The New Milwaukeeans: Making Sense of Population Growth In The Cream City

After forty years in the statistical doldrums, what does Milwaukee make of a sudden, slight increase in population? Local expert and urban enthusiast Dave Steele reports.

2 minute read

May 20, 2008, 9:00 AM PDT

By tnac

"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 steadily 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.)

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.

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?"

Thanks to Dave Steele

Monday, May 19, 2008 in The Next American City

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