Milwaukee, like its baseball team, has spent the better part of the last four decades in the statistical doldrums. Population peaked in 1960 at 741,324. Since then, that number has slowly and steadly seeped away. The 2000 Census found the city’s population had dipped below 600,000.
So when the US Census released a re-estimate of the city’s 2006 population that showed a slight increase from 2000, it was as if the perennially losing team suddenly broke .500. Not quite enough to make the playoffs, but it sure beats being a perpetual cellar-dweller.
Of all the indicators we rely on to gauge the health and vitality of our cities, we put the most stock in population growth or decline. Median incomes, rates of educational attainment, poverty rates, crime rates – these are all important statistics that we can use to assess how well our cities are doing. But if your city is losing population it’s hard for most people to argue that things are on the right track. (Although there is growing movement in some Midwestern cities that sees population loss as an opportunity as well as a challenge.)
A city’s population growth or decline, as reflected in Census estimates and decennial counts, influences a lot of consequential decisions, from the allotment of governmental resources, to the location decisions of corporations. And, perhaps more importantly, population counts help form a city’s narrative, the story it tells about itself. Growing cities are said to be prosperous and thriving; shrinking cities are said to be in decline. In some cases these narratives might become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But like a lot of statistics, demographics are basically estimates. Even the decennial census count is, at best, the most complete and accurate guess we have at the actual makeup of our communities. And the mid-decade estimates are even less reliable — no one believes for a second that there are really 602,782 souls residing in the city of Milwaukee, or that exactly 5,808 have moved in since the decade began.
As imperfect as it is, however, this estimate is clearly an important number. But perhaps more important is how we explain it. And this is where the estimate fails us – it doesn’t tell us who moved out and who moved in. It doesn’t tell us what the new residents are like: their incomes, their educational levels, the kind of work they do.
We tend to fill in the data gaps with what we see with our own eyes. In Downtown Milwaukee, we see new condos left and right, so it stands to reason that the folks inhabiting these residences, the well educated and the professional, are those driving the city’s modest population growth. Conveniently, this explanation allows us to tell a new story of Milwaukee: a former industrial powerhouse that’s shaken off the rust and entered a new day: new kinds of jobs, a new breed of worker, a new kind of Milwaukeean.
But could there be another explanation for our sudden and unexpected uptick in population?
We won’t have a better sense of who is moving in and who is moving out until the 2010 Census, but we have plenty of circumstantial evidence of a bona fide boom in the Latino population in Milwaukee. Schools serving a largely Latino population have been growing steadily. Agencies serving the social and health needs of Latinos are expanding. And Latino businesses are expanding and growing in number. Take a trip to Milwaukee’s oldest and most established Latino neighborhoods on the city’s South Side and you will see streets bursting with life – much more life than most of the condo neighborhoods Downtown.
At time same time, an influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia has left its own unique imprint on the city, in the form of grocery stores, bilingual schools and businesses.
The question, of course, is whether the increase in immigrants is enough to outbalance the continuing exodus of middle class families with kids to the suburbs. But the happy news that our city might not be bleeding residents anymore could be a good opportunity to take stock of the changing Milwaukee: a traditionally black and white city becoming an increasingly black, white and brown city; and a traditionally blue collar city becoming a multi-colored collar city.
In this sense, these numbers tell us not so much a new story of Milwaukee, but a retelling of the same story since the beginning: the city of immigrants. Like the Germans, Poles, Irish and Italians before them, today’s Latinos and Hmong are staking their claim in a city that has always taken both the unskilled and uneducated into its ranks.
What’s less certain, however, is whether the new Milwaukee can offer its new residents what the old Milwaukee did: the good jobs and good schools necessary for immigrants to work their way into the middle class. With more residents comes a greater responsibility to provide those services that are essential for a productive life.