Schools and the City

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
By Alan Ehrenhalt
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, $26.95

The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools
By Michael Petrilli
Thomas B. Fordham Institute (2012), $11.95

As reviewed by Michael Thomas Duffy

The dignitaries were gathered from far and wide — Garden State politicos like Republican Governor Chris Christie and Newark’s Mayor, Democrat Cory Booker; business leaders like Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and European financier Nicholas Bergrruen; real estate developer Ron Beit and in a bit of a homecoming, Newark native and noted architect, Richard Meier. The improbable group came together on a hardscrabble parking lot in downtown Newark last February for the groundbreaking of Teacher Village. When completed, the $140 million mixed-use development would consist of several hundred market-rent apartments, street-level retail that would include restaurants and a grocery store, and at its heart, three charter schools. Christie and Booker lent the project their political support and tax breaks, Blankfein and Bergrruen supplied the financing, Beit masterminded the plan and Meier provided his signature cool white modern design for the buildings and the streetscape they would create.

The event marked an inflection point of sorts, or at least that’s what civic boosters hoped. The urban decay that provided the backdrop for the groundbreaking just a few blocks from Newark’s ornate Beaux Arts City Hall, was once a neighborhood that bustled with people and thriving businesses. Just after the Second World War, Newark’s population stood at a high point of 440,000 before hemorrhaging residents to the surrounding suburbs. An astonishing 165,000 people picked up and left, as America’s idea of the good life was found among the lawns of nearby Montclair, not in the midst of the densely packed streets of Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood. The greatest number left after the riots and racial unrest of the late 1960’s, before the city’s population bottomed out by the end of the 20th century. Then, in the 2010 census, for the first time in 50 years, something remarkable happened: like new shoots pushing through the spring soil, Newark actually gained new residents.

Newark’s experience confirms the argument that author Alan Ehrenhalt makes in his recently published book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, which is that in the last 10 years, many cities in North America are seeing small but perceptible rises in population in their urban core, often driven by increasing numbers of middle-class residents. Not only that, Ehrenhalt argues, there is a demographic inversion happening: the suburbs are where you will now find growing numbers of African-Americans and newly arrived immigrants choosing to live, not the city. By introducing the new concept of inversion he suggests a different paradigm than the racially loaded term gentrification. Ehrenhalt is describing a broader trend that isn’t defined by the displacement of one group by another, but an affirmative pattern of preferences by young people, African-Americans and recent immigrants alike. The implications for education in his book are found in his focus on the dynamics of urban demographics.

Throughout the book, which started out as a cover story in The New Republic called “Trading Places,” Ehrenhalt poses the question as to whether the younger professionals moving to urban enclaves, “…will still want to live there once they have children and whether they will stay when the children reach school age.” Key to answering this question is the quality of the public schools they are able to send their kids to. Part of what Ehrenhalt identifies as a trend has been noted elsewhere: the preference among many GenXers and Millennials to live in the kinds of city neighborhoods that generations before them had abandoned. Call it the Carrie Bradshaw Effect, for the character in the HBO series “Sex in the City” who made urban living seem so glamorous — either reflecting the times, or helping to shape them. If Carrie were to start a family (she did marry Mr. Big, after all — see the first “Sex in the City” movie) would she remain in Manhattan to raise her children? Ehrenhalt answers the question in the affirmative, a view consistent with my own observations looking around New York City, the city where I was born.

The book starts by examining the experience of a number of cities and neighborhoods not only in North America, but of European cities like Paris where for many years the inversion that he details has been the norm: the affluent live in the central arrondissements and low-income immigrants live in the suburbs. Unlike the riots that tore apart the core of Newark in the late 1960’s, civil unrest among the dispossessed in Paris happened most recently in the suburban ring far from the city center. Closer to home, Ehrenhalt devotes chapters to trends in Chicago’s Sheffield neighborhood, suburban Atlanta, the downtowns of Phoenix and Philadelphia, and the remarkable transformation of Lower Manhattan into a residential neighborhood.

