Sunday, August 15, 2010


My eight year old has reached the age where he has become interesed in certain kinds of facts--about presidents, states, television shows. In addition to those morsels of knowledge that can be definitively stated--such as that Warren G. Harding was the 29th president and died in office, or that Lansing is the capital of Michigan--he desires me to give or direct him to more subjective judgements, what are the best, and especially, what are the worst, presidents, movies, states, cities, and so on, to which I give the best answers I can, though usually with so many qualifiers as to be ultimately unsatisfactory to the eight year old mind. I suppose I could give him books like Howard Zinn's Children's History of the United States, which offer more confident assessments of historical events, but the particular variety of stridency and point of view of such books I must confess I am not in a very close sympathy with. This is not much of moment at present, however. Of those more solid facts that are printed in his books, he sometimes quizzes me, partly to see what I know, and partly to be reassured of the truth of his reading, and I don't do too badly; however I have noticed that according to his atlas--a recent publication--the largest cities in quite a few states are different from what they were when I was eight. As these changes had taken place with me wholly oblivious to them, and I have always had some interest in populations and the history of them, I was curious to see what had been going on, and whether or I could glean any insight from the patterns and answers I discovered.

In all, 6 U.S. States have a different largest city than they did in 1962, the date of the primary reference atlas of my youth, which I still have. For a while I thought there were 7, but the last turned out to be an error in strict detail, thought still revealing much in drift. I also have an atlas from 1938 which gives population figures that I would think would be of much general interest, not only in the remarkable growth of certain locales both national and international, but the comparative stagnancy of others. So for even more vivid effect I will include the data from this atlas in my essay too.

The states with new largest cities fall into 3 groups. The first, being those states where a longtime champion has been recently toppled from its provincial primacy, group thus consists of three states. They are:

Connecticut. In Connecticut the competition for population supremacy among its cities has long been a tightly contested affair between the big 3 of Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. In '38 Hartford edged New Haven 164,000-163,000, with Bridgeport holding 3rd place at 147,000. In '62 Hartford still carried the prize with 162,000, while Bridgeport had risen to 2nd with 156,000 and New Haven slumped behind at 152,000. Currently however Bridgeport has taken a surprisingly substantial lead despite having a considerably reduced population of 139,000, Hartford and New Haven being in a veritable heat for 2nd place at around 124,000 apiece (and still falling?).

These numbers are interesting to me because all 3 of these cities have a reputation in New England as being dumps, and Bridgeport especially; while I have driven through each of the three at least a hundred times in my frequent travels across the northeast I have always made a general point of avoiding stopping in them (though years ago there was a diner in New Haven I used to stop at somewhat regularly, and cannot remember when or why I stopped doing so). Bridgeport's relatively strong continued population showing would seem to be objectively inexplicable, unless it is warehousing a lot of people who can't afford to live anywhere else in what is an expensive area. I was just in Hartford last week (which trip I intend to write about more at length in an upcoming post), where I had never spent any time at all before, and while my visit was brief the parts I was in anyway I found to be much less unappealing than I had expected. This, combined with the general trend in much of the rest of the country that state capitals and other seats of government seem to be growing at the expense of the old industrial cities, makes the city's continued shedding of population and inability to generate much enthusiasm for itself a mystery to me.

Missouri. I knew that St Louis had been going down for some time, but this really shocked me. Here are the numbers: 1938: 1. St Louis, 822,000 2. Kansas City 400,000 3. St Joseph 81,000. 1962: 1 St Louis 750,000 2. Kansas City 475,000 3. Springfield 95,000. 2010: 1. Kansas City 441,000 2. St Louis 320,000 3. Springfield 150,000 (in case you were wondering, St Joseph's is in 7th place currently, down to about 71,000).

I know I may seem to have a habit of going to places and finding them not as bad as their reputations, but St Louis, which 100 years ago was one of the great cities of North America, and really the world, was truly depressing. What in the heck happened? Percentage-wise, the population drop from 1938 to now is greater than Detroit's (and I would say that the cultural contribution of St Louis, including music, was substantially greater than Detroit's). The other obvious question is, Why has Kansas City, also seemingly not quite at the center of the action of modern life, been able for the most part to hold its population?

Ohio. 1938: 1. Cleveland 900,000 2. Cincinnati 451,000 3. (tie) Columbus & Toledo 291,000. 1962: Cleveland 876,000 2. Cincinnati 502,000 3. Columbus 471,000. 2010: 1. Columbus 736,000 2. Cleveland 449,000 3. (tie) Toledo & Cincinnati 306,000.

Cleveland's decline has been well documented; it is the rise of Columbus that was stunning to me. I had no idea the place had over 700,000 people. The other question is, why is Toledo comparatively doing so well? It is dead smack in the midst of some of the most depressed and rapidly depopulating areas in the nominal first world. I stayed in a Motel 6 on the outskirts of Toledo on one of my driving trips once, and the place had one of the worst vibes I have ever felt anywhere. And this impression was before I was awakened in the middle of the night to find the hallway full of cops who had been called to intervene in a domestic dispute that had been taking place in a room down the hall.

The second category consists of one state where a former champion has re-ascended to the penthouse.

