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March 17, 2001

New York City's Population Peak

New York Times

The first burst of census data from the year 2000 offers cause for optimism in New York City. The numbers show the city as an inviting metropolis, no longer a victim of flight and urban decay. After losing its population mostly to the suburbs and the South in the mid-1970's and early 1980's, the city began to register signs of renewal with the 1990 census. Now, in the latest round of counting, New York has broken the eight million mark, surpassing its historical peak in population of 30 years ago. The census has finally registered what any New Yorker knows firsthand from crowding into the subways or competing for an affordable apartment. America's largest city, benefiting from a decade of sustained immigration and a solid economy, is officially booming.

The Census Bureau's early, broad-brush rendering of last year's count also describes a perceptible shift in New York State's population from upstate to downstate. In political terms, these shifts should give the city more clout both in Albany and in Washington, including more seats in the Legislature and possibly insulation against losing a Congressional seat.

Much of the increase in the city's population comes from the latest wave of immigrants, who like earlier arrivals have provided labor and energy to New York City. This expansion is reflected primarily in the growth in the Hispanic and Asian populations, particularly in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The black population grew only slightly over the past decade and the non-Hispanic white population continued to decline, but the new portrait of New York still shows a richly diverse city.

The greater accuracy of this census may account for more than half of the city's population increase, which was either 450,000 or almost 700,000 people, depending on what base is used. City employees worked diligently over the last few years to help census takers find previously uncharted living quarters that helped boost the city's census numbers. As a result, the city should automatically gain $40 million a year, at the very least, under various state and federal financing programs that distribute money based on population.

Unfortunately, even these latest census figures are probably still too low, since the census canvassers tend to miss many immigrants and others in poorer areas. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani needs to join the mayors of other metropolitan areas who are pressing for release of detailed adjusted data from the Census Bureau to determine whether the city would benefit from statistical sampling expected to help make up for some of the undercount.

The new numbers stand as a clear challenge to New York's political and urban thinkers to deal more quickly with the needs of a growing city. For too long, New York has been mostly patching and fixing an infrastructure planned and built many decades ago. This new data confirms the need for fresh, long-term strategies to cope with such difficulties as aging, crowded schools, an antiquated subway and transportation system, the scarcity of affordable housing, and a commercial sector that needs space and services to maintain a thriving economy. Bigger populations impose bigger responsibilities.


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