Posted on August 12, 2008

Trading Places

Alan Ehrenhalt, The New Republic, August 13, 2008


In the past three decades, Chicago has undergone changes that are routinely described as gentrification, but are in fact more complicated and more profound than the process that term suggests. A better description would be “demographic inversion.” 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—some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white—are those who can afford to do so.

Developments like this rarely occur in one city at a time, and indeed demographic inversion is taking place, albeit more slowly than in Chicago, in metropolitan areas throughout the country. The national press has paid very little attention to it. While we have been focusing on Baghdad and Kabul, our own cities have been changing right in front of us.

Atlanta, for example, is shifting from an overwhelmingly black to what is likely to soon be a minority-black city. This is happening in part because the white middle class is moving inside the city borders, but more so because blacks are moving out. Between 1990 and 2006, according to research by William Frey of the Brookings Institution, the white population of Atlanta has increased from roughly 30 percent to 35 percent while the black population has declined from 67 percent to 55 percent. In this decade alone, two of Atlanta’s huge suburban counties, Clayton and DeKalb, have acquired substantial black majorities, and immigrants arriving from foreign countries are settling primarily there or in similar outlying areas, not within the city itself. The numbers for Washington, D.C. are similar.

Race is not always the critical issue, or even especially relevant, in this demographic shift. Before September 11, 2001, the number of people living in Manhattan south of the World Trade Center was estimated at about 25,000. Today, it is approaching 50,000. Close to one-quarter of these people are couples (nearly always wealthy couples) with children. The average household size is actually larger in lower Manhattan than in the city as a whole. It is not mere fantasy to imagine that in, say, 2020, the southern tip of Manhattan will be a residential neighborhood with a modest residual presence of financial corporations and financial services jobs. What’s happening in Lower Manhattan isn’t exactly an inversion in the Chicago sense: Expensive condos are replacing offices, not poor people. But it is dramatic demographic change nevertheless.


{snip} Demographic inversions of one sort or another are occurring in urban pockets scattered all across America, many of them in seemingly unlikely places. Charlotte, North Carolina, is in the midst of a downtown building boom dominated by new mixed-use high-rise buildings, with office space on the bottom and condos or rental units above. Even at a moment of economic weakness, the condos are still selling briskly.

We are not witnessing the abandonment of the suburbs or a movement of millions of people back to the city all at once. But 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. For several decades now, cities in the United States have wished for a “24/7” downtown, a place where people live as well as work, and keep the streets busy, interesting, and safe at all times of day. This is what urbanist Jane Jacobs preached in the 1960s, and it has long since become the accepted goal of urban planners. Only when significant numbers of people lived downtown, planners believed, could central cities regain their historic role as magnets for culture and as a source of identity and pride for the metropolitan areas they served. Now that’s starting to happen, fueled by the changing mores of the young and by gasoline prices fast approaching $5-per-gallon. In many of its urbanized regions, an America that seemed destined for everincreasing individualization and sprawl is experimenting with new versions of community and sociability.

Why has demographic inversion begun? For one thing, the deindustrialization of the central city, for all the tragic human dislocations it caused, has eliminated many of the things that made affluent people want to move away from it. Nothing much is manufactured downtown anymore (or anywhere near it), and that means that the noise and grime that prevailed for most of the twentieth century have gone away. Manhattan may seem like a loud and gritty place now, but it is nothing like the city of tenement manufacturing, rumbling elevated trains, and horses and coal dust in the streets that confronted inhabitants in the early 1900s. Third-floor factory lofts, whether in Soho or in St. Louis, can be marketed as attractive and stylish places to live. The urban historian Robert Bruegmann goes so far as to claim that deindustrialization has, on the whole, been good for downtowns because it has permitted so many opportunities for creative reuse of the buildings. I wouldn’t go quite that far, and, given the massive job losses of recent years, I doubt most of the residents of Detroit would, either. But it is true that the environmental factors that made middle-class people leave the central city for streetcar suburbs in the 1900s and for station-wagon suburbs in the 1950s do not apply any more.

Nor, in general, does the scourge of urban life in the 1970s and ’80s: random street violence. True, the murder rates in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland have climbed in the last few years, but this increase has been propelled in large part by gang- and drug-related violence. For the most part, middle-class people of all colors began to feel safe on the streets of urban America in the 1990s, and they still feel that way. The paralyzing fear that anyone of middle age can still recall vividly from the 1970s—that the shadowy figure passing by on a dark city street at night stands a good chance of being a mugger—is rare these days, and almost nonexistent among young people. Walk around the neighborhood of 14th and U streets in Washington, D.C. on a Saturday night, and you will find it perhaps the liveliest part of the city, at least for those under 25. This is a neighborhood where the riots of 1968 left physical scars that still have not disappeared, and where outsiders were afraid to venture for more than 30 years.

