- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The latest census numbers show the District is among the fastest-shrinking locales in the nation, hardly good news to those in the Wilson Building endeavoring to increase the city’s population by 100,000 in five years.

The downward shift is a cue to Mayor Anthony A. Williams to voice his skepticism with the census statistical model, even if the census people have no reason to reach their findings in error. The mayor and his minions inevitably note the city’s building boom to question the cold assessment of the census. There is a lot to be said of the city’s rebirth. The evidence is unmistakable, whether in downtown or along Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast.

The latest census shows the city’s population has dropped to 550,521 in 2005, which is seven-tenths of a 1 percent drop from the previous year’s figure of 554,239. That is a decline of nearly 22,000 residents from the 2000 census of 572,059.

That is a 55-year drain of a city that was almost 900,000 strong in 1950. The migratory pattern of the region is forever a challenge to social planners. The District is the core, and its health is essential to the health of the region.

Aside from a public school system that is unacceptable to parents, the city is saddled with a fundamental burden that is not easily resolved. Its real estate is some of the priciest in the nation and all too often beyond the financial means of the young hipsters city leaders desperately covet.

And when the real estate is not beyond the financial means of potential home buyers, the housing dollar’s capacity to stretch the farther you go out is tempting. Even as the housing market in the region undergoes a correction, housing costs in the nicer parts of the city remain high.

A studio priced at $350,000 is hardly a bargain, no matter how creative the financing. And that is assuming a 500-square-foot place satisfies the living-space needs of a prospective buyer.

Space, of course, is the variable that encourages a good number of city dwellers to pack up and go to the suburbs and beyond. Lower taxes, efficient public services and every big-box retailer add to the decision to move.

A city dweller of my acquaintance sniffs at the notion of ever contemplating a move to the suburbs. It is a notion that comes with the usual criticism of the suburbs, however old the criticism and less applicable it is to those living inside or outside the Beltway today.

It may be hard to accept for the prideful denizens of the city, but the majority of people in the region live outside the city and would not have it any other way. Their pride in suburbia often comes with the following zinger: “I wouldn’t live in the city if you paid me.” Of course, the push to flee the noise, pollution and congestion of the city has resulted in those very quality-of-life considerations being transported to the suburbs. If all you are seeking is some peace and quiet, that state is sometimes more likely to be found on a side street in the residential part of the city than in the suburban sprawl.

City leaders probably could do a better job of selling the convenience and energy of city life. But that sell job is not about to happen in a campaign season, as mayoral and council candidates cite the negatives of the city that, conveniently enough, happen to be the fault of the other candidates.

The outgoing mayor has set a developer-friendly tone that has aided the city’s re-emergence. By his own acknowledgment, the job is not complete. His ballpark gamble, intended in part to revitalize the neighborhoods around the Navy Yard, will be deemed worthy, or not, long after he is out of office.

Meanwhile, worrisome enough, the city’s downward population spiral has not been reversed.

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