Rank these five cities, from top to bottom, in population: Anchorage, Alaska; Chula Vista, Calif.; Henderson, Nev.; Plano, Texas; and Buffalo.
No, Buffalo doesn’t sit atop that list. And you’d have to be a real demographics expert to know where the Queen City finishes among those cities.
That’s right. Buffalo sits at the bottom of that list, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 population estimates.
In fact, Buffalo ranks an almost-shocking 76th in city populations across the nation.
By comparison, Anchorage ranks 64th; Plano 70th; Henderson 71st; and Chula Vista 75th.
At least Buffalo nudged out Fort Wayne, Ind., which ranked 77th.
There’s a huge asterisk here, of course. These are city populations, and some of those other “cities” have annexed their neighboring suburbs, creating an artificially larger “city” population.
Or, as one expert put it, “They incorporated their sprawl.”
The Buffalo Niagara metropolitan area, including Erie and Niagara counties, has remained stable, with a minuscule increase, retaining its ranking as the nation’s 50th largest metropolis, according to the Census Bureau’s 2014 estimates.
So the greater Buffalo area, at No. 50, can consider itself lucky to have two major league teams, in the 32-team National Football League and the 30-team National Hockey League. No one’s ever heard of major league teams in Chula Vista or Anchorage.
Still, Buffalo, in terms of its city population, has fallen a long way.
Its highest ranking ever was eighth, in 1900.
Those were heady days for the Queen City of the Great Lakes, a transportation and manufacturing hub that would draw immigrants to work in its grain and steel mills, attracting national attention with its Pan-American Exposition in 1901. At the dawn of the 20th Century, Buffalo had 352,387 residents, more than one-third greater than the 2014 estimated figure of 258,703.
Since then, the city’s national population ranking has fallen, slowly at first, down to 20th in 1960, before a steeper decline that left Buffalo as the 69th largest city in the last official census, 2010.
In raw population numbers, Buffalo reached its peak in 1950, with 580,132 residents, before suburban flight and the decline of the city’s manufacturing industry began a steady erosion of the population base.
Optimists, though, would point out that the city’s population at least is declining at a markedly slower rate. For example, the city lost more than 30,000 residents from 2000 to 2010, before losing fewer than 3,000 residents total over the next four years, according to the 2014 census estimate.
Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown has cited that lower rate of decline, predicting that the next census in 2020 will see the city’s first population growth since 1950.
Where Buffalo stands on that population list seems much less important than where the city’s population is headed.
“Have we bottomed out?” asked Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. “I believe we are approaching the point where it will tick up again.”
That would be a huge psychological boost, to see the city’s population rise again. But that may not be the key to the city’s success.
“I have the feeling that we’re asking the wrong question if we’re only asking about population,” said Shibley, who’s also senior fellow and former director of UB’s Regional Institute. “There are so many other ways to measure how we’re doing. What’s the health of our city, in the broadest concept of health? Are we going in the right direction? I think the consensus is yes.”
Shibley, like others, cited recent positive developments, such as the emerging waterfront, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Larkinville district and others.
“Anything that makes the city more attractive to live in will do just that – attract more people,” he added.
But Mark Goldman, a Buffalo historian and entrepreneur, posed a question of concern about all the recent restaurant and retail-shop openings, what he and others have called the city’s “irrational exuberance,” even in the face of its continued declining population and the lack of increase in residents’ disposable income.
Who’s going to support all those new businesses? Goldman wonders.
“We have an incredible burst in the supply of activities that require disposable income,” he said. “In the absence of an increase in disposable income, are we creating a glut? The natural question is ‘How long can this last?’ Is it sustainable?”
Goldman felt that glut personally, having recently closed his Black Rock Kitchen & Bar on Amherst Street.
An entrepreneur who’s also been described as a cultural community activist, Goldman hasn’t been shy about investing in Buffalo’s future. But he remains concerned about the financial health of all these new businesses.
“There are too many choices for people,” he said.
At least until the population starts rising again.