Florida. In 1938, the biggest city in Florida was Jacksonville, with 146,000 souls, followed by Miami at 128,000 and Tampa at 100,000. By '62 Miami was the biggest city with 291,000, followed by Tampa at 274,000 and Jacksonville dropped to 3rd at 201,000. Today however Jacksonville, which occupies a huge area and was born to absorb sprawl, is back on top at a whopping 797,000, with Miami a distant 2nd at 382,000, and Tampa still trailing 324,000.

Jacksonville looks like it would be a singularly ugly, boring and depressing place to live, but I know a number of people who retired to that city, the main reason given for which is that it is cheap. The appeal of cheap can never be underestimated, though it frequently is by people like me in the Northeast who are perpetually boggled by how millions of people can endure living in dreary endless apshalt hellholes like Houston or Phoenix or Jacksonville. I suppose I could endure it if I had a steady stream of hot girlfriends drawn from the local pool of Applebee's and Hooters waitresses and for-profit college students, but

Orlando had only 30,000 people back in 1938 but even now it has only 207,000, not near as big as I thought and is only the 6th largest city in Florida (behind St Petersburg & Hialeah, for the record).

That leaves two states where there has been a different largest city in each of the three years.

Montana. I know nothing about any of these cities, Montana being surely in the handful of the most obscure states in the country. In 1938 the biggest city there was Butte, with around 40,000 people, followed by Great Falls (29,000) and Billings (16,000). In '62 Great Falls (55,000) had taken a slim lead over Billings (52,000) while Butte, now 3rd, had slipped all the way to 27,000. The methodical ascent of Billings has carried into the present, where the population now stands at 99,000 and its position as the main municipality of the state seems to be pretty solid for the foreseeable future. If there is to be a challenger however, the money would like to be on the new runner-up, Missoula, seat of the state university and, it is my impression, an increasingly popular destination for the organic food and natural body hair crowd (a crowd I secretly kind of like, incidentally), which has come out of nowhere to be the home of 63,000 people. Great Falls at 56,000 has remained stagnant now for half a century, and Butte, the one time champion, now dropped to fourth with a count of 34,000 people, has yet to regain the population it had in 1938.

Given the relatively small population figures for these towns, it does not require much of an influx or outflux of people to have an effect on their statuses vis-a-vis each other. However I should do the service of researching a little what has gone on in these places to explain the patterns of growth and decline.

Butte was a copper boomtown that actually reached its peak around 1920 or so. It underwent a major decline in the 1950s.

Great Falls, due in part to the hydroelectric possibilities suggested by its name, became an industrial, transportation and supply center for both the mining and agricultural industries--the town's main landmark until it was demolished in 1983 was an enormous smokestack for a copper smelter. After the 1940s there was also a military base. All of these enterprises declined precipitously in the 1980s.

Billings originated as a railroad town. Even in the beginning, it was known as "The Magic City" because it 'seemed to grow by magic'. Today it is the 'financial, medical, agricultural and cultural center for the Northern Rockies/Great Plains', and the nearest city larger than it is 350 miles away. It must have a good location. The photos of it are pretty, but the surrounding landscape reminds one more of one of the remote cities on the Trans-Siberian railroad than an American city.

Virginia. 1938: 1. Richmond 183,000 2. Norfolk 130,000 3. Roanoke 69,000. 1962: 1. Norfolk 304,000 2. Richmond 219,000 3. Portsmouth 144,000. 2010. 1. Virginia Beach 425,000 2. Norfolk 234,000 3. Chesapeake 199,000.

The geography of Virginia is somewhat difficult to keep up with. Virginia Beach, now officially the largest city in the state, is listed in the 1938 atlas as having 2,000 people, but that municipality was but a small part of the present city called Virginia Beach, which is the result of the consolidation of a good number of formerly separate towns in 1963. Also Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach are all right next to each other and together, with a few other places, make up a significant metropolis of over one and a half million people that most people even in the northern part of the state are barely aware of the existence of. Norfolk seems to still be considered the primary "city" around which this conurbation is oriented, with the other places, even 400,000+ Va Beach being suburbs. Needless to say I have never been down there to try to make some sense of what looks like a mess. And man, there are a lot of people living there. What do they do? Are the girls hot? (I'm running a comparison on between the women of Billings and the women of Virginia Beach. The Va. Beach team has more depth and overall hotness, but the Billings girls look cleaner and bring a lot less attitude--and when they are hot, they are really hot, and in a manner largely exotic in quality to those of us in the northeast--all this just for the record).

I don't know where this state is going in the future.

Tennessee. I started all this because my boy's book had Nashville listed as the largest city in Tennessee with 511,000 people, surpassing longtime king Memphis, and indeed in 1962 Memphis was home to 497,000, with Nashville logging a distant second at 170,000. Subsequent researches have left me pretty certain that Memphis is in fact still the biggest city there, though not by too much, perhaps 100,000 for so. Nashville has grown much during my lifetime from a respectable but decidedly minor league sized state capital and cultural center to a fairly major city. A lot of formerly modest state capitals have followed in a similar vein, particularly those that are also home to mega-universities. Austin, Texas is the size of Boston now. Madison, Wisconsin it is my impression is more of a big city than the intimate all-American kind of place it was formerly. Columbus of course. Is Sacramento a major city now, or do I just imagine that because they have an NBA team? (ed--est. current pop. 407,000, up from 191,000 in 1960).

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