What is the Great Inversion?

Through numerous examples, Ehrenhalt describes how recently, central cities are increasingly where the wealthy wish to live, while suburbs are becoming home to poorer people and immigrants.  This is the opposite of the demographic trends of American cities from the 1950s to 1990s. Ehrenhalt argues that this phenomena is more widespread than what gentrification can account for; Rather, it is more accurately described as a “great inversion”.

Instead of poorer minority residents being replaced by more affluent white ones in an individual neighborhoods (gentrification), what is happening now is a much broader and more profound rearrangement of living patterns across entire metropolitan areas at the same time. Sometimes this is a racial inversion – where wealthy white people are replacing poorer black people, like in Atlanta.  Sometimes, it’s an influx of more residents, like in southern Manhattan, where expensive condos replace offices, not poor people. The author analyzes the causes, impact and implications of this little understood demographic trend.


The author begins by taking readers through historic cities: Paris, Vienna and London. He does this in order to show how many American cities are becoming more like European cities of the 19th century.  American cities are starting to resemble their European predecessors mainly demographically, rather than physically. Ehrenhalt writes, “The late twentieth century was the age of poor inner cities and wealthy suburbs.  The twenty-first century is emerging as an age of affluent inner neighborhoods and immigrants settling on the outside” (p. 38).  These demographic trends are occurring in cities that are growing, where population numbers are flat and even in those in a modest decline.

Central cities are increasingly where the affluent want to live. For example, commercial canyons of lower Manhattan are becoming residential neighborhoods. Mass transit has revitalized inner-city communities in Chicago and Brooklyn. Car-dominated cities like Phoenix and Charlotte have sought to build twenty-first century downtowns from scratch. Charlotte was hit especially hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and yet is still experiencing a downtown building boom dominated with New Urbanist style mixed use high-rise buildings. Additionally, suburbs outside of Denver, Houston and Washington D.C. are seeking to attract young people with their own form of urbanized experience.

In contrast, suburbs are increasingly populated by minorities and immigrants who are not attracted to or cannot afford city living. African Americans are moving out of central cities (180,000 of them in Chicago alone). Atlanta’s suburbs are enclaves of Hispanics, Blacks (African Americans – but also immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria or Gambia), Vietnamese and Koreans. Cleveland Heights, Ohio, is an inner suburb that may be undergoing an inversion transition – currently caught in the middle.  As a result, there is a strange mix of the “very wealthy, the very poor, an aging middle class, and a burgeoning population of bohemians, young and old” (p.116).


Ehrenhalt describes what he thinks are a few main causes of the “great inversion”. An inescapable reason is the increasing price of gasoline. Some who can afford and prefer to live closer to work will do so, as the current price of gasoline is not likely to go down anytime soon, due to increasing global demand of a finite resource.

Another underlying cause is the deindustrialization of the central city. The noise and grime of the central city have largely gone away. The remaining working-class jobs are now usually located on the outskirts of the city.

Additionally, inner cities are safer than ever before. There has been a dramatic decline in violent crimes in the past decade. Young people, especially, have no memories  of the gritty, rioting inner neighborhoods of the late 1960s to 1970s, and therefore no fear to live or visit there.

Generation Y and Millennials who grew up in suburbia, prefer a more urban, car-free lifestyle. Ehrenhalt describes these cultural preferences this way, “The people who are moving downtown are doing so in part to escape the real or virtual “gatedness” of suburban life” (p. 19).

Finally, there is less demand for single family houses in the suburbs – and this trend is likely to continue. Those 65+ will be up to 19% from 13% by 2030 (p. 231). This demographic may age in place, but typically do not buy single family houses in the suburbs.  Empty nesters often move to cities. Only a quarter of American households in 2030 will be raising children (p. 312) compared with 50 % in the 1950s. 20 years from now, there will be more single-member households than households with children (p.312). Singles and childless professional couples are also more likely to want to live in the city than in suburbia.


Demographic inversion will likely not result in dystopian, gated enclaves of the wealthy white in the center, with poor minorities and immigrants “out of sight and mind” in suburban ghettos. Segregation is not gone, but it is still not what it was. Inversion will mean different things to different people and different places.  Sometimes it will a Jane Jacobs vision of a locally-owned, messy and adventurous urban world.  Other neighborhoods will be New Urbanist in style, but occupied by chain stores.  The author thinks this inversion will likely take place throughout America, but not in an extreme form and not for all big cities.  There will still be plenty of people moving to the suburbs, especially couples with children.

The author feels that for all its flaws, demographic inversion ultimately will do more good than harm, by creating the new urban communities of the twenty-first century.

About the Author

Alan Ehrenhalt is the executive editor of Stateline, the news service of the Pew Center on the States, which provides timely and analytical reporting on developments in state policy and politics. He was the executive editor of Governing magazine from 1990 to 2009. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard from 1977-1978, and has been a lecturer in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.

Ehrenhalt has written three other books: The United States of Ambition, The Lost City, and Democracy in the Mirror. In 2000, he was the winner of the American Political Science Association’s Carey McWilliams Award for distinguished contributions to the field of political science by a journalist. Ehrenhalt is a graduate of Brandeis University and holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He lives near Washington, D.C.

Sources: pewstates.org and governing.com