The revival of the American city?

By Razib Khan | March 25, 2012 2:37 pm

I’ve never watched Mad Men, but I really can’t help but hear all about the show. One thing that has struck me about the change from then, ~1960, to now, ~2010, is the alignment of quantitative demographic trends with impressionistic cultural ones. The 1970s were a disaster for the old urban order. Below are the top 10 cities by population in 1960 and 2010.

1New YorkNew York
2ChicagoLos Angeles
3Los AngelesChicago
7HoustonSan Antonio
8ClevelandSan Diego
10St. LouisSan Jose

The rise of the “Sun Belt”, housing bubble notwithstanding, is a real and awesome phenomenon. Below the fold I’ve taken some demographic trend data for the top 10 cities of 1960. The first two panels show raw population data. The second two panels show the decade-to-decade change in population in terms of multiples (i.e., 1.2 for 2010 means that the population in 2010 was 1.2 times that in 2000).


For me the biggest surprise is how much the trajectory of Chicago resembles stereotypical “Rust Belt” cities. Unlike New York City Chicago lost population in the aughts. In some ways New York City is sui generis. I went through the precipitous near collapse in the 1970s, just as the smaller cities of the Heartland, but over the past few decades it has refashioned itself, exhibiting a demographic vigor to match Los Angles on the West coast. A second surprise is Philadelphia’s robustness. Unlike the Midwestern cities it seems to have developed some “stabilizers.”

More starkly, observe the rate of change in the 1970s. We often reflect upon the cultural shifts in the 1960s, the first half of which are arguably part of the long 1950s. But chaos of the late 1960s bore fruit over the 1970s, and echoed down into the 1980s. Though the worst of the decline was over by the 1980s, a pall of decline still hung over much of the decade (e.g., “Japan Inc.”) due to the experiences of the 1970s, Ronald Reagan’s robust counter-narrative notwithstanding. And the great urban revival of the 1990s clearly leveled off in the last decade.

Source data.

MORE ABOUT: Urbanism

Comments (9)

  1. Anthony

    Interesting that from 1970 to 1980, it was St. Louis which suffered the greatest population drop as a fraction of its original size, and Detroit was only #3, though Detroit’s fall was longer and more steady. Also interesting that between 1970 and 1980, New York City lost an entire Washington DC worth of population.

  2. adam

    While I agree with the broader point, you should probably be using metropolitan area populations instead of city populations. A lot of the cities out west have a more, shall we say, expansive view of what constitutes the “city” core. I currently live in San Diego and the “city of san diego” is enormous! It includes huge tracts of what I would barely consider a ‘city’.

    By MSA (from and

    1. New York 14437
    2. Los Angeles 6805
    3. Chicago 6377
    4. Philadelphia 3989
    5. Detroit 3750
    6. San Francisco 2607
    7. Boston 2501
    8. Pittsburgh 2105
    9. Washington 1905
    10. St. Louis 1864

    1. New York 18897
    2. Los Angeles 12828
    3. Chicago 9461
    4. Dallas 6371
    5. Philadelphia 5965
    6. Houston 5946
    7. Washington DC 5582
    8. Miami 5564
    9. Atlanta 5268
    10. Boston 4552

    Things look slightly better for the east coast here, though the trend growth in east coast MSAs is so low they’ll surely get passed up pretty quickly.

  3. Anthony

    Metro areas are tricky to use for statistical purposes. The Bay Area is now two main MSAs and some smaller ones – San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont (the 5 county area) and San Jose-Sunnyvale (Santa Clara and San Benito Counties). In 1990, there was a San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland MSA, which included the 5 counties of the SF-Oakland MSA plus Santa Clara (but not San Benito). I don’t know what other redefinitions there have been, but I’d want to look at time-consistent data to make comparisons.

    Incidentally, it doesn’t make sense to divide the Bay Area into 2 – there’s no distinct physical or economic boundary between Silicon Valley and the Peninsula or the East Bay. It should be either considered one unit, or three.

  4. Karl Zimmerman

    I’ve thought a lot about cities over the last few years (living in a comfortable and safe, albeit dying, rust-belt city), and I think the varied successes of them can be boiled down to (usually) just two things.

    The local status of suburban incorporation.

