The 2010 Census is provoking much angst in the Salt River Valley. Arizona's 40-percent population increase of the 1990s will almost certainly not be replicated over the decade just past, and some worry that at least certain cities could actually see population declines. Such is the damage from the great recession. Such has been the preeminent importance of adding people to the economy and psyche of metro Phoenix. Not growing scientists, corporate headquarters, diverse industries, incomes, high-wage jobs, quality schools, venture capital, the arts, public transit, shade, etc. -- just adding people.
A few predictions can be made without much fear: Phoenix will not rise higher than America's No. 5 most populous city, barring a holocaust hurricane hitting Houston. Indeed, Phoenix's population may well be flat or even have fallen since mid-decade. Its poverty will rise. It will move closer to becoming a Hispanic majority city, if the Census count is thorough and honest. The metro area as a whole will have gained, but not nearly as much as it did in some of the preceding decades. De-facto segregation by ethnic group, and especially class, will grow more rigid. The demographic and social changes brought by this first crash of the Great Disruption will be felt in the 2010 Census and continue to reverberate into the new decade. Among them: Americans are moving less.
Taken together, the message of the 2010 Census to Phoenix and Arizona: You'd better find a new gig.
Remember the triumphalism back in the 2000s, when Phoenix surpassed Philadelphia to become "the nation's fifth largest city"? As a homeboy, even I couldn't suppress some pride. Yet, in one of the columns that endeared me to the booster class, I pointed out the many measures of quality, competitiveness, social health, education and civic assets nationally -- and how Phoenix was nowhere near No. 5 on these. Few wanted to hear this. Serious people in positions of serious responsibilities talked about when Phoenix would surpass Chicago in population. As for any shortcomings, they were because Phoenix was a "young city."
With some 500 square miles, Phoenix was estimated to have 1.5 million people in 2006 (and its populousness is partly a function of half a century of debatable annexation -- Philly, slightly less populous, covers 135 square miles). Houston, the fourth most populous city, comes in at 2.1 million people in 579 square miles.
Simply put, there's no way Phoenix can surpass Houston to become No. 4. Why? Houston has a real economy. It is a world city because it still holds a large segment of the corporate assets, and perhaps the majority of intellectual assets, of the oil industry. In a globe dependent on oil, that's real power. Houston also has other major corporate headquarters, a port and massive logistical centers served by railroads, extensive international connections and the nation's largest complex of petrochemical plants and refineries. That latter provides huge numbers of well-paid, often union, blue-collar jobs. Houston has some of America's finest cultural assets, backed by years of oil money. It's a major university center, as well as a top international medical hub, anchored by the dense Texas Medical Center, with its hospitals, med schools and research all together. Federal money built much of Houston, from establishing the port as a major player to making the city a magnet for scientific talent at well-funded research centers and NASA. It booms with sprawl real estate, of course -- but that's a consequence of the larger, rich and diverse economy; it's not the economy itself.
Phoenix had housing, as well as call centers, service businesses tied to population growth, tourism and the remnant of the semiconductor and aerospace industries brought in decades ago and in long decline (and these artificially inflate the value of metro GDP). It's no contest. Indeed, the city of Phoenix could begin a slow slide downward in population, as the most valuable economic assets have moved to the affluent white suburbs. Soon it could be overtaken by San Antonio at No. 5 -- ironic payback considering S.A. is led by Sheryl Sculley, who was too obviously smart and too "pushy" to have a future at the insecure ole boy hangout called City Hall (Time Wounds All Heels). But a weakening Phoenix, with its linear slums and growing poverty, will not make for a stronger metro area.
Nothing lasts. In 1950, when Phoenix was ranked 99 among the 100 most populous cities, Detroit was No. 5. And what does mere population gain a place? In 1950, when Phoenix had 106,000 people in 17 square miles, Seattle boasted 467,591 in 70 square miles (this was before the automobile had completely ruined America). In 2006, when Phoenix became No. 5, Seattle had 582,000 in 83 square miles. No serious observer would wonder which is the real big city.
I know, I know...Phoenix is a "young city." That's a misleading distraction to take up on another day.