 'demographic inversion.' Gentrification refers to the changes that happen in an individual neighborhood, usually the replacement of poorer minority residents by more affluent white ones. Demographic inversion is something much broader. It is the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place at roughly the same time.

"Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city -- Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center are those, some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white, who can afford to do so.

"Events like this rarely occur in one city at a time, and indeed the present demographic inversion is taking place, albeit more slowly, in metropolitan areas throughout the country. For much of the past decade, the national media paid relatively little attention to it. While they were focused on Baghdad and Kabul, our own cities changed right in front of us, changed from year to year, faster than even the most attentive students of urban life could easily keep up with.

"In some places, the phenomenon of demographic inversion is centered on racial rearrangement. Atlanta, for example, has long been overwhelmingly black, but between 2000 and 2010, according to census figures, the percentage of African Americans within the city fell from 61 percent to 54 percent; in 2009, the city came within a few hundred votes of electing a white Republican mayor. Within a few years, demographers agree, blacks will be a minority there. This is happening in part because the white middle class is moving inside the city borders, but it has more to do with blacks moving out. In the past two decades alone, two of Atlanta's huge suburban counties, Clayton and DeKalb, acquired substantial black majorities, and immigrants arriving from foreign countries began settling in overwhelming proportions in suburban counties, not within the city itself. The numbers for Washington, D.C., are strikingly similar to those of Atlanta. Washington, once roughly 70 percent African American, is now barely 50 percent African American. ...

"The truth is that we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. And we need to adjust our perceptions of cities, suburbs, and urban mobility as a result."

with thanks to dhl


Alan Ehrenhalt


The Great Inversion




Copyright 2012 by Alan Ehrenhalt


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