(261) Great inversion [Book review]

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
Alan Ehrenhalt
276 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

This is possibly one of those watershed books that comes along every twenty or twenty-five years.  A well written effort that pulls together a timely description of a cultural situation many of us cannot fully define but are aware of in a casual, individualistic way.  Basically, cities are back in fashion, younger and older people in a position to reasonably determine the quality of their lives are doing so by moving into city core areas.  Central business districts are becoming condo districts.  Newcomers are increasingly going directly to suburban areas and the poor are being pushed to the fringes.

Erenhalt draws on history, sociological data, popular culture and direct observation to describe the move back into cities, many of which were abandoned for suburban living a generation or so ago.  It’s about the price of gas, consumer choice and personal values.   A Canadian example, Vancouver, is used as a model of the new glass, residential condominium-ized city. Seems the only thing holding back the great inversion is that many a city will simply not have enough residential capacity soon enough to capitalize on the shift, even if the general economy recovers with haste.  Suburban poverty, sadly, is a by-product of the reversal of flight from the cities.  The suburbs, in fact, are now host to many of the aggravations that once drove people out of the inner cities.

At times, Ehrenhalt’s description becomes a projection.  A lot of the marketing-related stuff about Millennials may be blown away by uncooperative negative economic realities.  Where, for one thing, will this cash-strapped and student loan indentured generation get the capital to project its lifestyle choices with?

There is much truthful perspective in this book, enough to make it very welcome to anyone reading seriously about North American communities.  There is plenty here about the future of suburbia.  A spillover of higher density, urbanized inner suburbs is expected as newly energized and desireable cores reach capacity.  Fringe suburbs way beyond the influence of the new/old cores, not such a pretty picture for them.

Well written and fascinating, if a little optimistic.  Worth your time and reminicisent in some ways of The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler and Edge City by Joel Garreau, two earlier observations of where things stood in their time.  It will be interesting to see the lives of young people reading Ehrenhalt’s book in twenty years.  We, like them, can anticipate good and bad things of some power and influence in sharper detail thanks to Ehrenhalt’s efforts.

Other reviews:

Stanford Social Innovation Review
ssireview.org

Trading Places ‘The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City’
NYT Sunday Book Review

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