What's Happening to Big Cities?

January 28, 1991

Are the old, big cities of the Great Lakes states dinosaurs? They sure appear to be dying, if population figures released this week by the Census Bureau are an indicator. Pittsburgh, rated the nation's most livable city by the "Places Rated Almanac" in the mid-1980s, was 13 percent smaller in population in 1990 than it was in 1980. Cleveland declined by 12 percent in the decade. Detroit, 15 percent. Chicago, 7 percent. In the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, there are similar sad stories. Newark, N.J., lost 16 percent. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington lost 6 percent, 6.5 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

But those figures may not be as grim as they appear. In every case except Newark, the decline in the 1980s was less than that of the 1970s. We say the decline "may" be good news, because until the components of the change are known in detail, it is hard to say if the economic and social health of these cities is changing for the better, the worse or neither compared to change in the 1970s.

If raw numbers translate directly into urban health or malaise, there are some good-news stories from the 1990 Census. Columbus, Ohio, for example grew by 12 percent, more than double its growth rate in the 1970s. New York, Boston and Indianapolis all grew in the 1980s; all three lost population in the 1970s. So decline is not inevitable in the cities of these regions. (Nor is urban growth inevitable in the booming Sun Belt. Atlanta, Birmingham and New Orleans decreased more in percentage terms in the 1980s than Baltimore.)

These figures are for central cities only. Most metropolitan areas with declining population in the central cities grew in the 1980s. Baltimore's grew by about 13 percent. The truly scary demographic nightmare of the 1980s was that Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and a few other metro areas lost population as a whole.

Maryland officials ought to investigate sister cities to see if in the 1990s we can duplicate New York's and Boston's central city growth, and to make sure we avoid the metropolitan loss of those other areas.

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