D.C. population soars past 600,000 for first time in years

By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 12:27 AM

Reversing a half-century of decline, the District's population grew more than 5 percent over the decade and sailed past 600,000 residents for the first time in a generation.

The city gained almost 30,000 people since the last census, and more than a third are thought to have moved into the District in the past two years alone, amid a brutal recession. It was the biggest spike since the end of World War II, when the city had 802,000 people. Every census since 1950 has taken the District on a downward trajectory.

Growth has swelled the number of residents in every quadrant of the city and shifted the District's racial and ethnic mix. Whites and Hispanics have been moving in, while many African Americans have left and might be a minority before the next census is taken.

City officials were exultant at a population count that confirms the city's resurgence, repeating the exact count of 601,723, down to the last citizen.

Planning Director Harriet Tregoning called it a "huge milestone." Joy Phillips, associate director of the State Data Center, said it was "a dream realized." Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said it was an endorsement of the work his administration has done.

"It certain reflects the success of the city and the greater Washington region in terms of proving its resilience and stability through the economic troubles of the past few years," said Matt Erskine, vice president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "There's a very tangible buzz that the city possesses right now."

The District is treated like a state by the census and is the only city that learned its population Tuesday, when the Census Bureau announced state population counts and how many seats each will get in the House of Representatives. Virginia's population rose 13 percent, to 8 million; Maryland's went up 9 percent, to 5.8 million.

When more detailed data are released in February and March, several other cities, including San Francisco and Boston, will probably show upticks, too.

But the District owes its rebound to more than just a national back-to-the-cities movement with young adults and empty nesters gravitating to center cities. The city expanded through a decade in which government grew in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the financial crisis that led to the recession.

The phenomenon is not new: Almost from its inception, the District has thrived during bad times.

Boom times

Its biggest growth spurt was around the Civil War - the city leapt in size by 75 percent. The Great Depression decade of the 1930s was another boom time, expanding the city population by 36 percent.

It reached its peak in 1950 after a decade dominated by World War II. The city was able to accommodate more than 800,000 residents because large swaths of what is now a downtown of office buildings were neighborhoods of Victorian rowhouses, said Adam Lewis, interim director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

The 1950s and 1960s ushered in a national era of suburbanization and desegregation, and the District kept shrinking in size. That process accelerated after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 sparked riots in the city.

By the time Metrorail opened in 1976, its primary purpose was to bring suburbanites to downtown jobs and then return them home again.

"As highways got built, as jobs moved out, people left," said Zachary Schrag, a historian at George Mason University. "It was every bit as much true in places like Oakland, California, as it was in Washington." (Even now, despite its gains in population, the District remains much smaller than three of its suburban neighbors: Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.)

In the 2000 Census, the District's population was a much-diminished 572,000.

After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the federal bureaucracy and defense spending soared, helping fuel a resurgence that even the recession has not quenched.

According to Tregoning, almost half of the 43,700 jobs added in the region from October 2009 to this past October are in the District.

Many of the city's newest residents are young college graduates who don't own cars and who take public transportation, she said. "It's made a huge difference how much more livable the city has gotten over the last decade," she said, noting that 10 grocery stores have opened in the past four years.

No part of the District has lost residents this year, though some are thriving more than others.

The area west of the Anacostia River, including a slice of Southeast around Nationals Park and the H Street corridor in Northeast, has experienced the most growth. It is up almost 12,000 residents, about 10 percent.

The central city is barely a step behind. With a raft of new apartment buildings along Massachusetts Avenue, it gained almost 10,000 people, about 9 percent.

The area west of Rock Creek Park, which has little room for new development, has about 3,300 more residents, an increase of about 3 percent.

The smallest gains were in the corridor along 16th Street and Georgia Avenue, up fewer than 1,000, and east of the river, with 1,800 more people.

Changing demographics

Almost 60,000 whites moved into the District between 2000 and 2009, a 30 percent rise. Hispanics are up by double digits, too, for the third decade in a row.

If the population trends continue, the District could stop being a majority-black city within four years, demographers say. In 1980, seven of 10 residents were African American. By 2000, six in 10 were black. Today, about 53 percent of D.C. residents are African American.

The city is becoming a place for more high-income earners. In 2010 dollars, the annual median household income was about $50,500 last year, up about $7,800 from 2000.

Many demographers and historians say that a fundamental change is underway and that the city's recovery is only beginning.

"The District has always been, or tried to be, the center of our economic life but not our residential life," said Jane Freundel Levey, director of heritage programs at Cultural Tourism DC. "What this demonstrates is that we're on the path to becoming a residential center, too."

morelloc@washpost.com keatingd@washpost.com Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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