By Lynn Ashby 14 February 2011
Even as you read this brilliance, numbers crunchers at the U.S. Census Bureau are tabulating the nation’s population. This count, as we have noted before, is no dry and bureaucratic pursuit — the results determine which towns and states get a bigger or smaller slice of the U.S. Treasury. Each person is worth about $1,500 a year in federal funding to local and state jurisdictions.
Based on those head counts, interstate highways, veterans’ hospitals, national parks and toxic landfills will be mapped out. Then private enterprise takes those figures and decides where to put a new mall, instant slum and/or which Hooters to close (that got your attention). Where do you think the next NFL franchise should be placed? I, personally, like Marblehead and Sulphur Springs, but you may be partial to Southwark and Gonzales.
Let me explain why you should care, and how – again – we can both get as rich as a ticket scalper at the upcoming Bernie Madoff Roast (literally). In the first U.S. Census in 1790 and each one since then, the Number 1 city in population has been New York City. Next, in that first census, came Philadelphia and Boston. No surprises there, but then came Charleston, S.C., followed by Baltimore, Northern Liberties, Salem, Newport, Providence and Marblehead. I give up. What’s a Northern Liberties? For the next 50 years Northern Liberties was among our largest populated cities.
Just to show how Americans move around, let’s take Number 4 in population. That slot has been held by the aforementioned Charleston (1790), Boston (1800-1840) and, of all places, Brooklyn (1890), which was then a separate city. Houston took over in 1990 and still holds Number 4. In the last census of 2000, Dallas was eighth. At various times, Number 8 was Newport, R.I.; Salem, Mass.; Southwark — wherever that is, probably near those Northern Liberties — San Francisco, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and San Diego.
The only two top 10 towns listed in both 1790 and 2000 were NYC and Philly. Past members of the top 10 have been New Orleans; Albany, NY; Spring Gardens (huh?) and Norfolk, Va. Several of those in the current top 10 line-up joined relatively recently and, of course, started near the bottom: Los Angeles (10th in 1920), Phoenix (ninth in 1980), San Diego (eighth in 1980), as mentioned Dallas (eighth in 1970) and San Antonio (10th in 2000).
At this point you are thinking, “Like I care about Southwark. What’s in it for me?” Money, that’s what. In every one of these population shifts, somebody made a fortune and somebody lost his life savings. So, obviously, our job is to figure out where everyone is going, then buy up Farmer Brown’s back 40, and don’t tell him it’s the site of the next Sprawl Mart or used hotel mattress recycling center.
Let’s start close to home: Texas, the only state with three cities in the top 10. For advice, we turn to Mike Cox of “Texas Tales,” who wrote in his syndicated column, “Hard to imagine today, but back in 1850 residents of New Braunfels could brag that they lived in the fourth-largest city in Texas.” He goes on to note that in that first U.S. Census of Texans, in 1850, the enumerators found 212,592 people in the state, including slaves. But this didn’t include our Indians, and no one volunteered to count them.
Apparently working on the theory that it’s hard to hit a moving target, Texans keep changing homes. Cox found that in very first headcount of Texas in 1850 the top 10 looked like this: Galveston (4,177), San Antonio (3,488), Houston (2,396), New Braunfels (1,723), Marshall (1,180), Gonzales (1,072), Victoria (802), Fredericksburg (754), Austin (629), Corpus Christi (533). Only four of our cities have been Number 1: Galveston, San Antonio and Dallas once (1890). Houston took over in 1930 and has been there ever since.
Dallas is an interesting case. It finally broke in as ninth in 1860, right behind Sulphur Springs. By 1880 Big D was still smaller than Austin, yet within 10 years, 1890, Dallas was briefly the biggest city in Texas. We can only assume that everyone who came down from Indian Territory for the Texas-OU game stayed. