Alan Ehrenhalt, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City — December 6, 2015

Alan Ehrenhalt, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City

Satellite view of some city. Book title in white blocky print over top.

As is so often the case, this is a book whose argument I can accept up to a point; past that point, it’s not an argument, but rather wishful thinking.

The analytical core of the book is the observation that we used to live in a society where the wealthy lived in the suburbs while the inner city was for poor folks; today, when the wealthy choose to live anywhere, they choose to live in dense, walkable cities. The suburbs, meanwhile, are where new immigrants land. We’re experiencing a “great inversion” whereby the suburbs and the cities switch roles.

Well, hold up. What about the schools? The relatively affluent people I know are, at the very least, concerned about the quality of inner-city public schools. Lots of people in the Boston area move to Lexington or further out because the schools there are better. Ehrenhalt replies to this in a couple ways. First he says, intriguingly, “I think these people have it backward. The schools improve after the middle class arrives” (Kindle location 135). Unfortunately, I didn’t see any followup to this elsewhere in the book. The rest of the book is a survey of different kinds of cities and neighborhoods around the U.S., from Cleveland Heights, Ohio to Phoenix, Arizona to lower Manhattan to Philadelphia. I certainly hope Ehrenhalt’s schooling hypothesis is true; I’d love to see Boston’s public schools recover from their decades of white abandonment. But I see no further discussion of his hypothesis anywhere in the book.

Ehrenhalt’s second (implicit) reply to the schooling issue is more believable: the wealthy who are moving into the cities are either those without kids — childless young people or empty nesters — or families that form later in life and have fewer kids.

He repeatedly emphasizes that he doesn’t really know how this inversion will play out. E.g.,

We are moving toward a society in which millions of people with substantial earning power or ample savings will have the option of living wherever they want, and many—we can only guess how many—will decide in favor of central cities and against distant suburbs.

Or

The real essence of demographic inversion is based not on numbers but on choice. Increasingly over the past decade, both before and during the recession, people with the resources to live wherever they wished began choosing to live near the urban center — just as Viennese, Parisians, and Londoners at the turn of the previous century elected to do.

(emphasis mine in both quotes)

“Based not on numbers but on choice” is an important tell. It says that he doesn’t have the numbers. And that’s fine! This book shouldn’t have been trying to make an argument about the direction of social change; I don’t think I’m smart enough to forecast the vector sum of that change, and I think Ehrenhalt realizes that he isn’t, either.

The truth is probably really boring. I analogize it to presidential elections: if one candidate beats another by a margin of 55% to 45%, we would consider that a landslide. But it’s still 55-45. The country is still basically half Republican and half Democrat, with some people peeled off at the margins in one direction or the other. It may be the same with the move towards or away from suburbs: a few more people may choose to move to the cities. But The Marginal Inversion would have been a rather less powerful title.

I’d gladly take this book with the weak predictions excised. What would be left is a perfectly lovely tour of a few American cities and their own peculiar approaches to growth. New York managed to fill up the financial district in lower Manhattan with actual residents. Phoenix, on the other hand, is trying (at some scale) to fill in its historic sprawl, with mixed results. Ehrenhalt paints a rather depressing portrait of Philadelphia, which matches up with my own experiences there: Center City is lovely and thriving, while much of the rest is a boarded-up wasteland; Ehrenhalt says that locals sometimes refer to it as “Bostroit” for this reason.

As a series of sketches of interesting cities, this book is lovely; as quantitative forecast, it falls flat on its face. And I have a hard time believing that any serious attempt at making this sort of forecast would grab any headlines at all. One of the much-cited inputs to this “people are fleeing the suburbs” story, for instance, is that “millennials” are increasingly shunning cars. But look at the graph in there:

90% or so of “Millennials” (I despise that label, and as I get older I come more and more to despise generational labels in general) drive cars at least once a week; their parents, and the generation in between, drive cars 95% of the time. The difference between 90% and 95% is a slender reed off of which to hang an argument about social change.

