City residents still cast votes --with their feet

PHILIP MOELLER

January 30, 1991|By PHILIP MOELLER | PHILIP MOELLER,SUN BUSINESS EDITOR

People may not go to the polls much anymore, but they still vote. Mostly, they vote with their pocketbooks, and, when things get really serious, they vote with their feet.

And, despite all the attention lavished on politicians and elective office, the economic votes in our capitalist system -- cast in our roles as consumers, employees and residents -- have usually meant a lot more than those made at local polling places. The quality of our daily lives, for better or worse, is largely a result of these individual, market-based decisions.

In Baltimore, the economic voting pattern is clear. People continue to leave the city.

Baltimore's population dropped by more than 50,000, or 6.4 percent, during the 1980s, beginning the decade at 786,741 and closing it out at 736,014.

This is the ultimate vote. Stripped of some demographic chatter (birth and death rates, immigration, etc.), an area that loses people is either driving them away or failing to attract enough newcomers to offset the departures of people who quite naturally leave an area.

Value-neutral decisions might include those made by college graduates, retirees and those following career opportunities. These high levels of mobility, while perhaps temporarily reduced during recessions, are a natural part of our economic life style. Vigorous and attractive economies draw more than enough replacements for the folks who have left.

As a state, Maryland would seem to qualify, posting a strong, 13.4 percent increase in its population, to 4.8 million in 1990 from 4.2 million in 1980. However, a single county -- Montgomery -- represented nearly a third of the state's population gain, and there are other strong signs that nearby Washington may have been the chief engine of the state's growth.

In addition to its strong economy, the District of Columbia had its own out-migration problems during the 1980s, losing 4.9 percent of its population to wind up with 606,000 in 1990. It's likely that many of Washington's disaffected souls found their way to new homes in Maryland and Virginia.

Nevertheless, it seems fair enough to say that Maryland has enough of the right stuff to fare well during the 1990s and beyond. That statement obviously doesn't apply to Baltimore and hasn't for the better part of 40 years.

Viewed against a national backdrop, the city seems just one more throwback to the industrial age. A look at 1990 census results for cities with more than 100,000 people, printed recently The New York Times, shows that the largest percentage population losses during the 1980s (as in the 1970s, as in the 1960s, etc.) occurred in Midwestern and Eastern industrial cities.

The 10 cities with the largest percentage population declines constitute a familiar list:

5+City... ... ... 1990 Pop... ... ... % Chg.

Gary, IN... ... 116,646... ... ... ..23.2

Newark ... ... .275,221 ... ... ... .16.4

Detroit ... ... 1,027,974 ... ... ...14.6

Pittsburgh ... .369,879 ... ... ... .12.8

St. Louis ... ..396,685 ... ... ... .12.4

Cleveland ... ..505,616 ... ... ... .11.9

Flint, MI ... ..140,761 ... ... ... .11.8

New Orleans ... 496,938 ... ... ... .10.9

Warren, MI ... .144,864 ... ... ... .10.1

Chattanooga ... 152,466 ... ... ... .10.1

Looking at the country's 30 largest cities, 10 had population declines during the 1980s. These, too, don't seem so surprising (the number in parentheses is the city's national population ranking):

;1City... ... ... ... .. 1990 Pop.. ... ... % Chg.

Chicago (3)... ... ... 2,783,726... ... ... 7.4

Philadelphia (5) ... ..1,585,577 ... ... ...6.1

Detroit (7) ... ... ...1,027,974 ... ... ...14.6

Baltimore (13) ... ... 736,014 ... ... ... .6.4

Milwaukee (17) ... ... 628,088 ... ... ... .1.3

Memphis (18) ... ... ..610,337 ... ... ... .5.5

Washington (19) ... ...606,900 ... ... ... .4.9

Cleveland (24) ... ... 505,616 ... ... ... .11.9

New Orleans (25) ... ..496,938 ... ... ... .10.9

Denver (26) ... ... ...467,610 ... ... ... .5.1

By contrast, 18 of the nation's 30 fastest-growing cities during the 1980s were in California, and nine in three other Sun Belt states (Texas had four, Arizona three and Nevada two).

Colorado, Kansas and Virginia had one fast-growing city each.

Despite the knee-jerk support for Baltimore that's regularly on display here, the census results present a continuing confirmation that decline, at least in terms of population, may be an inescapable fate of older center cities. And remember, with Baltimore's downtown triumphs, this city is viewed as one of the nation's major redevelopment success stories of the 1980s. So the city's population decline is especially hard to take.

Population is not the only useful measure of success or, certainly, of quality of life.

But population is directly related to a regional economy's employment and tax bases. Growing areas usually have resources to support the public sector and cultural activities; declining areas are hard-pressed to do so.

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