History

Ehrenhalt’s “Great Inversion” is part of a cycle of migrations that happened throughout America’s history.  The first migration was out of eastern cities to the West during the 1800s to 1850s. The second was a migration from farms to factory towns during the mid to late 1800s. Thirdly, was a migration to cities in the early 1900s, both to take advantage of industrial jobs and due to an influx of immigrants from (mainly) Europe. The early 1900s also had the introduction of the street car and automobile.  While this allowed some people to flee the pollution, noise, and overcrowding of the central city – it limited the scope of the outward migration to inner suburbs. Until the end of the second world war (1945), cities remained the epicenter of commerce and culture.

In part to meet the housing demands of returning veterans and their growing families – many suburbs were built in the 1950s.  However, the housing shortage was also due to no new housing being built during the Great Depression of the 1930s or war of the 1940s. Furthermore, due to racism, poverty and prejudiced policies  - the suburbs remained an opportunity almost entirely for white Americans. The fourth migration was a massive “white flight” during the 1950s and 1960s, as anyone who could take advantage of the new housing in suburbia left. This was also a reaction to the increasing tensions between white and black Americans at the time of the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation. The ubiquity of the automobile and the interstate highway system made the transition to the suburbs quick and easy for many.

A side effect of this great migration was the concentration of minorities, immigrants, poverty and crime in central cities. The loss revenue caused many businesses to leave central cities and relocate to the suburbs.  The loss of tax revenue caused many cities to nearly go bankrupt. The growth of commerce in the suburbs during the 1960s quickly lead to edge cities in the 1970s and 1980s- in which residents rarely, if ever, needed to go into the nearby city.  They could live, work and play entirely in their mainly middle- to upper-class enclaves.  Simultaneously, improvements in technology and outsourcing caused a massive deindustrialization of the inner city – causing fewer working-class jobs that were traditionally held by low-income residents, minorities and immigrants.

Could the “Great Inversion” be migration number five?  There is a clear interest in urban living from many descendants of baby boomers, and the baby boomers themselves (empty nesters). The increasing price of gasoline, the cost of commute time, the decreasing crime rates, the relatively low pollution and the liveliness of street-life all make cities more desirable than ever. As demand and real estate costs rise in inner cities – minorities, immigrants and the poor are being pushed out – or can’t afford to settle there in the first place. If this is a fifth migration, will it be for middle and upper class whites only?

Sources: Teaford (2006) and class lectures