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By Howard Husock

America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy.

Books and Culture

Howard Husock
Back to the City
Young millennials prefer urban living, says Alan Ehrenhalt.
15 June 2012

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, by Alan Ehrenhalt (Knopf, 288 pp., $26.95)

Serving as executive editor of Governing magazine for nearly two decades, Alan Ehrenhalt would have had a record to boast about had he done no more than assemble his crackerjack staff of writers and reporters, who made the magazine a must-read for those wishing to understand the workings of American federalism. He also penned a consistently insightful—and politically unpredictable—column on state and local government. As a columnist, moreover, Ehrenhalt often built on his own original reporting. A column, say, on light rail in Minneapolis would discuss not just transportation but also the potential impact on property taxes for the lots on one street corner. A column on politicians caught up in patronage scandals would come around to accepting the inevitability of such unfair hiring—and provide some good reasons for it. Like a policy-oriented version of Calvin Trillin’s “U.S. Journal” columns in the New Yorker, Ehrenhalt’s editorials would regularly uncover local situations that showed how America was changing—such as Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s support for neighborhood activists seeking to shut down the city’s legendary taverns.

Now editor of Stateline, the Pew Center on the States’ news service on state politics and policy, Ehrenhalt has brought his mix of sharp-eyed observation and analysis to a new book: The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Its thesis is straightforward but not uncontroversial: that a large group of “millennial young adults” prefer urban over suburban, and especially exurban, living—and that, as a result, they will push lower-income households, including new immigrants, to settle outside core cities. This shift will re-create, to some extent, the pattern of early twentieth-century Vienna and Paris. In other words, the phrase “inner city,” long a synonym (and euphemism) for American social problems, will go the way of the Berlin Wall.

Ehrenhalt reports from the front lines—whether Bushwick in Brooklyn, where an unlovely industrial urban-scape and entrenched poverty haven’t deterred a wave of artists and young professionals from moving in, or Houston, where a once-unpopulated downtown is filling up with apartment complexes. This new urban bustle, in Ehrenhalt’s view, reflects the fact that “in many American cities, the question of where to live is already as much a question of time” (that is, commuting time) “as it is of money.” Looking elsewhere, he finds that the once lily-white Atlanta exurbs of Gwinnett County have become a center of Hispanic, and especially Korean, immigration—a dramatic transformation for both metro Atlanta and the American South. Key to such change is not just a new racial tolerance, but undernoticed trends such as the availability of empty strip-mall space for aspiring entrepreneurs. “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. “This is what demographic inversion is about.” Weaving census and public-opinion data throughout, Ehrenhalt displays the same narrative and reporting skills he put to good use in The Lost City, his underappreciated portrait of working-class Chicago in the 1950s.

Other urban critics (notably City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin) don’t accept Ehrenhalt’s thesis of a broad demographic “inversion.” The difference of view is less about whether the back-to-the-city trend is real than about whether it will become dominant—or, indeed, whether highlighting it gives too much weight to the preferences of “new-class” young professionals at the expense of those whose tastes run to large-lot homes and three-car garages. Implicit in this debate is the question of whether elites—policy planners steering cities with such guidelines as “transit-oriented development”—are ramrodding new residents into a life they don’t really want. Ehrenhalt won’t settle this debate and doesn’t purport to. “It is possible to argue that the rules are not about to change—that the auto-dependent culture, suburban expansion, and the urban decline of the late twentieth century will simply resume” once the U.S. economy recovers, he concedes. “It is also possible to argue . . . that the Great Recession will prove to be a cultural and demographic turning point and . . . that the roles of cities and suburbs will not only change but very nearly reverse themselves. . . . It is why Chicago in 2030 will look more like the Paris of 1910 than the Detroit of 1970.”

In part, Ehrenhalt’s view grows out of the communitarian leanings he showed in The Lost City. The isolation of suburban life, he believes, simply won’t satisfy our inherent social needs. Moreover, he notes, “the (millennial) generation is simply so large—by one conventional measure, sixty to seventy million people—that even a respectable minority of this cohort seeking an urban life is bound to change American metropolitan areas dramatically.” In other words, the inversion, to the extent it is occurring, is the product of real preferences, not an urban-planning straitjacket imposed by those who disdain suburban sprawl.

Ehrenhalt’s portraits of cities and neighborhoods in flux suggest a secondary but significant theme: the unpredictable, even serendipitous factors that spark neighborhood change and improvement. Grand public policies frequently achieve nothing, while modest changes, which complement rather than reverse trends, can be fruitful. So it is that the Chicago transit authority’s decision to increase the number and length of elevated trains serving the Sheffield neighborhood helped drive its rebirth. The successful crime-fighting of New York City police laid the foundation for rebuilding long-dilapidated parts of Brooklyn—but the specific decision to build a major transit hub in Bushwick played a key role in that neighborhood’s comeback. Private decisions matter greatly: the hub of Gwinnett County’s Korean immigration surge, he writes, is an Asian-foods grocery store that originated in Woodside, Queens. The decision of entrepreneur Il Yeon Kwon to open a 65,000-square-foot “H Mart” changed the face of Gwinnett and even drew immigrants directly from Korea. Such decisions can be far more influential than government master plans.

Ehrenhalt tellingly cites how officials in Phoenix strove to create a “network of nine urban villages . . . ringing the city . . . that could have separate identities . . . and a general sense of community that many felt was slipping away.” He continues: “It was an intriguing idea but it was also a huge flop,” noting that a decade later, only a third of area residents even knew the experiment had been tried. Though generally skeptical, Ehrenhalt believes that less prescriptive public policies fare better and often exceed expectations, such as the vast rezoning of New York under Michael Bloomberg, which helped spark a population boom in lower Manhattan, or Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell’s lessening of the tax burden on Center City, which encouraged construction, nightlife, and repopulation.

Though Ehrenhalt doesn’t offer it himself, The Great Inversion suggests another conclusion. Because cities are dynamic, because the physical city changes thanks to a bewildering range of economic and aesthetic factors, it’s foolhardy for government to dictate what should be built where and for what purpose—or what should be preserved. This government-knows-best mentality explains why New York City is stuck with huge public-housing projects (built for workers at a navy yard long since converted to other uses) on the valuable waterfront of a booming Brooklyn, and why the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is so sure that the wealthy enclaves of Westchester County will always flourish that it insists they accept subsidized, low-income rental housing. As Ehrenhalt himself might argue, affordable housing, intended to mix rich and poor, might instead consign poor residents to new suburban ghettoes. The ultimate lesson of this report from the urban and suburban front lines is this: in ways that public policy may influence but cannot control, America’s cities, because they’re alive, continue to surprise.

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