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In Northeast, a city's tale of turnaround

After decades of decline, New Haven and other mid-size cities now see a positive population trend.

By Alexander DworkowitzContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2005



NEW HAVEN, CONN.

Buying confessional booths, stained-glass windows, and centuries-old stonework from decaying Irish churches and shipping those items to New Haven, Conn., is not a cheap venture. Neither is transforming those materials into a 17,000-square-foot restaurant.

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But the worry for Damian O'Connell and his partners at the Playwright Pub & Restaurant was not start-up costs, but the possibility of a lack of customers. After all, they opened their business on a quiet street, with a hotel and half-empty mall punctuating the streetscape of abandoned buildings.

"It was a big risk," Mr. O'Connell says. "But we had a great feeling about New Haven at the time."

Four years later, the risk has clearly paid off. Pedestrians, once a rare sight on Temple Street, are now common. Both the mall and an empty office building nearby have been transformed into apartments. Diners have a choice of Syrian, Italian, Ethiopian, Japanese, or Irish food. And a five-screen movie theater opened down the block last November.

"It was a ghost town on this street," O'Connell says. "Now it's like Mardi Gras on the weekends."

Temple Street is not the only block in New Haven that is a little more bustling as of late. According to recent census estimates, the city's population increased by 1,053 residents from 2000 to 2004, bringing the city's total population to 124,829. For many other cities, this small growth would be unremarkable. But for New Haven, which has seen its population decline for much of the past half century, the increase is an encouraging sign.

Other cities in the Northeast are moving in a similar positive direction. Like New Haven, many other mid-size cities in the region had seen their population drop continuously for decades.

"I think what we are seeing in the Northeast is some rebound stories here," says William Frey, a fellow in metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The numbers

In the band stretching from Elizabeth, N.J., to Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass., there are 13 cities with populations between 100,000 and 300,000. Of those cities, only one, Jersey City, N.J., actually lost population from 2000 to 2004. The remaining 12 saw an average population increase of 1.6 percent.

Of course, that growth is nothing compared with the population explosions of Florida, Arizona, and California. Gilbert, Ariz., grew by 42.6 percent during the same time period, the fastest in the nation.

But the surprise comes not in the magnitude of growth, but the fact that the cities are growing at all. The growth stands in stark contrast to Midwestern cities, which continue to lose population, and even larger Northeastern cities such as Boston, which also saw a drop in residents.

Newark, N.J., saw the biggest lift. The city's population had dropped every decade from 1950 to 2000, from a high of 438,776 to 273,546. But since 2000, Newark's population has increased by almost 8,000 people, according to census estimates.

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