16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The next great buzzword
This is an excellent book, written with the data in mind but without the more heavy-handed charts and foot notes that often can be presented in such texts. Much as "edge cities" was coined in the late 1980's and came into common usage, so too based on the context of the research, will the term "the great inversion" come to be the model or some variant in future...
Published on May 11, 2012 by Michael Brown
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Solid Point once you Weed through the words
Ehrenhalt fills the pages with layers of detail for each of his sample cities. Once you get in rhythm with his method, the last quarter of each chapter becomes a bit overkill. That being said, his depth is probably due to the fact that he is trying to convince American developers and consumers that there is an apparent shift slowly working and given how stubborn we can...
Published 12 months ago by ImNotMad_Dog
Most Helpful First | Newest First
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The next great buzzword,
This is an excellent book, written with the data in mind but without the more heavy-handed charts and foot notes that often can be presented in such texts. Much as "edge cities" was coined in the late 1980's and came into common usage, so too based on the context of the research, will the term "the great inversion" come to be the model or some variant in future parlance.
The author begins with a tour through 19th century Paris and Vienna and then moves chapter by chapter through different American cities or clusters of similar cities and their attempts to stave off decline or simply revitalize. Some will criticize the absence of sweeping praise or condemnation. For me, this is a pleasant aspect of the book. It is a completely readable text for all audiences, served up with fair critiques of the New Urbanists and the current American suburban mindset with all its contradictions.
The author's research is most fascinating with his projections about the make-up of the future vibrant cities. One would have suspected them to have been simply class oriented, but according to the author they will also be very skewed ethnically. This would be a significant and ground-shifting movement which will have implications on political systems, school systems, economics and the city as we have grown accustomed to it.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Read about Modern American Cities,
I bought this book about five or six days ago and uploaded it to my Android, thinking I would read a few pages here and there over the next few months. I couldn't stop reading it, and finished it in days.
The dilemmas confronting cities over how to attract people to an urban core as well as how to urbanize suburban areas are very interesting, and as the other reviewer noted, the author is very even-handed in his treatment of life-style preferences regarding cars, density, etc. (In this sense he is unlike the suburban advocate Joel Kotkin, who often writes with a sneer about the urbanists he disagrees with.)
I currently live in urban San Francisco with two small children, so the issues discussed here were very relevant. We can't afford to buy a house here, or at least one we would want in a neighborhood we would like. I'm going to be moving to Los Angeles soon, and this book helped me think about what I value in a future house, neighborhood, and commute down in that area.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What defines a livable city?,
This a gem which has received far less attention than it deserves. Anyone who lives in or near a metropolitan area has been catching glimpses of the trend that Ehrenhalt explores with a magnifying glass. He begins by sketching the urban lifestyles of great European cities like Vienna and Paris during the late 19th century to illustrate the urban lifestyle he sees current American twenty and thirty-year-olds as well as retiring baby-boomers seeking. He uses the term inversion to describe the demographic trend away from suburban sprawl based on autos, highways, and strip malls to pedestrian-friendly urban landscapes encompassing residential, retail, and office space served by public transportation. "Inversion" describes the trend for the more affluent -- particularly singles and retirees -- to seek center city residences while the suburbs attract immigrants and lower middle class workers.
Ehrenhalt proceeds to examples of successes and failures across the country examining revitalized neighborhoods in cities like New York and Chicago; looking at the alternatives for inner suburbs in Cleveland, Atlanta, Denver, and Washington, D.C.; analyzing attempts by sprawl cities like Houston and Phoenix to define a central city; looking at the realities of New Urbanists to create models from Seaside, Florida to Tyson's Corner, Maryland.
This book is a delight to read because it feels like it is written by a realist rather than a dreamer -- someone who enjoys a cup of coffee on the sidewalk outside a cafe while observing the street scene and talking to people passing by. He doesn't criticize or advocate, he describes and raises questions about what it means.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid, and Squares with Local Observables,
Alan Ehrenhalt has written a fascinating account what he calls a recent "demographic inversion" - not, thank you, "gentrification" - in which immigrants now tend to enter American society via the suburbs rather than the core city, the poor abandon or are driven from the core city into the suburbs via loss of livelihood, taxes, and buyouts, and those who can afford it take up residence in the urban core for entertainment, social amenities, and quicker commutes. Ehrenhalt provides a variety of different takes on the ways in which this process is unfolding, to varying degrees of success, in exemplary urban neighborhoods - Chicago's Sheffield, Brooklyn's Bushwick, Cleveland Heights, Gwinnett County northeast of Atlanta, and many more, all related in clear, felicitous prose.
