IN THE LIFE of a city, what's 15,000 people? The crowd at this year's Orioles Fun Fest. Not a bad day at the races. More people than the 1st Mariner Arena can hold. In Baltimore, the fact that the city had lost 15,000 fewer people between 2000 and 2003 was headline news. And for good reason. The U.S. Census Bureau's adjustment in Baltimore's estimated population -- from 628,670 to 643,304, as of July 1, 2003 -- signals a respite in the flight of residents.
It spells relief for the city and its patrons who have been fighting the perception of Baltimore as a dying, crime-wracked town. It spells hope -- that the city is rebounding in tangible, meaningful ways.
The change in the city's estimated population resulted from an appeal by the O'Malley administration. City officials didn't buy the initial census count from 2003. The estimated population didn't correspond to what they were seeing in new building permits, construction across town and houses under renovation in Baltimore neighborhoods. City Planning Director Otis Rolley III started scrubbing the numbers and made the pitch. The good news arrived last month -- the city's population would be revised upward by 15,000 people. Instead of losing 707 people a month, as the city did during the 1990s, the new estimate showed an average loss of 200 monthly.
The adjusted figure isn't only a feel-good number, it also carries tangible benefits -- about $2 million more a year in federal dollars to finance drug treatment, transportation aid, housing grants and other programs funded through population-based formulas. But the real benefit comes from knowing that all the anecdotes about young people and empty-nesters returning to the city have merit. It suggests a vitality that isn't simply the stuff of ad campaigns.
More important, it gives credence to the idea that Baltimore can regain a taxpaying middle class. It reinforces the importance of knocking down that crime rate and reforming the city schools. Because if the city can strengthen its middle, and the middle holds, then Baltimore could count on residents such as Sherman and Marie Zemler Wu living for years to come in the double-wide, rehabbed rowhouse they are trying to buy in the 100 block of N. Belnord Ave.
The Boston transplants chose the house in a block under construction, a short walk from Patterson Park, because it was a neighborhood on the move. They liked the community's diversity, its confection of a park, the residents living nearby. "We wanted to be part of a community working to make itself better," says Mr. Zemler Wu, a 28-year-old consultant. His comments reflect the spirit of Baltimore's homesteaders. If the 15,000 additional people living in the city carry that torch, then, to borrow a phrase from Forbes, this Bohemian bargain will indeed have gotten back its groove.