Or let’s compare a few counties around Massachusetts and New York: mostly suburban Westchester grew by 2.5% recently, while New York as a whole grew by 1.9%; Kings County (Brooklyn) grew by 4.7%; suburban Norfolk County, Massachusetts grew by 3.2%, to the Commonwealth-wide average of 3.0%; Suffolk County (Boston) grew by 6.3%, while Middlesex County (some of the denser parts of Metro Boston, such as Cambridge and Somerville, plus some distant suburbs) grew by 4.5%. Finally, Worcester County grew by 1.9%.

What’s the takeaway from all this? Nothing too exciting, to my eye: some people like living in cities, and some like living in suburbs. Both are doing reasonably well. There’s no landslide toward one or the other in any objective sense: it’s not as though the population of the suburbs is declining, or that the population of Northeastern cities is growing at a double-digit pace. To put it in context, Houston’s growth rate blows away the Northeast’s, even while its density is something like a quarter of a typical northeastern city’s. Likewise with Phoenix.

The claims for a great urban revival, it turns out, need to be hemmed in, bit by bit, with caveats and to-be-sures. “Millennials” might be moving away from cars, but if that’s happening it’s in small amounts; the move away from cars might also reverse itself as “millennials” get better jobs and have kids. (I’ve not seen any data that compares older generations and “millennials” at the same stage of life; what I’ve seen compares “millennials” now to older folks now.) Southwestern cities that northeastern liberal élites such as myself would scoff at continue to thrive, as they have for decades. Suburban counties continue to do just fine. Urban public school districts show no signs of significant improvement. Boston’s population still has a long way to go to return to its 1950 level. Urban development is still being hampered by restrictive development policies that forbid northeastern cities to grow in the only direction they have left, namely up. Gas is still too cheap. Roads and parking are still massively subsidized, and mass transit is still being starved. The one bit of data I feel more comfortable about is that cities really have become safer over the last couple decades, for reasons that I gather no one really knows.

You might hypothesize some long-term changes here. Maybe the U.S. government will eventually realize that a carbon tax is the smartest way out of its fiscal problems; maybe northeastern zoning will eventually get with the program; maybe, for reasons unspecified, “millennials” really are done with cars: Ehrenhalt writes that it “seems likely … that more of the social life of the next adult cohort, compared to that of the previous one, will be lived in a public realm, not a closed-off private one, in a more active and vibrant streetscape and in parks and other public spaces”, but really offers no convincing evidence for this claim. (Also, is the apartment I live in a closed-off private realm? Does my generation spend more time in parks than previous generations did? When I sit in a coffeeshop working with my headphones on, am I in a public realm or a private one? And where is Robert Putnam when you need him?)

I am deliberately being a killjoy here. I read a lot of books and essays and blog posts by people who love northeastern-style cities as much as I do, and they are too often filled with wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is quite useful — I personally pray that when it comes time for me to have kids, I’ll be able to send them to a quality public school rather than move to an inner suburb on the commuter rail — but a wish is not the same thing as a plan, nor is it the same thing as data.

I am also making a meta-point: you should be especially critical of ideas that you are predisposed to believe in. Don’t let wishful thinking get between you and the world.

On the other hand, I absolutely understand that there’s a difference between what members of a movement say to themselves and what they say to the outside world. Within a movement, people can, should, and very often do express reservations about the direction of the movement; to the outside world, any such doubt would be counterproductive. I get that. To the extent that Ehrenhalt’s book is trying to be part of the walkable-urbanism movement, maybe it’s justified in expressing certainty where there is little to be had.

So let’s take books like The Great Inversion for what they are: expressions of a wish. They are trying to be part of a movement for walkable urbanism, of which Matt Yglesias’s The Rent Is Too Damn High and Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking are a part. I wish them all the luck in the world as they try to form that movement, and I hope to be part of it.