- - Wednesday, June 27, 2012


By Alan Ehrenhalt
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 288 pages

Big changes are in store for America in this first half of the 21st century - changes that will reconfigure the American lifestyle in ways that we previously had never imagined.

Alan Ehrenhalt has traveled to towns and cities across the land and witnessed firsthand the early stages of what surely will be nothing short of a social transformation.

There are nuances and caveats in “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.” But in oversimplified shorthand, it comes down to this: Goodbye late-20th century conventional wisdoms of wealthy white exurbs and impoverished black inner-city slums. Hello 21st century more affluent inner cities, and less wealthy suburbs and exurbs. The demographics in both segments of metropolitan areas will be more varied.

Neither cheerleader nor naysayer to this trend, the author simply lays out what he has found in his travels, interviews and reams of statistics.

Residential neighborhoods are emerging in such locales as lower Manhattan, formerly the nearly exclusive weekday 9-to-5 preserve of America’s Wall Street financial power (and a ghost town at night and on weekends). Now Wall Street is bustling in the off-hours as well. On a recent Saturday, its weekend environs there were hardly recognizable to this writer who grew up in New York City.

Mass transit has helped revitalize inner-city communities in Chicago and Brooklyn. Formerly auto-dependent cities such as Phoenix and Charlotte have sought to build new 21st-century downtowns from scratch.

At the same time, the “suburban sprawls” that sprouted in the postwar period of the previous century are attempting to attract young people with their own approach to “urbanization,” i.e., walkable communities where one has the option to live near where he works and also close to where he shops. Previously, building codes had hindered such development.

Mr. Ehrenhalt cites such Washington-area examples as Clarendon in Arlington and Kentlands in Montgomery County (although he errs when reporting the latter is bereft of mass-transit services, although its Ride On bus connections to the Metro end too early in the evening).

The author accords considerable space to the initial pains experienced by Clarendon when it shifted from streetcars to automobiles and finally the mix of the autos and the Metrorail line. For a time, Metrorail construction actually gave beneficent meaning to the old gag about “destroying the village to save it.” The end result, however, has been quality shopping and nightlife, combined with the neighborhood’s reputation as one of the D.C. region’s most desirable places to live.

“The Great Inversion” gives scant attention to the possible political outcome of the urban-suburban mix Mr. Ehrenhalt’s research portends.

The one time he alludes to the subject occurs when he defines the five-member Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners in Georgia as one that “seems in a way to be an anachronism.” The commissioners are “conservative white Republicans” in a community with demographics that are rapidly changing with the influx of new industry and immigrants, legal and illegal.

Anachronism? An odd term (even with his caveat) given that the likely changes he foresees would argue for the potential of the truly colorblind society that conservative Republicans, Caucasian and minority, have advocated for decades. (At last check, the chairman of Gwinnett’s five commissioners was a woman).

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this book is in what it does not say. Nowhere is there any mention of the “smart growth” movement, a highly controversial idea hatched in a United Nations agency under the original more bureaucratic-sounding moniker of Agenda 21.

My guess is Mr. Ehrenhalt omitted a discussion of “smart growth” because he did not care to wade into the weeds of top-down international mischief that raises such toxic issues as the United Nations using U.S. taxpayer dollars to tell Americans what to do, liberals using “smart growth” to build large apartment complexes on rich farmland for the sole purpose of overturning the conservative politics of rural communities, or plopping multiple-unit housing for people with limited experience in financial responsibility into low-density areas settled by residents who protect their home investments in a responsible manner. Additionally, it is well to remember that overpoliticized meddlers in the housing market helped lead to its collapse.

Mr. Ehrenhalt’s travels have given him a front-row view of “The Great Inversion.” His report makes a convincing case that the trends result from popular will. Furthermore, the author believes a reversion to the “white flight” syndrome of the last 50 years will, in the next half-century, become passe.

People, whether in cities or suburbs, will gravitate to living quarters closer to employment and shopping in part because many of them are sick, sick, sick of commuting behind the wheel over long distances through insufferable traffic.

Whatever this book’s flaws, Alan Ehrenhalt’s up-close findings are fascinating.

Wes Vernon is a journalist whose career included 25 years with CBS Radio. His column appears regularly at RenewAmerica.com.

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