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News >  Nation/World

Many big cities see drop in population

D'Vera Cohn Washington Post

WASHINGTON – After shedding residents for decades, many U.S. cities revived in the 1990s, with immigrants streaming in and gentrification resurrecting downtowns with lofts, coffee shops and trendy restaurants.

But new census estimates to be released today show many cities slipping again. More than two dozen large cities that were growing a decade ago are shrinking. Fast-growing suburbs with service-sector jobs and more affordable housing are attracting thousands of foreign-born residents who in the past would have started out in the city.

The list of former gainers that have lost population since 2000 include Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

“The broad swing of things is that people move out. For a lot of people, the city is simply a way station, and it’s not clear how long these rosy times of the late ‘90s would continue,” said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer. “We’re clearly going in a somewhat different direction than we were in the late ‘90s.”

Among the nation’s 251 cities with at least 100,000 people, 68 lost population between 2000 and 2004, according to the new census figures. In the 1990s, 36 did.

Regionally, the biggest change was in the Midwest, where a third of cities lost population in the 1990s but more than 60 percent did this decade, according to Frey’s calculations. The South and West also have more losing cities this decade, including San Francisco and nearby Oakland, where demographers blamed high housing prices and the collapse of the high-tech economy. Frey’s analysis also found that expansion slowed in some formerly fast-growing cities.

The only region that has fewer shrinking cities this decade is the Northeast, where some older places such as Newark, N.J., and New Haven, Conn., have rebounded after decades of loss. The census estimates found that New York City has kept growing since 2000, and that longtime population-losing older cities from Cleveland to Philadelphia continued to shrink.

Census figures released earlier said Washington and Baltimore have continued to lose population, as they have every decade since the 1950s. City officials there – as in Boston, Chicago and some other cities – dispute the census figures, saying they undercount immigrants and new housing units. Census Bureau demographer Greg Harper said the agency has improved its count of both since the 1990s.

But urban experts say they are convinced that the general trend of city population loss this decade is real. In retrospect, the gains that made the 1990s the best decade for big cities since World War II may have been a temporary exception to the long-term pattern. Except for those who can afford high-priced city housing, the lure of the suburbs is too strong, they say.

In Chicago – “the toast of the ‘90s metro revival,” in Frey’s words – the population dropped by nearly 34,000 this decade, the largest loss among former gainers. The city grew in the 1990s for the first time in half a century, mainly because thousands of Hispanic immigrants and births offset departures of other residents to the suburbs.

Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University at Chicago, said Hispanic families have begun leaving the city in larger numbers for suburban safety and better schools, while some young, single immigrants head directly for outer suburbs that have a growing pool of construction, cleaning and other employment.

In Boston, economist Paul Harrington of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies said the city was hurt by the collapse of the high-tech economy that also damaged San Francisco and other high-flying urban centers of the 1990s. Boston’s job base shrank 7 percent from late 2001 to late 2004, he said.

“The job creation in the city and state has just been poor,” he said. “To see this slowdown and population decline is not surprising in the context of that job performance.”

But demographers emphasize that population growth is not the only measure of a city’s success. In Washington, which has been losing population for years, “its housing market is stronger and its fiscal markets are stronger than it was 100,000 people ago,” said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Center at Virginia Tech.

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