The Census report this week showing that Baltimore's population grew last year for the first time in decades is an encouraging sign that the long-term hemorrhaging of city residents to the suburbs may finally be turning around. Though the absolute numbers estimated in the survey were small — the bureau found a net increase of just 1,100 residents during the 12 months that ended July 1, bringing the total to 621,342 — even that modest rise after 60 years of continuous losses offers hope that the city need not resign itself to a future of perpetual decline.
Not everything in the report was rosy; even with the 0.2 percent uptick in population last year, more people moved out of the city than moved in. The only reason the overall population went up was because the natural growth of the population — the number of births minus deaths — slightly outweighed the net loss of population from migration.
Still, if the trend continues, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of growing the city's population by 10,000 new families over the next decade could be within reach.
The census report showed a sharp increase in the number of immigrants settling in the city, and though it doesn't provide details about them, the anecdotal evidence suggests many are Latinos, who have established a vibrant, growing community in the Fells Point area and Highlandtown. Many are attracted by the availability of jobs in the region — and by the efforts of city leaders like Mayor Rawlings-Blake to make them feel welcome.
But government policies aren't the only or even the most important factor at work. The Archdiocese of Baltimore — in need of growing its numbers just as much as the city is — has devoted significant resources into outreach to Spanish speakers. The diocese operates a bilingual community multi-service center offering health care and employment counseling, English as a second language classes and immigration law referrals. It also advocates on behalf of issues related to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The church also sponsors the city's only true bilingual school for Spanish-speaking students, the Archbishop Borders School in Highlandtown. (The closest public school equivalent, the Baltimore International Academy charter school, is a language-immersion school where students begin studying Spanish, French, Russian and Chinese in kindergarten.) Since one of the main reasons immigrants come to this country is to give their children educational opportunities they could never get at home, the city school system clearly should be looking at ways to bolster programs for Hispanic students as part of its larger reform effort.
But the mayor is right that drawing more immigrants to the city is not a magic solution to growing Baltimore. Even if more of them can be induced to settle here initially, the city will still have to work hard to retain them as long-term residents. Immigrants as a rule are among the most dynamic, entrepreneurial elements of the population in their home countries, and once they get here there's no assurance that after settling in Baltimore for a few years they won't move to the suburbs, too.
The key to retaining immigrants and non-immigrants alike is to create an environment of opportunity and vibrancy. The schools need to continue improving, and crime needs to keep going down, but a big part of what the city must do is to remove barriers for those who want to invest and settle here. The recent effort to overhaul Baltimore's zoning code and Mayor Rawlings-Blake's 10-year plan to stabilize Baltimore's finances should help in that regard.
It's possible that a gain of 1,100 people is just a statistical fluke, but we don't think so. Even before this recent report, it has been clear that the city's population had stabilized, and if growth is not inexorable, it is at least now imaginable. After decades of relentless decline, that's no small thing.