The young newcomers who have rejuvenated 14th and U believe that this recovering slum is the sort of place where they want to spend time and, increasingly, where they want to live. This is the generation that grew up watching “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “Sex and the City,” mostly from the comfort of suburban sofas. We have gone from a sitcom world defined by “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” to one that offers a whole range of urban experiences and enticements. I do not claim that a handful of TV shows has somehow produced a new urbanist generation, but it is striking how pervasive the pro-city sensibility is within this generation, particularly among its elite. In recent years, teaching undergraduates at the University of Richmond, the majority of them from affluent suburban backgrounds, I made a point of asking where they would prefer to live in 15 years—in a suburb or in a neighborhood close to the center of the city. Few ever voted for suburban life.


Not that cars and the demographic inversion aren’t closely related; they are. In Atlanta, where the middle-class return to the city is occurring with more suddenness than perhaps anywhere in the United States, the most frequently cited reason is traffic. People who did not object to a 20-mile commute from the suburbs a decade ago are objecting to it now in part because the same commute takes quite a bit longer. To this, we can add the prospect of $5-per-gallon gasoline. It’s impossible at this point to say with any certainty just what energy costs will do to American living patterns over the next decade. Urbanists predicted a return to the city during previous spikes in the cost of gasoline, notably during shortages in the 1970s. They were wrong. Gas prices came down, and the suburbs expanded dramatically. But today’s prices at the pump are not the result of political pressures by angry sheiks in the Persian Gulf. They are the result of increased worldwide demand that is only going to continue to increase. Some suburbanites will simply stay where they are and accept the cost. But many will decide to stop paying $100 every few days for a tank of gasoline that will allow them to commute 40 or 50 miles a day, round-trip.

Ultimately, though, the current inversion is less the result of middle-aged people changing their minds than of young adults expressing different values, habits, and living preferences than their parents. The demographic changes that have taken place in America over the past generation—the increased propensity to remain single, the rise of cohabitation, the much later age at first marriage for those who do marry, the smaller size of families for those who have children, and, at the other end, the rapidly growing number of healthy and active adults in their sixties, seventies, and eighties—have combined virtually all of the significant elements that make a demographic inversion not only possible but likely. We are moving toward a society in which millions of people with substantial earning power or ample savings can live wherever they want, and many will choose central cities over distant suburbs. As they do this, others will find themselves forced to live in less desirable places—now defined as those further from the center of the metropolis. And, as this happens, suburbs that never dreamed of being entry points for immigrants will have to cope with new realities. It should come as no surprise that the most intense arguments about hiring and educating the undocumented have occurred in the relatively distant reaches of American suburbia, such as Prince William County, Virginia.


Of course, demographic inversion cannot be a one-way street. If some people are coming inside, some people have to be going out. And so they are—in Chicago as in much of the rest of the country. During the past ten years, with relatively little fanfare and surprisingly little press attention, the great high-rise public housing projects that defined squalor in urban America for half a century have essentially disappeared. In Chicago, the infamous Robert Taylor Homes are gone, and the equally infamous Cabrini-Green is all but gone. This has meant the removal of tens of thousands of people, who have taken their Section 8 federal housing subsidies and moved to struggling African American neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. Some have moved to the city’s southern suburbs—small suburbs such as Dixmoor, Robbins, and Harvey, which have been among the poorest communities in metropolitan Chicago. At the same time, tens of thousands of immigrants are coming to Chicago every year, mostly from various parts of Latin America. Where are they settling? Not in University Village. Some in Logan Square, but fewer every year. They are living in suburban or exurban territory that, until a decade ago, was almost exclusively English-speaking, middle-class, and white.

There are responsible critics who look at all this and see a lot being made out of very little. They argue that, in absolute numbers, the return to the urban center remains a minor demographic event. They have a point. In most metropolitan areas, in the first few years of the twenty-first century, many more people have moved to the suburbs than have moved downtown. A city of half a million that can report a downtown residential population of 25,000—5 percent of the total—can claim that it is doing relatively well. Charlotte, for all the local excitement it has generated about upscale in-town living, still has no more than about 12,000 residents downtown. Moreover, these 12,000 are not representative of the area’s populace; there are few families with school-age children. Downtown Charlotte is mostly attracting the familiar gentrification cohort: singles, couples, older people whose children have left home. The bulk of the married-with-children middle-class has not only been living in the suburbs, it has been moving to the suburbs. Joel Kotkin, perhaps the most prominent of the downtown debunkers, declares flatly that, until families begin turning up in significant numbers on downtown streets, we are talking about a blip rather than a major cultural phenomenon.

But it’s not just a blip. The evidence from most American cities—carefully presented by Christopher Leinberger, the real estate developer and University of Michigan urban planning professor, in his recent book, The Option of Urbanism—suggests that the number of downtown residents these days depends more on supply than demand. Few in Charlotte dispute that, if there were 30,000 upscale residential units in the center of that city, there would be 30,000 people living in them before long. The residential population of lower Manhattan has not just increased substantially since 2001; it has all but exploded in the last 18 months. And the strollers have reached Wall Street. Take a walk down there some Saturday morning, and you will see for yourself.

But, even if the critics are mostly right—even if the vast majority of cities never see a downtown residential boom of massive proportions—there is no doubt that a demographic inversion, in which the rich are moving inside and the poor are moving outside, is taking place. The crucial issue is not the number of people living downtown, although that matters. The crucial issue is who they are, and the ways in which urban life is changing as a result.