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Population by the Numbers

There was a spirited discussion on this earlier post , regarding the importance of the relative city population rank through the decades.  Buffalo often promotes its glorious past by touting its rank among the top 10 largest cities in the early 20th century.  Some commenters on that Metropolis post were  quick to dismiss the fact, that Buffalo once ranked as high as the 8th largest city, as unimportant because it was at a time when the country had a much smaller population and economy.  The fact is that, the early growth of Buffalo has endowed today’s Buffalo with cultural resources way beyond that of newer cities of similar size.  This cultural wealth includes buildings from a prolific time of great American architecture, but also other cultural assets such as the world class Albright Knox Gallery and the highly respected Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, recently the subject of a New York Times story.   A few weeks ago I was in Memphis Tennessee, a metro comparable in size to Buffalo (and subject of 2 upcoming stories on BRO). Its areas of dense walkable urbanism are a small fraction of what Buffalo has and its great architectural accomplishments are scarce.  This is mainly because its major growth occurred  at a later time in the 20th century. Memphis has never been on the list of top twenty metros.

This debate gave me a good excuse to post this fabulous chart. It is a fascinating urban comparison, which tracks the relative size of the top 20 American metro areas  from 1790 to 2010.  Metro Buffalo first appears on the list at number 20 in 1830 with a tiny population of 8,700.  Rochester was bigger  with 9,200 people, holding down the 19th spot, but exited the list for good in 1880.  20 years later, Metro Buffalo hit its highest rank, at number 10, with 80,000 people. In this year, 1850, New York State had 5 of the top 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country.  It is amazing what a big government infrastructure project like the Erie Canal can do for your economy.  Interestingly, Buffalo was already bigger than Washington DC, which did not surpass  Buffalo until 1940.  Buffalo dropped out of the top 20 after 1960 when the metro population first topped 1 million people. In this census, Buffalo had only recently  been surpassed by today’s mega cities of Miami, Dallas, and Houston.  Seattle, which made a brief appearance on the top 20 in the 1930s, and Atlanta were both still smaller than Metro Buffalo. They both permanently joined the top 20 list in 1970, with 1.2 million and 1.1 million people, respectively.  Today, Buffalo is currently clinging to the number 50 spot, adding barely more than 100,000 people since 1960.

Buffalo’s final spot on the top 20 list was number 18.  That spot is now held by Baltimore with 2.4 million people, about 2 times bigger than Buffalo.

 

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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