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Business & Developmentby Mark Reutter and Fern Shen12:43 pmJan 17, 20140

Metro population trends over two centuries chart Baltimore’s steady slide

CHART: Tracking the populations of major metropolitan areas over time, 1790-2010

Above: Look for Baltimore (blue) at top left – then follow the line slaloming down to the bottom right.

You can’t say the mayor’s goal of growing Baltimore by 10,000 people in 10 years isn’t ambitious, in a Don-Quixote-tilting-at-windmills sort of way.

This chart – go here for a bigger version – puts Baltimore’s plummeting population in historical perspective by comparing it to 19 other cities.

As one of the country’s earliest population hubs, Baltimore hit its peak (relative to the rest of the nation) between 1800 and the Civil War.

Baltimore was either the third or fourth largest metropolis (after New York, Philadelphia and Boston) in this era of Clipper ships trading with China and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad expanding to the Ohio River. NOTE: all of the charted figures include metropolitan areas, not the cities alone.

Go West

Over the next 50 years, places like Chicago and St. Louis jumped ahead in terms of pure growth, but Baltimore – linked by cheap transportation to those centers and enjoying its own spurt of factory-led expansion – held its own.

The period of 1910-1930 was significant in terms of the movement of population to the west, to cities like Detroit (the car industry), San Francisco (rebuilt after the earthquake) and Los Angeles (speculative land booms and agriculture).

Still, most city dwellers lived in the Northeast (north of the Potomac River) and in the Midwest (north of the Ohio River).

While the 1940s marked the Baltimore region’s last big growth spurt – propelled by war-fed booms in steelmaking and shipbuilding – it was nothing compared to the western half of the country.

After 1950, urban dwellers increasingly settled in the “Sunbelt” from Florida to California, with lesser growth in the Pacific Northwest and a few Rocky Mountain cities like Denver.

But in change there is also continuity.

For the last 200 years, New York and environs have remained the Big Apple of population through continuous fresh migration.

Greater Chicago and Philadelphia have also proven remarkably resilient in terms of retaining and attracting people, despite the inroads of perennially popular Los Angeles and the San Francisco/Bay area.

Measuring Peaks and Valleys

The chart (highlighted by The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza yesterday) was assembled by a climbing and geography hobbyist who has been archiving mountain-peak elevations and wrangling data since 1997 at peakbagger.com.

The statistics he uses, once again, are the populations of metropolitan areas (contiguous urbanized area surrounding a central city), not the population of the individual city.

The author of peakbagger argues that “metropolitan area population is much more useful than city population as an indicator of the size and importance of a city, since the official boundaries of a city are usually arbitrary and often do not include vast suburban areas.”

The author’s methodology and data sourcing takes some explaining, since the U.S. Census Bureau didn’t even have the concept of a metropolitan area before 1950.

To Data Nerds: Enjoy, and tell us what you think are the strengths and shortcomings of his analysis.

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