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Book: Great Inversion

Resolved: spend less time arguing uselessly with people Wrong On the Internet, spend more learning stuff. Or even doing stuff.

Currently am indeed in a reading/learning mode. First up is The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City by Alan Ehrenhalt. You could say it's about gentrification writ large, but the premise is more than that. If gentrification is well-off people taking over particular neighborhods, Ehrenhalt says for the past 15+ years well-off people have been returning to the inner cities in general. Gentrification of the city. The book is mostly several case studies exemplifying what he claims is a trend.

To specify the trend a bit more: it used to be cities had rich people in the middle, smelly factories in an inner ring, poor people in an outer ring. European cities still largely follow that trend, possibly minus the smelly factories these days. Central Paris is expensive, African immigrants go in high-rises in the "suburbs". London's less organized, but similar. It's the US that largely had rich people go to the suburbs and concentrate poor people in the middle, probably because of a mix of greater car love, cheap gas, GI Bill, and desegregation/busing/white flight. Also, the crime wave of the 1960s. But now some rich people are moving back, for a mix of expensive gas, the crime decline of the 1990s, and people having grown up in suburbs and not wanting to repeat the mistake. And, these days lots of immigrants are settling directly in the suburbs, for being cheaper and closer to many of their jobs.

It's not necessarily a mass migration; he doesn't say everyone's preferences have flipped, a bunch of the trends got interrupted by the 2007 housing crash, and there's kind of not enough pedestrian Jane Jacobs city for everyone who wants it, let alone everyone. (Part of the case studies is about how towns are trying to rebuild or reinvent themselves.) Still, there have been Changes. Property values in what used to be distressed urban neighborhoods have shot up -- and are staying up even in the Depression 2.0 -- and people are found living where they haven't before, like Wall Street! -- while suburbs are getting more poor people and crime.

One particular note: Chicago continued to lose people, down to about 2.7 million from the 3.3m of my youth, which made me sad. But apparently a lot of the recent losses are from the destruction of high-rise public housing like Cabrini-Green -- a synonym for crime-ridden hellhole -- which hasn't been replaced, so the losses are actually of poor black people. Meanwhile Chicago has been friendly to high-rise developments downtown or near downtown, and gentrification has crept out along the L tracks. He talks about Sheffield, once a working neighborhood, then a drug crime neighborhood, and now a land of million dollar houses. Which points to one reason he doesn't use 'gentrification': the actual modest gentry can't afford to live there!

This 'inversion' following transit when it can is a common theme in his examples. It sometimes happens even without people commuting to work on it that much; one saying is "it's not the train it's the tracks", investors liking the promise of long-term investment and stability offered by the tracks. Or perhaps the promise that the trains are there when needed.

He also has a chapter on Cleveland Heights, as an example of an old inner suburbs that's trying to adjust, which was of particular interest since I've been there once and a friend lives there. Others include Houston, Philadelphia, DC, various NY neighborhoods, suburbs of Denver, Phoenix...

Another interesting point: apparently suburban malls have been failing en masse. Some suburbs try to create little pedestrian town centers in the ruins, with newly re-created streets. Success varies.

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Damien Sullivan

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