Alan Ehrenhalt was the executive editor of Governing magazine from 1990 to 2009. His new book is The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.
From Ehrenhalt's Q &A with Will Doig at Salon:
The revitalization of cities seemed to come out of nowhere, but you write that it was actually the result of deliberate efforts and policies. For instance, Chicago laid the groundwork for a resurgence, while other Midwestern cities missed out. What did Chicago do that, say, Cleveland did not?--Marshal Zeringue
In Chicago’s case there were two factors: One is that Chicago is simply the biggest, so it inherits the title of Magnet City of the Midwest. That gave it an edge. But it’s just as true that Mayor Daley the First had a clear idea that people would want to live downtown, and he made it possible for developers to acquire land there. Similarly to what New York City and Philadelphia did, he offered tax incentives to help the city center come back. Now, you can waste a lot of money on tax incentives if no one wants to live downtown. The market has to be right.
Of course, the flip side is more immigrants and working-class families now living in the suburbs, which has complicated politics in places like Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta, because all these different immigrant groups have a harder time uniting on issues. Are we looking at a future of the ungovernable suburb?
Gwinnett County is interesting because the residents are now a nonwhite majority, yet it’s still all white Republicans on the council. It’s fairly common for a traditional white power structure to remain when diversity comes in. In Chicago, you had an Irish power structure in neighborhoods long after they became majority black. But yes, one myth is that Asians are Asians when it comes to politics, but each ethnic group is different, politically speaking. And another thing that’s clear is that African-Americans and Hispanics go their separate ways — the immigrants tend not to move into the African-American areas.
The suburbs themselves break down into different factions, too. You’ve got the outer suburbs, like Gwinnett County, which are seeing a true inversion, and the inner suburbs, which often still suffer from high poverty and high crime. I would think that as the inner cores of cities become more and more expensive, these inner-ring suburbs would inevitably gentrify completely. Is that too simple an assumption?
I think it’s a little too simple. The...[read on]