In October of 2012, the Downtown Alliance, an advocacy group that promotes Lower Manhattan, released a report on the New York region’s shifting demographics that contains a line that could have come straight out of The Great Inversion, “Today, Lower Manhattan is surrounded by communities [meaning Brooklyn and Jersey City] that have an increasing share of the region’s high-value workers, while the far-off bedroom communities in Long Island, New York and Connecticut have seen their shares shrink.” Liz Berger, the dynamic leader of the Downtown Alliance, observed that because the streets of the financial district and its environs had not been a residential neighborhood for some time (Ehrenhalt points out that you have to go back to the census of 1800 to find a comparable number of people living in that area) no one is being displaced by the influx of new residents — an example of inversion, not gentrification.

The workers described in the Alliance’s report are moving to downtown, and unlike their counterparts only a short time ago, they are having children and staying in the city when their kids reach Kindergarten and first grade. According to Ehrenhalt

Couples who had moved to Lower Manhattan in the boom years not only stayed, they started families amid the chaos of the recession. One building on John Street with 147 condo units reported twenty-two new babies born in 2008 alone. For families that had not suffered serious financial losses in the preceding months, the issue of greatest concern seemed to be finding places for their children to go to school. PS 234, a K-5 school in the area that consistently records some of the highest test scores of any public school in Manhattan, was operating at 139% of capacity in the fall of 2008….They are about as eager as other parents in the five New York boroughs to use the public schools, as long as they can find decent ones.

Ehrenhalt notes that the 1970 census recorded 833 residents living South of Canal Street, most of them (likely men) living in what my grandfather, an NYC fireman, would have called flophouses. In September of 2012, the Census Bureau released figures that now show a population of 40,000 residents living in roughly this same area, up from some 15,000 at the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

A May 2009 article in New York Magazine covered the surprising rise in school-aged children in Manhattan, providing further corroboration of Ehrenhalt’s thesis. “Five Year Olds at the Gate” detailed the fact that the number of children under five living in Manhattan had shot up by 32 percent in the preceding five years. Most of the growth came amongst white toddlers, whose numbers were up an incredible 40 percent, outnumbering their black and Latino neighbors for the first time since the 1960’s. (A graphic which accompanied that New York Magazine article, with data supplied by NYU professor (and downtown resident & dad) Eric Greenleaf, details the trend.)

The education entrepreneur Chris Whittle has founded a new network of private schools, called The Avenues, with exactly this cohort of successful downtown strivers in mind. The Avenues opened its first school just north of TriBeCa, adjacent to the High Line park, in September. Annual tuition for the 2012-13 school year is set at $39,750 and the school with its 1320 seats, is reportedly fully enrolled in this, its first year of operation.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, many will likely question whether the desire to live in Lower Manhattan will continue with the same enthusiasm. I spoke with one real estate executive familiar with the downtown market who suggested that the after-effects of the storm may actually hasten the transformation of Lower Manhattan into a residential neighborhood, as finance firms de-camp for Midtown and elsewhere and those office buildings are converted to apartments. Time will tell.

The chicken-and-egg question raised by growing numbers of middle-class families with children living in urban neighborhoods is what came first: the desirability of urban places like Lower Manhattan as a place for a family to live, or the quality of the public school options, like PS 234, where such families could send their kids. Ehrenhalt raises the question of whether it is good-quality public schools that attract middle class residents or whether those families move to a neighborhood and begin demanding that the quality of public schools — district-run and charter alike — improve. Like most chicken-and-egg questions, this one will be hard to settle. Until it is, developments like Teacher Village in Newark and the soaring demand for a high quality education in downtown Manhattan are demonstrating that urban vitality and good public schools — whichever comes first — are inextricably tied.

Now that Alan Ehrenhalt has settled the question of whether Carrie Bradshaw is going to move to the suburbs if/when she has kids, Michael Petrilli comes along to help sort out another dilemma the ‘Sex in the City’ character might face: where should she send her kids to school? A city-run public school? A charter public school? Private school? In a nifty, slender volume, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, Petrilli details his own thinking as a father and respected education analyst (he is a frequent contributor to Education Next), starting where Ehrenhalt leaves off. “In the middle of the last decade, in urban communities across America, middle-class and upper-middle class parents started sending their children to public schools again” Petrilli writes, “schools that for decades had served overwhelmingly poor and minority populations.” He then goes on a readable, thoughtful and refreshingly frank exploration of the considerations that parents should take into account in choosing a school for their child.