Among my favorite chapters were those in which Ehrenhalt chronicled and assessed the fall and rise of the Clarendon section of Arlington, brought about by the by arrival of Vietnamese shop and restaurant owners to properties emptied out by the disorder and loss of business due to Metro construction, and the continuing death spiral of the urban shipwreck that is Philadelphia, or, as some locals call it, "Bostroit," for its unique 18th-century core in close proximity to areas of utter blight, drug dens, and boarded up row houses, all a result of the rapid post-industrial loss of manufacturing and port services. And yes, sports fans, Ehrenhalt lingers for a while on an aspect of Philly most of you will recognize, as "the only large American city in which no one is surprised when parade watchers boo Santa Claus, where fans boo their sports teams for failing to win a second consecutive championship, or where grandmothers at the stadium insult spectators who happen to be wearing the wrong jersey." In Ehrenhalt's account, the cities that are gaining ground in the postindustrial world are cosmopolitan and diverse, and for the most part tolerant; Philadelphia, on the other hand, strikes the author and his Philly sources as provincial, parochial, and hyperlocally intolerant - for good and explicable historical reasons.
Although the numbers don't quite line up exactly as Ehrenhalt might wish - between the last two censuses, more people still migrated to the suburbs than to the cities, and in many urban areas that are repopulating, the downtown contingents are still relatively small - the trends he describes nevertheless seem well underway. And some of of what he discusses is wondrous strange and surprising, including the populating of the NY financial district, where, following 9/11 and then in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, developers repurposed as condos hundreds of office buildings, their occupants having fled to New Jersey and elsewhere in NY and Connecticut. Now, in the area south of Chambers Street, where the 1970 census recorded only 833 residents and which every NY urbanist viewed as the neighborhood least likely to EVER be viewed as residential - Jane Jacobs devoted several pages of "Death and Life" to mocking the very notion - more than 60,000 people, drawn in part by post-9/11 and post-meltdown incentives, are now living. And on Sunday there are couples with strollers!
Our contemporary Zeitgeist is urban - just look at the numbers of city books now cluttering the book reviews and (remaining) bookstore shelves - and, lured by entertainment, nightlife, and the hum of the city, an entire generation is going to the towns we boomers evacuated for the suburbs. The question, of course, is, "will the Millennials raise their children there?" I think so. I would. (How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, etc.?) And what about the suburbs? When I look around the suburban neighborhoods of northern Virginia, from which evidence Ehrenhalt supports his case, I see confirmation: the urban spaces are repopulating with people having more disposable income, the DC metro inner suburbs are hyperethnic, the suburban spaces are building urban amenities ("town-centers"). Meanwhile, the tract-home New Jersey neighborhood I grew up in, which contained NO - count them, NO - persons of color, is now fully international and delightfully diverse (and, in support of Ehrehalt's major argument, crumbling as well). My home borough has growing South Asian, East Asian, and Hispanic populations, all of whom are reflected in the multi-lingual signage of local main streets.
The book's brief final chapter is, sadly, weak on informed prognostication, apart from the crowning observation that we should expect more of the same. For me, however, that doesn't undermine the brilliance of the foregoing text or the empirical validity of the case studies.
In short, the main lines of The Great Inversion ring true to me, and I found Ehrenhalt's monograph essential reading as I seek to get my arms around city dynamics, trendlines, issues, politics, and constituencies.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating & Engaging Book on Demographic Shifts,
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Each chapter explores a different city or suburb to illustrate trends in urban development and population migration. The Great Inversion focuses on the shift from the sprawling suburbancentric model of development to citizens' more recent demands for walkable, mixed-use, transit adjacent communities. The author admits that this is a rather new phenomenon, but is convincing, thoughtful, and rather objective (using both anecdotal and empirical data as evidence) in his assessment of its importance and staying power. It's well written, well researched, and generally a fun and interesting read. Any urbanist or transit enthusiast will thoroughly enjoy it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Future of American Cities,
This is an excellent, well-organized book which feels surprisingly comprehensive given its low page count. Ehrenhalt's basic argument is that more people in America are attracted to an urban living experience, even if they have to reside in close-in suburbs, yet only some cities are responding effectively to this new demand. The opening chapters outline much of the book's focus and then individual chapters follow in particular cities such as Chicago, New York, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Charlotte. Ehrenhalt does a great job of discussing how these cities have formulated policies to accommodate and encourage the great inversion.
The only real complaint I have is that the data throughout the book is never compiled and presented in one place, so comparisons between cities end up being more anecdotal than statistical. Other reviewers have applauded the lack of data and charts so the exclusion may be a personal preference, but the book feels just a bit incomplete. Ehrenhalt also mentions that communities of people are being displaced by the great inversion, but he does not actually give much detail on there where they are heading and how that migration is affecting other neighborhoods. Regardless, anyone interested in urban planning and city government will greatly enjoy this book and find it very hard to put down.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Solid Point once you Weed through the words,
Ehrenhalt fills the pages with layers of detail for each of his sample cities. Once you get in rhythm with his method, the last quarter of each chapter becomes a bit overkill. That being said, his depth is probably due to the fact that he is trying to convince American developers and consumers that there is an apparent shift slowly working and given how stubborn we can be as a population, we may require that much convincing. The point is solid and pretty well supported. The actionability of the trend is so varied, market to market, that it's hard to leave feeling completely inspired but the conversation has definitely begun.
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking,
On my Facebook comment thread about the new rent vs buy equation, folks mentioned The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City as a good book about the new urbanism and the desire of young white people to live in cities. The Sunnyvale Library had it available for a Kindle checkout, so I got instant gratification.
