US population shifts away from rural, back to urban centers. Midwest is biggest loser though some cities gain

The strong population growth in rural areas of the United States that characterized the 1970s has shifted into reverse. Central cities and their suburbs -- with some notable exceptions in the Midwest -- are growing faster. Among small towns whose populations rose during the past decade and now have fallen, the transition has been keenly felt.

Darcy Kazee, who rings up sales at Marengo Hardware, vividly remembers the ``big rush'' of the '70s to settle in this peaceful town of 325 people.

Now, in the '80s, many of the city dwellers who moved from Columbus (about an hour's drive from here) have gone. More than a few of the homes they built just northeast of town now have ``for sale'' signs in their front yards.

Eleanor Weiss, who works in the delicatessen of Marengo's one grocery store, says many who came here were trying to escape urban crime and integrated schools.

``What brought a lot of people out here was forced busing,'' says Mrs. Weiss, who serves on Marengo's town council. ``Then the price of gas went up, and we had some bad snows, so they decided to go back.''

Calvin Beale, a top demographer working for the US Department of Agriculture, says many farm and mining counties have been growing at a slower rate or losing population. The trend, he says, appears to be the result of more people leaving less-populated areas and fewer city people moving in.

Many people have found it increasingly tough to get jobs anywhere but near cities, Mr. Beale says. But he notes that even retirement and recreation communities (considered less vulnerable to economic changes) are growing slower in nonmetropolitan areas than they were in the 1970s.

The growth of the Sunbelt areas of the South and West continues stronger than that of the frost-belt Northeast and Midwest. But population shifts in the 1980s have slightly modified the trend.

There is a ``hole in the middle'' of Sunbelt growth, Beals says. Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, which form a connecting block, have all had somewhat lower rates of population growth over the last four years than the nation as a whole. Many of the states were particularly hard hit by the recession.

``The growth part of the Sunbelt is really now in two pieces -- Virginia to Florida and Louisiana to California,'' Beale says.

Beside the uneven growth in the Sunbelt, the other key regional shift is the surprise growth of some central cities in the Northeast. Though the region as a whole is still losing people to the South and West, the rate of loss has slowed down significantly, demographers say. Some credit the success of the Northeast region's transition from a manufacturing to a more service-based economy.

``We're seeing an upturn in cities like New York which lost 10 percent of its population in the 1970s,'' says Donald Starsinic, chief of the state and national estimates branch of the US Census Bureau's population division. ``Things are just a lot rosier now, even in the South Bronx.''

The Midwest continues to be hardest hit by population losses. Michigan and Ohio have lost more people than any other states.

Detroit, for instance, has lost more than 50,000 residents in the last two years, according to Census Bureau estimates. Beale notes that all seven counties in the Detroit metropolitan area have declined in population since 1980. ``The dropoff in automotive jobs was just so great,'' he explains.

Cleveland also lost more than 11,000 residents in the last two years, according to census estimates.

Yet there are exceptions. Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Indianapolis have gained population in the 1980s.

``Generally the states in the Western tier of the Midwest are a little stronger -- it's the Eastern industrial half which has been sagging pretty badly,'' notes Mr. Starsinic.

One population trend continuing in the 1980s is the growth of a far outer ring of suburbs around large cities. While such satellite areas are growing faster than central cities, demographers say the pace of the increase has fallen off slightly since the 1970s.

``It may be a reflection of the fact that it costs more to travel now,'' Starsinic says.

Still, Beale suggests that the high density of population in near suburbs, the growth in office and construction jobs there, and the availability of cheaper housing in outlying areas are all factors in the growth of new outer suburbs.

``The jobs themselves have dispersed out of the central city, so you create a new ring of suburbs within commuting distance,'' Beale says.

Back in Marengo, residents are philosophical about growth prospects. Darcy Kazee says some of her friends who moved away now want to come back.

``We still have people going both ways,'' agrees Mrs. Weiss. She and her family recently returned to Marengo, where she grew up, after 20 years of moving around the country while her husband was in the Marines. She notes Marengo even has some new housing available.

``We still have one builder -- he's not giving up,'' she says.

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