Census figures stir angst, speculation

Urban Chronicle

Growth: For every large city that lost population, two grew. But the gainers weren't traditional urban centers like Baltimore.

July 07, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

For cities - particularly those like Baltimore seeking to rebound from decades of decline - population figures are perhaps the single most important proxy of progress.

And so the release last week of the U.S. Census Bureau's latest annual estimates for the population of cities and towns produced a predictable share of hand-wringing and hurrahs, and more than a little questioning of the numbers.

The estimates show that of the cities with more than 100,000 people, at least two grew for every one that shrunk during the year that ended July 1, 2004. But many of those that gained population were smaller cities in the Sun Belt. And many of those that lost population were such prominent cities as Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco, where the number of residents had increased during the prior decade. Thus some demographers were speculating about the beginning of the end of the nascent national urban renaissance of the 1990s.

Baltimore's estimates, which were released in April along with those of the counties and those cities that are not part of a county, showed a drop of 7,053 in the city's population, or about 1.1 percent. The city is considering a challenge to those estimates - something that it has done, successfully, for two of the last three years.

The Census Bureau revised its original estimate of the city's population upward by more than 10,000 three years ago and by nearly 15,000 last year.

After the release of the revisions last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley proclaimed the virtual end of more than a half-century of Baltimore's erosion of its population - an accomplishment he has noted repeatedly as he prepares for his run for governor. So there is more at stake for the mayor in the current challenge - the results of which are typically announced in the fall - than pride or the amount of federal funding for certain programs tied to population.

As the numbers become more carefully scrutinized by academics and pundits, challenges are becoming more sophisticated. Baltimore was one of only three jurisdictions to have its challenges to the estimates for 2001 accepted by the Census Bureau. The bureau accepted 14 challenges to its 2002 estimates, which Baltimore did not challenge. Last year, Baltimore was among 27 jurisdictions to have its challenges to the 2003 estimates accepted. Among them were St. Louis, which had its estimate raised by more than 15,000, and New York, which had its estimate raised by more than 30,000.

The most recent estimates indicate that New York's population dipped by about 5,000 people during the last year - a minuscule drop for the country's most populous city. It has 8.1 million people and has experienced a gain of nearly 100,000 people this decade on top of a nearly 700,000 gained in the 1990s.

Nonetheless, New York officials said they planned to challenge the numbers, saying the Census Bureau's reliance on tax data for its estimates tends to undercount immigrants and younger residents, who are more reliably picked up in the housing-related data that is used in the challenges. "New York City is growing and we want people to know that," Joseph Salvo, director of the population division of the Department of City Planning, told Newsday.

Some of the strongest reaction came from cities that lost coveted spots in the rankings of the most populous cities. Detroit, for example, lost more than 12,000 people in the past year, helping to push it out of the list of Top 10 cities for the first time in nearly a century; it was replaced by San Jose, Calif., which gained 7,000. Since the beginning of the decade, Detroit has lost more than 50,000 people. That's more than any city in the country, a dubious distinction that Baltimore held for the 1990s.

Milwaukee's loss of 3,600 residents, coupled with gains by Fort Worth, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C., dropped it out of the Top 20 for, as an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, "the first time since the Civil War."

Philadelphia's population fell by more than 6,000 in the past year and more than 47,000 since the 2000 census. But there was some solace that the city was not yet overtaken by Phoenix, Ariz., as the country's fifth most populous municipality.

Besides the national figures, last week's census numbers reveal some interesting facts about the more than 150 small cities, towns and villages, ranging in population from 18 to more than 50,000, located in Maryland's 23 counties.

One is the continued growth of some of the incorporated places, particularly those located in fast-growing suburban and exurban areas of the state. Bowie, for example, has grown by 3,500 people since the 2000 census; Frederick by more than 4,000; Gaithersburg by more than 5,000 and Rockville by nearly 10,000.

In this decade, those are numbers that would make some major cities around the country proud.

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