» Democracy Journal: Suburb Slickers (Ben Adler)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before …
If you live in the suburbs, you may have noticed a totally different demographic trend: the diversifying of suburbia. Maybe it’s the Vietnamese nail salons and pho joints that have filled up the old suburban strip malls, or the sudden emergence of Latino pedestrians walking home along busy roads or congregating in convenience store parking lots. Immigrants and minorities, from the working poor to the affluent, are arriving in suburbia. Some are following job opportunities that have been dispersed around the urban perimeter. Others are priced out of the city. Many are seeking the same virtues—space, good schools, low crime—that drove whites to suburbs throughout the twentieth century.
Alan Ehrenhalt’s new book ties these threads into one common phenomenon that he calls demographic inversion. Our metropolitan areas, he argues in The Great Inversion, are being turned inside out, with the wealthier white people living in the cities, while those who aspire to be the first generation in their family to achieve the American Dream—frequently immigrants and African Americans—move to the suburbs. Ehrenhalt argues that this constitutes a return to form for the modern metropolis, pointing to nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna as cities that invented the template. Major cities in developing countries, such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, already fit this mold. In fact, the United States, with the poor in cities and the wealthy in suburbs, has largely been a global exception. But that is ending. “The roles of cities and suburbs will not only change but will very nearly reverse themselves,” he predicts, in about 20 years’ time.
No doubt, I’m curious to read Ehrenhalt’s book, but I tend to be as skeptical about some of the details offered by proponents of the trend. With that in mind, it’s refreshing to read some of the critiques offered further into this review.
As for the Houston case, I tend to think that too much gets made of the small growth patterns we see in Downtown, Midtown, and EaDo while the real inversion has obviously been underway in the Heights. You could definitely stretch that out to consider the Heights as “inner city”. But I think it’s a definitional stretch and also confuses the causality since much of what we see in Houston’s inversion related to legislated price spikes in home values due to historic districts being created. Simply pricing out a good chunk of population from the market doesn’t do great things for diversification unless income distribution correlates with demography. And at present … it does not.
Still, I think it’s worthwhile to look at some of demographic patterns in other places and hear out some of the theories that hold those together. I’ve got the sample loaded up on the Kindle. But a fuller reading will likely have to wait until I’m done with Woodward’s latest.