FOR HALF a century, "white flight" has dominated demographic change in Baltimore.
While the city's population was dropping by nearly a third between 1950 and 2000, the number of whites in Baltimore was declining by more than 70 percent. Even in the decade between 1990 and 2000, when the number of African-Americans living in the city fell for the first time, the net loss of white population outstripped that of blacks, 5 to 1.
Now, there is new evidence to suggest that the seemingly relentless decline in the city's white population is leveling off.
According to recent census estimates, the number of non-Hispanic whites living in Baltimore between the 2000 Census and July 1, 2002, declined by just more than 5,000 - a drop of about 185 a month. That compares with a decline in the city's non-Hispanic white population of 82,631 during the 1990s - or about 690 people a month.
In fact, the decline in the number of city's non-Hispanic white population since the 2000 Census is roughly equal to the drop in the number of the city's non-Hispanic blacks, although the percentage drop of whites was greater because blacks outnumber whites by 2 to 1 in the city.
"I think it validates what we've been seeing anecdotally," Otis Rolley III, the city's planning director, said of the data. "This administration has been trying to change how Baltimoreans view the city and how the city is viewed from outside Baltimore. There's a lot of reasons to stay here and invest here."
Others, while acknowledging that the numbers are cause for optimism, are more cautious in assessing the data. They point out that the estimates released last month - the first since the 2000 Census to show a breakdown by race, ethnicity, age and sex - cover too brief a period to constitute a trend. .
Previous census estimates showed a slowing in the overall decline in the city's population but offered no further breakdown. Still, unlike the census counts done every 10 years, the estimates provide no figures by neighborhoods. That makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what's happening - and where.
One explanation is that many of the hottest housing markets in the city - around the waterfront and in parts of North Baltimore - are predominantly and, in some cases, overwhelmingly white. The popularity of those areas might be helping to offset the decline elsewhere in the city. "The city growing in some of those areas has dampened some of the outflow," said Dunbar Brooks, a demographer with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
New housing opportunities are also attracting residents - white and black. Property managers in the increasingly residential and racially diverse downtown area report that about 70 percent of residents are moving in from outside the city, according to Robert Aydukovic, director of housing for the Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy group. More than 1,000 new units have been completed since 1997, he said, and another 1,000 more are under construction.
Another explanation is that the exodus of whites has slowed. That might be because either decreasing crime, improving schools and greater amenities such as more neighborhood supermarkets have lessened the impetus for leaving, or those who have remained are dedicated city dwellers who believe the advantages of urban life outweigh such disadvantages as higher crime and taxes. "Maybe those that wanted to leave already left," said Mark Goldstein, an economist at the Maryland Department of Planning.
Goldstein cautions against losing sight of the big picture. "The negative trend is the continued loss of population," he said.
Part of Baltimore's demographic story of the 1990s, when it lost more people than any city in America, was that large numbers of middle-class blacks joined middle-class whites in leaving the city. That's why the number of non-Hispanic blacks living in the city, which had risen as the number of whites declined, dropped from 433,705 in 1990 to 417,009 in 2000 and continued to decline in the first two years of this decade. (During the 1990s, the city's non-Hispanic white population declined from 284,187 to 201,566.)
And that's why it's so important that the city initiatives in predominantly black areas such as Reservoir Hill and the area of East Baltimore north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex succeed in providing new housing opportunities, and that the city continue to cut crime and improve schools in both black and white communities.
For it would be more than a shame if the city, after a half-century, finally succeeded in stemming white flight, only to see black flight persist.