The book's thesis is that wealthy, affluent white people are going to move into the big cities, while poor black people, Hispanics, and Asians are going to be stuck out in the suburbs. In one section of the book, he claims that Chicago in the 2020s is going to much more like Paris than it would be like Chicago in the 1970s. Hence, the term "Great Inversion".
The crux of the argument lies amongst several factors:
Suburbs are designed for cars and do not have a bustling enough street life.
The children who grew up in the suburbs and cul de sacs have all grown up and moved to big cities in order to go to school, and now would rather stay in the big cities.
People are getting married later, and having children later.
Only 25% of households by 2030 will even have children, which is way down from previous decades.
The net result is a ton of single people who would find city living attractive, despite the relatively high crime (which is declining, but nowhere near as safe as major European or Asian cities) , expensive property prices, and noise. Pollution near cities has become a thing of the past due to the loss of America actually manufacturing anything.
The book then visits several cities or cities in the making, and we a grand tour of Wall Street's recent change into a residential neighborhood, Houston's increasing density, Phoenix's repeated failures to get a genuine downtown area, despite wishing fervently for one, and Denver's experiments with urban areas. Nowhere is the Bay Area explored, which I found disappointing since the gentrification in San Francisco is currently a hot button issue here, and I'd love to find out what Ehrenhalt thinks would happen there.
One thing in common, however, is that none of the suburban "in-fill" attempts to create a city-like area out of a suburban area have worked, or achieved what's considered a traditional cityscape with residential, retail, and offices all intermingled with mixed use and high pedestrian traffic being the norm. This is not surprising: the car is all important in the suburbs, and it would take a brave developer to risk alienating Americans' love affair with the car.
Undermining Ehrenhalt's predictions are the polls that he quotes. For instance, early in the book he says as much as 41% of young people want to live in a city, but they still expect full use of a car. Fundamentally, cities like San Francisco have such poor public transportation systems that you'd still need a car to go anywhere interesting. Either that, or you'll need to have an employer sponsored bus. This says to me that American cities just aren't there yet, and getting there would take enormous political will that I just don't see happening in the near future.
Ehrenhalt acknowledges that significance of public transit and transportation in all the success stories. Chicago in particular had several neighborhoods exploded in popularity mostly because of the presence of good transit.
What about schools? Urban city schools have particularly poor reputations in California. Ehrenhalt takes a 2 prong approach to this. First, he claims that city dwellers mostly aren't the type to have children anyway. Secondly, he suggests that schools becoming good are the last step in the inversion process. In other words, the demographics of wealthy, white people gentrifying the inner city will drive school scores up as the last step of the process. I'm particularly skeptical of the latter argument, since my experience with wealthy white people in San Francisco is that they just send their kids to private school. Heck, even in Palo Alto where the public schools have a great reputation, wealthy white people seem to do that anyway.
Ultimately though, Ehrenhalt's biggest weakness is that he's extrapolating the recent past into the future. It's quite conceivable, for instance, that the introduction of the self-driving car and electronically controlled traffic could essentially turn public streets and highways into the ultimate public transit system. If those become mainstream, it could very well be that suburbs once again become desirable, since you now have easy access to all the amenities of a city, while still having a bigger home with access to open spaces for kids to play with, or for cycling, hiking, etc.
In any case, Ehrenhalt's right, then the anti-gentrification San Francisco activists definitely have a lot to be worried about. As for myself, I look forward to the day when it would be possible to ride a bike in San Francisco and park a bike outside a restaurant for a meal (or watch a movie or play) without it getting stolen. Without that condition, city life has no appeal whatsoever to me, and American cities are nowhere close to that.
The book comes recommended as interesting reading that's thought provoking. For me, the biggest weakness is that it gets very dreary after a while if you're not a city lover --- after a while, all the big cities just blur together. And seriously, I still have a hard time wondering how anybody can like Paris. It's a boring city that no longer has very good food, and has lousy cycling (though the motorists aren't nearly as hostile as those in San Francisco).
4.0 out of 5 stars optimistic but not unrealistic,
I'm always suspicious of books that tell me what I want to hear -- in this case that central cities are becoming more popular than distant suburbs in metropolitan areas across the country. Ehrenhalt makes his case effectively but also qualifies his position with opposing arguments and acknowledgment of the uncertainty that surrounds any predictions. The author uses a diverse array of cities as case studies, and he deserves praise for being one of the few urbanist authors to write about Phoenix in a way that is balanced and accurate. He rightly identifies the city's strengths (e.g. its extraordinarily successful light rail line) and its weaknesses (e.g. the unreasonable expectation of ubiquitous free parking) and blends them to reach an informed conclusion free of the smug condescension and gratuitous derision that mars many other writings about Phoenix.
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating,
A fascinating book about why some cities fail and other succeed and what the future holds for most of these cities. It was easiest to relate to the section on Clarendon VA, since I live in the area and have seen the changes that have taken place, but the litany of things that other cities have done wrong in city planning is very telling.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City by Alan Ehrenhalt (Paperback - January 22, 2013)