Dennis Persica: New Orleans gets bump in population

New Orleans, for the moment, has the wind at its back.

From July 1, 2012, to July 1, 2013 — the most recent data available from the state — Orleans Parish saw its population grow by 2.4 percent.

The 8,827-person increase was the greatest rise in raw numbers of any of Louisiana’s parishes during that period. On a percentage basis, Orleans’ increase was second only to St. Bernard Parish, which grew by 1,915 people, or 4.6 percent.

St. Tammany saw a 1.3 percent population increase, Jefferson Parish a tiny 0.1 percent and St. Charles and St. James parishes each had 0.2 percent increases. St. John the Baptist Parish’s population declined 2.3 percent and Plaquemines Parish dropped by 1.4 percent.

Beyond the dry statistics, New Orleans is indicative of a national trend, where urban cores are growing (regrowing?) faster than the surrounding suburbs.

Anyone with just the slightest knowledge of post-World War II American social history knows that cities have been losing population to the suburbs ever since returning veterans armed with G.I. Bill benefits started buying homes.

In the case of New Orleans and many other cities, that flight from the center of the city usually meant a move to another part of the same jurisdiction, but one where the home lots were bigger and the streets and schools were newer. Think of Lakeview, Gentilly, Algiers.

Later, though, that flight took residents to outlying parishes like Jefferson, taking their tax monies with them. You just need to walk down Canal Street to see the still -lingering impact of the resulting collapse of urban cores. No more Krauss, Maison Blanche or D.H. Holmes.

But according to William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, big-city population growth since the 2010 census has been dramatic. In fact, nine of the 25 largest American cities gained more in population since the 2010 census than they did the entire decade between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

Working with the same data, Richard Florida, of The Atlantic magazine’s CityLab.com, found that New Orleans topped the nation among cities that grew faster than their surrounding suburbs. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the city’s population coming back after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

These gains have not been lost on Jefferson Parish. It has been hard at work trying to create a more city-like, pedestrian- and bike-friendly atmosphere in some parts of a parish that has always been dependent on the automobile. The parish targeted Fat City, a part of Metairie once infamous for its bars and nightlife, as part of that transformation.

On the other side of the river, the Jefferson Parish Council has funded a study called Westbank Revival to search for ways to bring people back there. The study found that 40 percent of the people who moved out of that area, where the population peaked in 2000, went to New Orleans.

The recent trends favoring the city may not last, however. National figures already are showing the regrowth of urban areas slowing in the past few months. At some point, the post-Katrina bounce in New Orleans’ population will end.

Orleans is still the third-largest parish in the state, behind East Baton Rouge and Jefferson, in that order. It’s about 65,000 people smaller than Jefferson, and Jefferson is hoping that the widened and modernized Huey P. Long Bridge will spur development of the western end of West Jefferson, bringing new people into the parish.

If that happens, New Orleans will need a mighty wind at its back if it hopes to ever overtake Jefferson’s population again.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.