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As other cities grow, Baltimore continues to shrink

Inner HarborHurricane Katrina (2005)Carl StokesWorld War II (1939-1945)

Chicago's growing. Atlanta is too. New York added nearly 60,000 new residents.

But not Baltimore.

At a time when cities across the country are gaining population and young people are flocking to urban centers, Baltimore remains stuck in a decades-long decline. According to estimates released Thursday by theU.S. Census Bureau, the city lost about 1,500 people from April 2010 to July 2011.

That's not surprising to residents like Dion Williams, 27, of East Baltimore, who said she just got a new job in environmental services with Johns Hopkins hospital — and already has her eyes on the suburbs.

"If you find something cheap, it's in a bad neighborhood and you can't let your kids outside," Williams said. "If you find something nice, it's too expensive and you can't live there."

Baltimore MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake— who has set a goal of attracting 10,000 families to the city in the next 10 years — said she sees the 2011 figure as a baseline from which to grow.

"It's a motivation. It's a reminder we need to sharpen our focus," the mayor said. "Some cities have grown, some cities have shrunk. I'm focusing on our work."

The estimates suggest the rate of population loss has slowed, Rawlings-Blake pointed out. The city lost about 3,000 people a year, on average, during the previous decade.

Still, Baltimore has been losing population since World War II. It now has about 619,500 residents, according to the estimates. The populations of Boston, Seattle and Denver all surpassed Baltimore's total during the 15-month period.

Baltimore was the 10th biggest U.S. city in terms of population in 1980, but now ranks 24th. The District of Columbia is a mere 1,500 people shy of overtaking that rank.

Washington gained more than 16,000 people from April 2010 to July 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

Interviews with politicians, experts and residents show Baltimoreans have widely differing views on the population loss. Some see the city's continued shrinkage as inevitable, the results of years of societal decline and a current leadership vacuum.

"There will be more to leave," predicted City Councilman Carl Stokes, who briefly challenged the mayor in last year's primary. "As long as we tell people we're going to take their money and not show accountability for it, and we're going to raise more taxes and we're not going to give them strong schools. ... People who don't live in the city are asking me, 'Is this a real city that you live in, Carl?'

"We're having a brain drain in the mayor's own office," Stokes said, pointing to recent staff departures. "If they're leaving, the average citizen is not far behind."

But others remain optimistic.

Councilman Brandon Scott says Rawlings-Blake has the city on the right course, pointing to reductions in crime and a property tax cut. He said he plans to look at what other cities are doing well as Baltimore tries to stop its downward trend.

"It's a very ambitious goal, but I think it's a very doable goal," Scott said of adding 10,000 families. "We have to make a better case to show people what we are doing. We don't do a good enough job of saying, 'Hey, we're Baltimore. We're great.' We let people say 'Baltimore is 'The Wire.' Baltimore is 'The Corner.' Baltimore is 'Homicide: Life on the Street.' "

Among U.S. cities with populations over 100,000, New Orleans was the fastest-growing during the period — increasing 4.9 percent to just under 361,000 people. Two months before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' population was 455,000. Eight cities in Texas were among the top 15 fastest-growing large urban areas in the United States during the period.

Only Cleveland and Detroit lost more population than Baltimore.

James Craig, a city police officer who lives in Baltimore County's Parkville area, said he's looked in Federal Hill for a new place, but the rents are too expensive. Even though crime is down, he said, others fear the city based on the publicity that crime receives.

"When people hear something bad happened, they think, 'Well, what are the odds that will happen to me? I'd rather not find out,' " Craig said.

Sharon Clarke, 31, a native of the West Indies who moved to Baltimore about six months ago after living in New York and Atlanta for years, said she thinks the population decline in Baltimore is the result of a snowballing effect.

People don't want to live in degraded neighborhoods, and when they move out, the neighborhoods get worse, she said.

"Drugs take over," she said. "There's so many abandoned houses in Baltimore, more than any other city I've been in."

Steven Gondol, executive director of the nonprofit Live Baltimore, which promotes city living, pointed out that not all of Baltimore is shrinking. Some neighborhoods are experiencing a boom.

He pointed to data showing the downtown area has grown population by 35 percent since 2000, and the Patterson Park area has grown by about 19 percent.

"We didn't get to where we are overnight," Gondol said. "We're stabilizing. We have methods for growing the city again. I'm an optimist, but we're matching our optimism with some realities."

Indeed, as Deb Smith, 58, who was visiting the Inner Harbor Thursday from her home outside Harrisburg, Pa., looked around, the reasons for Baltimore's continued population loss were hard to see.

The city's waterfront is wonderful, she said. If she won the lottery, she said, she'd buy a fancy condo in Harbor East.

"I'd love to move somewhere down here," she said. "But I can't say we've toured around other parts of the city."

Bishop Douglas I. Miles, a co-chair of the community activist group BUILD, said Smith's experience is telling.

"All of our attention cannot be focused on the Inner Harbor development at the expense of quality-of-life issues in the neighborhoods, inclusive of recreation, after-school programming and efforts to provide employment for Baltimore residents," he said.

"What has happened over the past 30 years is Baltimore continues to be a great place to visit, but a questionable place to live."

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Inner HarborHurricane Katrina (2005)Carl StokesWorld War II (1939-1945)
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