Demographic Inversion

Tracking a middle-class influx back to urban neighborhoods






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While government and the media bloviate about high gas prices and what to do about them, Americans are slowly, quietly figuring out what to do about it all by themselves. Nationwide, mass transit ridership is up and total vehicle miles traveled are down (the latter leading the road-builders to hyperventilate, since gas taxes are the sole source for their slush fund, I mean, the highway trust fund). Sales of SUVs are likewise cratering, causing Detroit to tremble like a wino with the DTs.

But the most intriguing trend that could reduce our oil dependence actually predates the hysteria of the last few months and fears of $4 gas. While the suburbs are still growing, cities are back. And, curiously, their burgeoning populations aren’t quite what one would expect. Inner cities such as Chicago or even the sprawling Sunbelt centers of Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta are seeing an unprecedented influx of the white middle class. The result, whether decried as gentrification or described using the less-confrontational label “demographic inversion” is the same: The modern American city is coming to mimic the 19th-century European one, with the poor and the newcomers increasingly on the outskirts and those near the center people who can afford to do so.

In lower Manhattan, since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of people has almost doubled, from 25,000 to almost 50,000. And with nearly a quarter of them couples with children, the average household size is actually larger in lower Manhattan than in the city as a whole. The change, with expensive condos replacing offices, in many ways mimics Knoxville.

Knoxville, of course, is not Manhattan. And demographic inversion will take a long time to make a dent in 50 years of flight toward Farragut. But growth at the center is well entrenched at this point and appears to be gathering steam. Downtown’s explosive growth has been well documented, and the same goes for other areas such as Fourth and Gill or Old North Knoxville, but the trend is steadily trickling into other areas.

Consider, for instance, this nicely restored shotgun-style Victorian in Mechanicsville. Redone with a wide-open plan, complete with refinished hardwood, cathedral ceilings, and bare brick, it has the same sort of feel and appeal as many downtown condos. However, since it’s on downtown’s outskirts, rather than dead center, “demographic inversion” cuts your way. At less than $100 per square foot, it’s a fraction of the cost of a loft condo. So swing by the open house from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 24, and check it out.

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