    Part of the reason cities like Houston have done so well is they are largely surrounded by unincorporated county land, and can easily snatch up white flight subdivisions as they are built. The core urban areas in these cities may be just as blighted however, if not moreso, because the political constituency of the suburbs is largely within the city, there is an explicitly “anti-urban” political force within the city limits.

    In contrast, dying cities are usually surrounded by incorporated suburbs which could not be annexed unless the majority of the population votes to do so. This is clear when you look at the cities which break the tired sun belt/rust belt dichotomy. Cities in the Midwest which have merged with their counties (Louisville, Indianapolis) are doing fine, as are cities which can freely expand (Columbus, Omaha). In contrast, Southern cities which had incorporated suburbs, including Atlanta, Memphis, and especially New Orleans (even pre-Katrina), have seen stagnating to shrinking populations.

    Generally speaking, I think you can easily determine if an American city has been growing or shrinking just by looking at its shape on Wikipedia. If a city is not the product of a city-county merger, and has pretty compact-looking borders, it’s probably declining. If it’s a spindly-looking mess with enclaves and exclaves, it’s probably doing pretty well.


    It seems essentially impossible in the U.S. to sustain a city’s population through natural growth only, as it’s difficult to peg any “black-and-white” city in the U.S. which is a dynamic success. Although we cannot turn back the clock and say otherwise, it’s difficult to see how Los Angeles would stay as densely populated if Latinos hadn’t moved in in such large numbers, and the growing Asian population is the only thing that has stopped San Francisco from actually shrinking in recent decades.

    There are, of course, some exceptions to these rules, like Portland – probably the largest example of successful city-wide gentrification in the country. However, in a sense this is immigration as well – it’s just attracting immigrants from elsewhere in the country rather than internationally. Despite the huge population boom there (almost doubling in 30 years) the number of children is lower than 1925.

  5. Wonks Anonymous

    Karl Zimmerman, why do you list Atlanta as being among the stagnating cities when it has moved up into the top ten MSAs? It is the second-fastest growing MSA after Houston. Wikipedia has the city proper also growing in the oughts.

  6. Karl Zimmerman

    5 –

    adding 6,000 people in the last decade isn’t exactly dynamic. Hell, it’s well below the organic population growth you would expect if there was no out-migration. Plus Atlanta proper’s population peaked in 1970. A classic “sun-belt” city is now larger than it ever has been.

  7. Anthony

    Karl Zimmerman – your thesis about immigration seems stronger than your thesis about suburban incorporation when one looks at San Francisco and Los Angeles. LA for a long time was able to semi-forcibly incorporate suburbs by refusing access to MWD water to suburbs which refused to be annexed, but that was stopped back in the 60’s, and LA is still doing pretty well. While San Francisco is a city-county, it’s also only 10% of its metro area, and its county is pretty small (San Mateo County was chopped off in some 19th-century political shenanigans). But the City and County of San Francisco is doing pretty well despite having no ability to annex its neighbors.

    San Jose has some room to annex land, but most of the developed land near the city of San Jose has been incorporated into other cities. San Diego seems to fit your thesis better. Sacramento has lots of neighboring unincorporated suburbs which have pretty steadfastly resisted annexation, though a couple have recently incorporated themselves, probably in reaction to Sacramento’s attempt to do a city/county merger.

  8. Karl Zimmerman

    Anthony –

    I never said a city needs both – only that a city needs one or another in order to dynamically grow. Obviously New York hasn’t grown in well over a century in terms of land area, but population growth there has recovered regardless, in large part due to migration. Without either, all you have is gentrification, which usually cannot turn around an entire city, because there aren’t enough gentrifyers to go around.

    Portland is a special exception, as I said, in part because multi-county anti-sprawl cooperation has limited suburban development – so although Portland has grown despite staying pretty white, it’s probably in part because people who elsewhere would have moved to the suburbs have stayed in the city proper.

  9. If you’re fascinated by this phenomenon, then you might like Matt Yglesias’ and Ryan Avent’s recent short works ($4) on the subject. They differ a bit, but basically they say the old cities are stagnant because of regulatory constraints limiting density and new construction, which bids rents up to stupendous levels and keeps people out, while the sunbelt cities are growing fast because they can just sprawl out into the hinterlands so rents are cheap. Not to mention transportation subsidies have been heavily, heavily biased towards cars and highways for the last 50 years or so. Both are worth a read.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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