Quick, off the top of your head, what is the fourth (soon to be third) largest city in New York State? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Syracuse.
G. Scott Thomas wrote a story (“Buffalo slips to 70th in city population,” Business First, November 22, 2010) that both concisely states the problem and suggests the single most important metric we should hold elected officials accountable for.
But first, the story, and how it defines the problem.
Some, as the Business First article intimates, say Buffalo hit its highpoint in 1900 when it ranked as the 8th largest city in the nation. This figure, however, misleads. The nation had not yet quite filled itself out and some of the western cities were just getting started. These western cities had natural growth advantages and one could argue the 1900 ranking placed Buffalo too high.
The more accurate apex would be July 1951, when Fortune magazine featured “Made in Buffalo” on its cover and devoted twelve inside pages to pictures and captions cementing the Queen City – then fifteenth largest in the country – as the hub of industry and progress. Buffalo then represented the third largest steel manufacturing center and the second largest rail hub (unfortunately, the city had lost its prominent foothold in the growing aircraft industry shortly after World War II). Earlier (January) that same year, work began on a massive superstructure highway – the Skyway (completed in 1955).
We all know what happened after that. I’ll trust I don’t have to repeat the implications of the St. Lawrence Seaway, national environment protection measures and global competition. I’ll just leave it with this summary judgment: In terms of community management, Western New York leaders (political and corporate, if not more) milked the proverbial cash cows without ever planning for their eventual harvesting. As a result, the old crowded out the new until the old was bankrupt and the new took the last train for the coast.
Since its peak in the 1950s, the population of Western New York has evaporated. It continues to seep south. And all the elected officials and all their appointees can’t put Western New York together again.
Which, as stated, suggests a new metric for all elected officials – population, not jobs. We hear a lot of talk about jobs and the politicians are all too eager to stand by as a company opens or hires a new batch of workers. At the same time, we don’t see them as many more companies shutter or move to warmer climes (and that’s just a metaphor, not a meteorological reality). I can only conclude the “jobs” metric is too soft to be meaningful. It’s like a quarterback proudly prancing about his passing stats when the team is winless (not that we’d know anything about that).
No. Jobs only represent the echoes on the wall of some Platonic cave. The reality remains the population figures. If an elected official fails to raise his jurisdiction’s population within his term, he should not be re-elected. It’s as simple as that. The only thing that counts is the headcount.
After all, it’s not like we want to boost the population figures by merely paying people to live here…
…oh, you’re waiting for the answer to the question. Check out this list from Business First:
Rank City Population Trend
(est. as of 11/22/10)
1 New York 8,453,558 Up
70 Buffalo 267,603 Down
102 Rochester 206,216 Down
108 Yonkers 202,059 Up
180 Syracuse 137,778 Down
306 Albany 93,736 Down
423 New Rochelle 74,637 Up
477 Mount Vernon 68,957 Up
554 Schenectady 61,553 Up
597 White Plains 57,822 Up
598 Utica 57,816 Down
660 Hempstead 54,109 Up
706 Niagara Falls 50,877 Down
759 Troy 47,372 Down
814 Binghamton 44,063 Down
818 Freeport 43,899 Down
982 Valley Stream 36,348 Up
992 Long Beach 35,931 Up
A word of warning: The above represents cities, not the more often quoted metropolitan areas. Just from the above data, we can see there’s a tendency for the down state and Capital (Albany is just down a smidge and the growth of Schenectady more than makes up for it) cities to be growing and the Western New York cities to be shrinking. The metropolitan regions roughly match this (the major exception: while the city of Rochester is losing population, its greater metropolitan area is gaining population.
Think about the implications of these two trends. Wouldn’t this disparity naturally cause different political priorities? You would think so, although sometimes it’s tough to tell when our elected officials seem to be more interested in promoting their respective parties rather than their common region. This difference also surfaced in the gubernatorial contest, when we found candidates seriously debating the merits of issues peculiar to New York City and its surrounding region. Indeed, there were third party candidates devoted solely to those issues. Did we see anything about the unique issues of Western New York? No. Unless you count the pabulum belched at those inane editorial board meetings.
Remember the new metric:
If the population doesn’t increase, we fire the elected official.