Core and Periphery: “Trading Places”?

In a cover story for the latest issue of The New Republic, Governing Magazine editor Alan Ehrenhalt proclaims that the American city has reinvented itself by becoming the suburbs.

Ehrenhalt isn’t talking about the proliferation of strip mall CVS Pharmacy stores surrounded by requisite asphalt seas of parking. He’s talking about a process he refers to as “demographic inversion”—wealthy white folks moving to the urban core and pushing low-income folks and minorities to the periphery.

At first, demographic inversion sounds like everyone’s favorite urban bugaboo, gentrification. But Ehrenhalt writes that this process goes beyond mere gentrification—because the wealthy folks moving in are more likely to have children than the bohemians, artists, and gays that colonized distressed neighborhoods a generation ago, and they’re flocking into almost every American city.

Demographic inversion, then, is nothing less than a radical realignment of the way that Americans relate to class and space, and of perhaps the same magnitude as the flight of white Boomers to the ‘burbs a generation ago.

What are the consequences of such an inversion? In a noteworthy article that I’ve referenced before and that many have likely already seen, The Atlantic‘s Christopher Leinberger predicts poverty, crime, and decay for the suburbs. The Christian Science Monitor confirms Leinberger’s prediction with news that the exurbs are being hit hardest by the current economic downturn, reporting a 43 percent decline in Victorville, California, home prices as an example. As The Wall Street Journal wonders whether black flight could be as culpable as “white gentrification,” The New York Post suggests we scramble for ways to deflect the impending influx of suburban economic refugees.

As I’ve also mentioned before, Joel Kotkin still insists, like a Monty Python plague sufferer, that suburbia’s “not dead yet.” The Washington Post backs him up with reports that some city neighborhoods teetering on the brink of revitalization are now backsliding in the face of rampant foreclosures.

But it’s clear from all this press, that something is happening. Americans might not be abandoning every peripheral neighborhood or revitalizing every city block, but perhaps America is approaching that watershed moment where we at least believe the viability of city living to be on par with suburban living.


  1. I believe it: and this means that the time is now to put affordability controls in place in the cities. Especially because the suburbs are a worse place to be poor than the city, on account of how expensive it is to get around and how it isolates you from services and support networks (though presumably at some point services will follow).

    I’m afraid that the devastation foreclosures are causing in many low and moderate income urban neighborhoods is only going to make the crunch in the healthy nabes (and in weak market cities there are often only a few of those) that much harsher.

  2. Great point. As a weak market city-dweller I’m seeing exactly that in my own ‘hood – which actually isn’t entirely healthy, but is getting more expensive as folks who normally would be buying somewhere else now have no choice but to rent here. From the lukewarm press coverage, it seems to me that we’re far enough ahead of the curve to address these issues before they become pandemic.


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