A political scientist looks at a possible “demographic inversion” in which America's cities may follow in the footsteps of late-19th-century European capitals: “affluent and stylish urban core[s] surrounded by poorer people and an immigrant working class on the periphery.”
With large public-housing complexes demolished and their former inhabitants pushed into the outer suburbs, young professionals, senior citizens and other groups are beginning to find their way back to older central city neighborhoods. Pew Center on the States information director Ehrenhalt’s (Democracy in the Mirror: Politics, Reform and Reality in Grassroots America, 1998, etc.) main examples are Chicago's Sheffield neighborhood, which has gone from an urban wasteland to one of the city's most fashionable and desirable locations, and New York City’s financial district, where commercial office buildings have been converted to residential uses and the evening streets are populated by couples with baby carriages. Ehrenhalt finds the historical parallels for this process in the renewal and reconstruction of city centers in 1890s Paris and Vienna. He also discusses cities where he doesn't think such revivals are possible, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, both of which have locally focused political structures based on privately owned row houses with small lots, and the former industrial wasteland of Detroit. Between these extremes he presents cases like Phoenix, which has tried multiple times to build a center city that never existed, and continues to fail. Ehrenhalt points to Northern Virginia's Tysons Corner—now the twelfth largest business district in the United States”—as the test case for whether a commercial strip, lacking residential development, can be transformed into a unified city-type center.
The author’s historical perspective helps shape his provocative view, though he doesn’t examine whether the demographic trends will generate either the financing or the wider employment that Paris and Vienna were able to stimulate in their own unique ways.