Alan Ehrenhalt has a thought provoking article, Trading Places: The Demographic Inversion of the American City, in the current issue of The New Republic. Chicago dwellers will find added interest as our city features prominently in Ehrenhalt’s examples of the demographic inversion (a phrase he likes better than the more common “gentrification”) that he claims is rapidly taking place in America’s cities.
Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city–Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center–some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white–are those who can afford to do so.
Ehrenhalt sees three primary reasons for this sociological shift in our urban centers and suburban sprawls: the deindustrialization of the city center, decreasing random street violence and the media’s portrayal of urban life as seen in Friends, Seinfeld and Sex and the City. Despite our enjoyment of the occasional Seinfeld rerun, I’d say media had less to do with our recent move from the suburbs than did our experiences in Chicago over the past 8 years. Experiences that were shaped by the deindustrialization and relative safety that Ehrenhalt points out.
Even newcomers to Chicago like Maggie and me can’t miss the implications that rapidly changing demographics will have on many individuals and families.
We are moving toward a society in which millions of people with substantial earning power or ample savings can live wherever they want, and many will choose central cities over distant suburbs. As they do this, others will find themselves forced to live in less desirable places–now defined as those further from the center of the metropolis. And, as this happens, suburbs that never dreamed of being entry points for immigrants will have to cope with new realities.
To illustrate the complexities of how this happens, Ehrenhalt uses our neighborhood, Logan Square, as a brief case study.
Logan Square is still not the safest neighborhood in Chicago. There are armed robberies and some killings on its western fringe, and, even on the quiet residential streets, mothers tell their children to be home before dark. But that hasn’t prevented Logan Square from changing dramatically again–not over the past generation, or the past decade, but in the past five years. The big stone houses built by the factory owners on Logan Boulevard are selling for nearly $1 million, despite the housing recession. To describe what has happened virtually overnight in Logan Square as gentrification is to miss the point. Chicago, like much of America, is rearranging itself, and the result is an entire metropolitan area that looks considerably different from what it looked like when this decade started.
This is where it gets interesting for folks in our church. Given our commitment to Logan Square a number of people from the church have relocated to the neighborhood. Most of these folks (Maggie and me included) would fit somewhere within Ehrenhalt’s description of those with enough earning power to live where they choose. Our desire to live in the neighborhood reflects, I think, good motives and a desire to serve folks who often get overlooked by those in power. However, our very presence in the neighborhood raises a difficult question. Are we contributing to the demographic inversion that will eventually displace those with fewer financial resources?
Ehrenhalt ultimately sees this demographic shift as a positive force for the country, one that will lead to the formations of more communities. He may be right. In the meantime how do those of us involved in this inversion honor those who are most affected by these changes?
- I got an email on Wednesday about Let Justice Roll, a one day conference that will address some of these questions. I’m planning on attending. Anyone want to join?