Review: Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion

The Great InversionIn the acknowledgements section at the end of his book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, author Alan Ehrenhalt demurred he is “no Jane Jacobs” but says he followed her advice for researching cities, namely to study them through close personal observation using a minimum of preconceptions. The results of this approach are apparent throughout his readable and interesting discussion on the changing geography of U.S. cities. The vivid details gleaned from personal observation, especially in Chicago, Houston, and an Atlanta suburb, provide a vitality and richness too often lacking in nonfiction treatments of cities. In addition, his clear prose captures the essence of key intellectual debates –- such as new urbanism and gentrification –- without getting bogged down.

Organized around a series of short city-based cases, Ehrenhalt explores his thesis, that the return of wealthy residents to city centers will produce U.S. cities more reminiscent of the 19th century Paris and Vienna than the typical 20th Century U.S. city, where wealthy suburbs surround a poorer urban core. However, unlike more narrowly construed books like Lineberger’s The Option of Urbanism, or the lack of nuance in Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, Ehrenhalt brings a reporter’s eye to his subject, presenting wonderfully detailed descriptions of how this trend is translating into unique local conditions. He describes how downtowns are becoming (or attempting to become) more residential, and suburbs are seeking to transform themselves into more urban places in response to shifting preferences. Each of the places he profiles must grapple with unique local conditions. At its best, he captures the interplay between social and demographic trends and urban form that characterizes good descriptions of urbanism. For example, he describes how Philadelphia developed into a city of owner-occupied row homes organized into largely working class neighborhoods. This produced a physical fabric, unique politics, and public policies (such as a wage tax) that together create challenges for neighborhood revitalization and largely confines revitalization to Center City. Similarly, he describes how lower Manhattan’s obsolete commercial buildings contributed to the unexpected residential renaissance there, as they were ideal for retrofitting into condos and apartments. (As an aside, a similar phenomenon is happening in downtown Detroit, including the recent conversion of the formerly largely vacant commercial Broderick Tower into 124 apartments).

The cases, selected to demonstrate the varied impact of the broad trend on urban neighborhoods or suburban municipalities outside the center city include, with these neighborhoods or suburbs noted, Chicago (Sheffield), New York City (Lower Manhattan and Bushwick), Atlanta (Gwinnet County), Cleveland (Cleveland Heights), Washington, D.C. (Clarendon and Tysons’s Corner), Philadelphia (Center City), Houston (downtown), Phoenix (downtown), and Denver (Belmar, Stapletown and Englewood).

In general, the book’s weaknesses are few and forgivable. While general well-selected, the cases show a northeast bias, with the notable absence of any west coast cities, especially one in California. While Charlotte, North Carolina is discussed at one point, another well-developed southern example might have been illuminating given the region’s distinctive culture and history. The relative scarcity of photos (just 18 in 236 pages) is puzzling, given the author’s first-hand accounts. A few more could have helped illustrate the places and people that are so well described. One strength is the well-designed maps provided at the start of each chapter.

My only substantive complaint is the relatively sketchy and simplistic treatment of the planning process that in many cases fostered or responded to the changes he describes. As an example, the light rail systems and accompanying transit-oriented development plans described in Phoneix and Denver are presented as easily adopted proposals designed by an urban elite. This account omits the extensive planning and outreach work required to secure passage of new taxes and new zoning in a largely anti-tax and anti-urban U.S. electorate. (Approval of transit taxes are by no means guaranteed.) However, convoluted planning processes that feature negotiations, ever-evolving renewal designs and plans, and interminable hearings and meetings make for tedious reading. But greater attention to these issues would help avoid two common misconceptions about U.S. urban development. First, that it is simply the product of heroic, top-down planning, such as the urban renewal feats orchestrated by Philadelphia’s renewal-era planner Ed Bacon. This type of “star planner” has faded from the scene given the separation of power and resources in U.S. cities. While leadership remains important, public action requires cultivating consensus among stakeholders. A public process that defines goals, refines plans, and analyzes proposals is often required before projects are funded and approved. The second erroneous impression to avoid is that planning is not needed because cities change by the market forces alone. Of course, private industry does not provide infrastructure, transit service, parks and public services required for urban life. While planning and public sector action may lead urban change, or respond to private initiative, it is an indispensible factor in any account of urban change.

One entrée into the topic of public sector planning might have been the issue of zoning, a topic with only three entries in the book’s index. Ehrenhalt discusses zoning in the section on Houston, which famously lacks this type of land use regulation. This chapter describes how Garret Coleman and the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone are using property purchasing and restrictive covenants to to slow gentrification in the Third Ward neighborhood. While alluding to them briefly, the analogous public mechanisms to these in other cities are not described, which include zoning and historic preservation laws, and the plans that guide detailed regulations. In fact, several recent books on zoning are notably missing from a generally comprehensive biography (including Levin’s Zoned Out, Talen’s City Rules, and Ben-Joseph’s The Code of the City).

These complaints aside, the book is unparalleled as a useful portrait of American cities. U.S. metropolitan regions are dynamic and complex, and inevitably evolve much more quickly than our understanding of them. This makes book like this especially useful. Therefore I believe it will be a seminal text of popular urban geography for this era, in the same category as such classics as Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere (which vividly described and critiqued suburban development) or Garreau’s Edge City (which coined a term for places like Tyson’s Corner in the first place, which are now attempting to develop greater urbanity). These books share a vitality and journalistic sensibility that helps us better grasp the cities of today, whether the readers are scholars, professionals, or residents interested to know more about their place in the evolving urban tapestry.

> The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City [WorldCat]

Author: Rob Goodspeed