24 September 08: The Possible City:
The Opposite of Decline

September 24, 2008
by Nathaniel Popkin

The US Census released immigration figures from the 2007 American Community Survey today. No surprise, given bolstered border patrols and the deflated economy. (MSNBC: "America sees immigration slowdown.")

Foreign immigration is down, to half a million people last year. That's a significant decline, from 1.8 million in 2006, and 500,000 people short of what's been since 1990 the yearly average of a million immigrants a year. Immigrants continued to populate certain cities, including this one, where the percentage of foreign born jumped from 9 to 11.1% since the last official Census. As I've said before, that's the highest proportion here in nearly 60 years.

It's probably a good idea not to take these census estimates too seriously. According to previous estimates, the percentage of foreign born for people over 5 years old was 11.1% in 2005 (another says 11.9%). It increased in 2006 to 11.6% and to 11.9% in 2007. Is that real? And what of the total population estimates themselves, those used to rank cities by size? Previously, I've questioned their accuracy and other municipal governments have too, sometimes taking aggressive action to force a recount. Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Boston have each done so.

That caveat aside (and there are others regarding the difficulty in ranking cities of different densities and the whole enterprise, that which seeks to reduce a city to a statistic), the accounting released yesterday may give us reason to signal 2006 as the year Philadelphia stopped its long population decline (and 2005 as the final bottoming out). Here's what I found in the Census' own American Community Survey:
Year City population
2005 1,406,415
2006 1,448,394
2007 1,449,634
That's a two year increase of 3%, significant given this long march of decline, and the first time in over six decades that the US Census reports Philadelphia's population is growing. Assuming these estimates represent actual change, frankly it's time to breathe out. Growth presents an entirely different kind of narrative.

Is Philadelphia growing? The 2010 census is likely to say no, that in comparison to the last counting, in 2000 (or 1999), Philadelphia has lost some 50,000 people. While that's a significantly smaller decline than in previous decades (260,399 lost in the apocalyptic decade of the 1970s, for example), it still sounds to the rest of the world like a city in descent. But if the real count is anything close to this 2007 estimate, or more, then we'll be confident in pronouncing a tentative ascent. It's hard to know at this point. The least reliable indicator is my eyes and my experience in all corners of Philadelphia, which tells me, indeed, the city is starting to grow again. There are better, such as the School District's census, a number that is significantly down (perhaps due in great measure to the proliferation of charter schools).

I've been hitting the immigration bell quite a lot lately and that's because foreign immigration is how an old American city grows. My sense is that these better looking population numbers represent a real change in that regard, and at almost 12% of the population there are enough immigrants here to attract more family members and countrymen. There may be a multiplier effect at play. In any case, I leave you with this little historical chart of population and percent foreign born.
Year City population Percent foreign-born
1870 674,022 27.2%
1880 847,170 24.1%
1890 1,046,964 25.7%
1900 1,293,697 22.8%
1910 1,549,008 24.8%
1920 1,823,779 22%
1930 1,950,961 19.1%
1940 1,931,334 15.1%
1950 2,071,605 11.5%
1960 2,002,512 8.9%
1970 1,948,609 6.5%
1980 1,688,210 6.4%
1990 1,585,577 6.6%
2000 1,517,550 9%
* * *
2005 1,406,415 11.1%
2006 1,448,394 10.9%
2007 1,449,634 11.1%
SOURCE: US Census, US Census' American Community Survey

–Nathaniel Popkin

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• 19 September 08: "To see something greater"
• 18 September 08: Dwindling/rekindling possibilities
• 26 June 08: The Mother of Invention
• 29 Apr 08: "This is not pie-in-the-sky"
• 1 Apr 08: Recess/Re-assess
• 7 Mar 08: One-City Art Movement, Open to Everyone
• 24 Feb 08: Too late for the streetscape?
• 15 Feb 08: "It really could be something."
• 18 Jan 08: Estuary of Dreams
• 11 Jan 08: More than shelter
• 10 Jan 08: Nature's balance
• 6 Dec 07: Snake uprising
• 4 Dec 07: A Junction that ought to be
• 6 Nov 07: Around the Mulberry Tree we go
• 29 Oct 07: Wondering about wandering
• 5 Oct 07: No other way
• 21 Sept 07: Here is the Possible City