Population trend good news for city, O'Malley

Urban Chronicle

November 17, 2005|By ERIC SIEGEL

Remember the number: 641,943.

That's the U.S. Census Bureau's recently revised estimate of Baltimore's population as of July 1, 2004.

As the race for governor gets into gear, it's also the number that might provide the single most overarching view of Mayor Martin O'Malley's stewardship of the city over the past six years.

More than the frequently mentioned figures for homicides, student test scores and housing prices, population trends provide an indication of the city's overall health, measuring the success in attracting and retaining residents based on a broad array of factors.

The revised census estimate, issued last month, shows the city with 5,700 more people than the original estimate issued in April, a number that the city had challenged. It is one of 35 revisions of population estimates of cities and counties nationwide, including New York (up 64,259) and St. Louis (up 7,426).

It confirms a trend -- made apparent in a much larger revision of a July 2003 estimate issued a year ago -- of a sharp slowing of the city's decades-long population loss. Since the 2000 census, the city's population has declined by 9,211.

For those who live in one of those seemingly ever-burgeoning suburbs where one of the biggest issues is too much growth, that might not seem like much of an achievement.

But it's impressive, given the post-World War II history of Baltimore, where the population peaked in 1950 at 949,708 and has declined every decade since then, sometimes precipitously.

Baltimore continues on a pace to have its lowest population decline since the 1950s, when it lost 10,684 people, and to halve its decline of the 1960s, when it lost 33,327 people.

The trend, of course, doesn't by itself make O'Malley's administration beyond reproach any more than it qualifies him to be governor.

Among other things, one can question the performance of the Police Department, with its rapid turnover of commissioners, aggressive tactics and failure to appreciably dent the homicide numbers. And O'Malley's plans for running the state should be at least as important to voters as his record in running the city.

But the census number should dispel any doubts about whether the city has improved under O'Malley.

Census numbers tell a different story about the tenures of former mayors William Donald Schaefer and Kurt L. Schmoke. Both recently endorsed Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan over O'Malley in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Schaefer and Schmoke ran the city for 27 of the 30 years from 1970 to 2000. During that time, the city's population declined by more than a quarter of a million people -- 119,046 in the 1970s; 50,727 in the 1980s; and 84,860 in the 1990s.

To be sure, Schaefer and, to a lesser extent, Schmoke had broad social trends working against them, notably suburbanization. Conversely, O'Malley has some larger factors working in the city's favor, including the growth of empty-nesters, many of whom are interested in returning to the city, and the escalation of housing prices in the suburbs. And it might well be that by the time O'Malley came into office, most of those who wanted to -- or could -- leave the city had done so.

Still, it's worth noting that the sharp slowing of population declines in older industrial cities is by no means a given. Just consider Detroit, down about 50,000 people, or 5 percent, this decade. Or Philadelphia, down 47,000, or 3 percent. Or Cleveland, off 20,000, or about 4 percent.

Baltimore's decline: 1.5 percent.

What's encouraging from the city's standpoint is that several proposed housing developments -- including Canton Crossing in Southeast and Uplands in Southwest -- have yet to come on line, but should begin to do so by the end of the decade. That raises the prospect that the city's population decline might not just slow but reverse.

O'Malley might be in the State House by then, or he might still be at City Hall, or be out of office altogether.

Wherever he is, that legacy would in large part be his.

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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