After they were married, Petrilli and his wife settled in Takoma Park in greater Washington, D.C. — a hippie-dippy area with its own food coop and a sister-city relationship with Gotera, El Salvador. It is one of a similar group of leafy, urban neighborhoods around the country akin to Cambridge, Berkeley, Park Slope or the Sheffield neighborhood of Chicago that Ehrenhalt devotes a chapter to in The Great Inversion. After his first child was born, Petrilli’s day job thinking and writing about schools became less of an abstraction as he and his wife wrestled with their desire to send their son to a public school in the urban neighborhood they had come to love. Their focus on a public school was in part practical — they couldn’t afford private school tuition — but was also idealistic: he and his wife wanted their kid’s education to include interacting with children of different races, from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.

He opens the book with the case for a middle-class family to choose a diverse public school: segregated urban schools hurt the poor and minority students stuck in them; more affluent peers and parents can change the equation at these schools, improving outcomes just by being there; plus, middle-class kids gain a truer picture of the world they will grow up to inhabit, by being educated in an urban school. The strength of The Diverse Schools Dilemma as a handbook for urban middle-class parents is borne of Petrilli’s willingness to steer clear of cant. No pious lectures from him, and once he finishes making the case for enrolling in a multi-racial public school containing large numbers of poor kids, he turns around and makes equally strong counter arguments: schools serving affluent students are safer; the disruptive students found in greater numbers in low-income urban schools slow the pace at which lessons are delivered and learning happens; plus, what’s the point, if the ‘diverse’ minority and free/reduced lunch students are tracked into classes that separate them from their white, middle-class counterparts? Further complicating the picture: do middle-class parents and low-income parents even value the same attributes in a school?

Petrilli seeks a resolution to the diverse schools dilemma by visiting the district-run schools in Takoma Park that he might send his son to. He writes about doing the research, listing helpful resources like, and suggesting ways that parents on a similar quest could size up prospective schools: walk into a school and observe how it looks and sounds (“screams and shrieks that you could imagine emanating from a Justin Bieber concert or maybe a cockfight” was how he described one); go to a meeting of the PTA; interview the principal. This guide also introduces parents to the possibility of schools of choice — magnet and charter schools – that are typically open to families from a broad catchment area. One such school he describes is DC’s Capital City Public Charter School, where a third of the students are black, a third are white, and a third are Hispanic; half qualify for free/reduced lunch, half do not. Cap City seems to perfectly embody the diverse public school that Petrilli is seeking, but like all charter schools, admission is determined by lottery, rendering it too speculative an option for  many families to count on, especially when it comes to making a home-buying decision.

At the end of the day, the school options available to urban parents are uneven: you live inside the boundaries for a high-flying city-run public school like TriBeCa’s PS234, you’re set; you lose the admissions lottery at a place like Cap City Charter public school, you are out of luck; you have the resources of Katie Holmes, and you send your daughter Suri Cruise (no kidding!) to The Avenues, an expensive private school. As Petrilli and his wife wrestled with their choice, they found that the safest option — the one that would most guarantee a solid education for their child, in a home they could afford — was, like many generations of families before them, to be found in the suburbs. The thing I admire about Mr. Petrilli is his unflinching honesty in admitting that his kids would be going to Wood Acres Elementary, literally the least diverse school in the county where he now makes his home. After reading The Diverse Schools Dilemma, you understand the logic of his family’s choice, despite his desire for something different. If we are going to keep Carrie Bradshaw and the Petrilli family in the urban neighborhoods they love — and the vitality of our cities depends on them for the tax base and immense social capital they bring — we’re going to need more reliably good schools in the city.

Michael Thomas Duffy worked to launch the Great Oaks charter school in Newark last year and is helping to plan a second charter school serving Lower Manhattan; he is also an adjunct professor at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

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