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Census growth secret: add inmates or students

Monday, March 12, 2001

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What was the best way for a Pittsburgh neighborhood to fight the city's population decline and actually add people during the 1990s?

Simple: Pack hundreds of inmates or students on top of one another in new structures built to serve their unique needs, which is what happened on the edge of the Golden Triangle and in the Bluff and West Oakland, which together gained more than 2,400 residents during the decade.

In a city that lost more than 35,000 people in a decade, as shown by Pittsburgh's April 1, 2000, census count of 334,563, it's hard to find many neighborhoods that gained population. Only 10 of 90 neighborhoods within the city limits grew, according to citywide numbers released Friday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many of the large residential neighborhoods generally perceived as healthy still lost up to 7 percent of their population, including Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Stanton Heights in the East End and Banksville, Beechview and Brookline in the South Hills.

Some neighborhoods with the most extreme drop in population were those where it occurred deliberately, as when the Pittsburgh Public Housing Authority demolished outdated buildings in Terrace Village and Arlington Heights and relocated their residents. Other high-loss communities, including Homewood and Larimer, struggled throughout the 1990s with concerns about safety, drug dealing, rundown housing and other problems.

In general, it's hard for a Northeastern city, where almost every acre of developable land is already in use, to experience growth, noted Michael Irwin, a Duquesne University sociology professor who studies population trends. It doesn't necessarily mean people view the city as a less attractive place to live.

"A lot of the established neighborhoods were basically up to their full population capacity already, and you don't have a lot of places to build new houses," he said. "If one person moves out, another person can come in, and there's zero population growth, but it's very difficult to add more people than were there earlier.

"The only other way to get an increase is to have a higher number of persons per household, and the trend has been the other way around," due to the aging of the city's population, Irwin said.

Some of neighborhoods showing large percentage increases -- such as Chateau and South Shore -- are so small that the numbers are relatively insignificant. But in several cases, the presence of major institutions apparently explains the sizable increases that showed up on the census.

When Allegheny County built a new jail with capacity for more than 2,300 inmates, it quadrupled the number who could be listed as city residents for census purposes. While the new riverfront location is technically just inside the boundary of the Bluff neighborhood, an apparent Census Bureau glitch has included the prisoners as Golden Triangle residents, boosting Downtown's population from 3,785 to 5,222.

The Bluff grew 22 percent on its own, however, which could be tied directly to expansion of housing on Duquesne University's campus.

The Vickroy Hall dormitory which opened in 1997 has 283 beds, other dorms have been enlarged by converting lounges into bedrooms, and virtually no dormitory space is going empty, said university spokeswoman Ann Rago. She said about 2,700 students live on campus, which is where the census counted them as residing, instead of their parents' homes.

Likewise, West Oakland's growth from 1,938 to 2,272 residents could easily be explained by the University of Pittsburgh's construction of Sutherland Hall, with a capacity for 800 students.

The neighborhood that most exemplifies the kind of growth the Murphy administration would like to boast about was Crawford Roberts, where the 400-plus new housing units in the Crawford Square development next to the Mellon Arena enabled the population to increase by 11 percent to 2,724.

Eloise Hirsh, the city's planning director for most of the 1990s, said plans for new housing Downtown, in the Strip District and Squirrel Hill's Nine Mile Run area all could help turn around population numbers in the next decade, coming after other successful housing construction on the South Side, North Shore and Herrs Island.

"Wherever there is new construction and new opportunities, there is demand" from people interested in locating in the city, Hirsh said. "But until projects like Washington's Landing [on Herrs Island] and Nine Mile Run, it was next to impossible to buy a new house in the city."

Some neighborhoods' population decline, she said, reflects changing use of housing rather than problems retaining residents. In Friendship and Highland Park, which lost 9 percent and 4 percent of their populations, respectively, a number of large homes previously separated into apartment units were reconverted during the 1990s to single-family dwellings. Hirsh said the same thing happened in parts of the North Side.

"Neighborhoods like Allegheny West, Central North Side, Manchester -- those are places where neighborhoods have very clearly looked to strengthen themselves by having housing rehabilitation programs that move toward less dense, single-family ownership," Hirsh said of places that all lost population at a faster clip than the city's 10 percent decline.

The one traditional, middle-class neighborhood within the city that others might like to emulate is Regent Square, which is situated between Frick Park and a small but busy Braddock Avenue commercial strip. The neighborhood's 1,131 residents are 41 more than in 1990, a 4 percent growth rate that is gargantuan by Pittsburgh standards.

Fifteen-year resident Barbara Danko's own household grew from five to six during the decade due to the birth of her last child in 1993. The college instructor of political science said Regent Square has been luring many relatively young and well-educated couples, who then decide to stay. Houses are attractive, but their modest size makes them affordable, Danko noted.

"Usually, they come in and might not have any kids when they arrive, but their families grow while they're here," said the transplant from Austin, Texas, offering one theory for how the neighborhood fared differently in the census from communities that also appeared stable but were older.

The neighborhoods with the biggest challenges in the city are undoubtedly some of the same ones losing population at the fastest rate. Larimer lost 1,390 residents, a 35 percent dropoff. The three sections comprising Homewood lost 2,228 residents, declining 19 percent to a combined 9,283.

City Councilwoman Valerie McDonald, who represents both Larimer and Homewood, said public safety and quality of housing and schools all have to be tackled aggressively in those neighborhoods. She said she's been lobbying Mayor Tom Murphy to push public housing improvements, better recreational opportunities and other projects, but she said city officials on both council and in mayoral administrations haven't shown sufficient interest in the kind of upgrades that would benefit families in those neighborhoods.

"We've got to start addressing our young and growing families" in struggling neighborhoods, rather than a recent emphasis on assisting senior citizens who vote more, McDonald said. "I hope [the census numbers] will be a kick to the powers that be that these are areas ... that do need to be addressed."

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