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Joe Nathanson: Census report misstates downtown growth

You may have seen the billboard posted high above the Jones Falls Expressway inviting you to check out the 401.

If you looked further into the matter you would have learned that the highway sign was part of a broader media campaign by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore to highlight the fact that the heart of downtown, an enclave anchored at Pratt and Light streets, was the fastest growing neighborhood in Baltimore over the last decade.

The “401” moniker was simply referring to the U. S. Census Bureau’s number for the census tract containing a lively portion of Baltimore City’s downtown.

According to the Downtown Partnership’s marketing materials, the area “bordered by Franklin, Paca, Pratt, and President Street, is not only booming with residents, but also with world-class restaurants, new housing, parks and plazas, exciting nightlife, and the newly designated Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District.”

This compact district, extending from the Inner Harbor to the center of Mount Vernon, has 4,000 residents, representing an increase of 130 percent since the 2000 census.

The 401 is a clever spin on the part of Baltimore’s downtown marketing and promotion entity to present city residents and the wider region with the notion that the heart of the area is vital and worth being a part of. And the growth taking place is not limited to that one census tract. The area that the partnership truly considers its downtown, the Downtown Statistical Area, has grown to 42,000 residents, according to its 2011 State of Downtown Report.

Imagine the confusion and dismay locally upon the recent publication of a Census report, with the ponderous title of “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change: 2000 to 2010.” The report was accompanied by a press release headlined “Populations Increasing in Many Downtowns, Census Bureau Reports,” and continuing with this information:

“Chicago experienced the largest numeric gain in its downtown area, with a net increase of 48,000 residents over 10 years. New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington also posted large population increases close to city hall. These downtown gains were not universal, however: New Orleans and Baltimore experienced the greatest population declines in their downtown areas (35,000 and slightly more than 10,000, respectively).”

J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the Downtown Partnership, is quite familiar with the matter and has been in touch with the Census Bureau.

Fowler was incredulous that the bureau had used the area within a two-mile radius from City Hall as the standard definition of downtown. He pointed out that in the case of Baltimore, this meant that downtown stretched from Port Covington on the south to 25th Street on the north. It also meant a four-mile, 80-minute walk from Baltimore’s Westside to the Eastside and encompassing 12½ square miles of territory. No one in Baltimore would possibly recognize this designation of downtown.

Insisting that the Census Bureau drill down further with the available data, Fowler had them concede that the more compact area within a one-mile radius of City Hall had not declined in population, but had grown. Asserting that the bureau’s press release presented misleading information about a thriving portion of Baltimore, he urged the folks at the bureau to issue a revised release. They took the matter under advisement. (I wouldn’t expect a new release.)

Fowler also contacted the International Downtown Association on the matter. The IDA, which identifies itself as “a champion for vital and livable urban centers” might play a useful role in this clash between the interests of marketers and statisticians.

If the Census Bureau wants to seriously discuss “downtowns,” the IDA could encourage the agency to establish downtown statistical areas, using standard rules, just as they do for the designation those metropolitan and micropolitan areas in the first place.

There was a time, in decades past, that the Census Bureau had a more robust program of reporting not only on traditional downtowns (primarily in terms of retail trade performance), but also neighborhood commercial centers. As demographic and economic trends point to the greater appeal of traditional urban centers, it would be worthwhile to consider making the modest effort required to meaningfully delineate and report on these key centers of the metropolitan landscape.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at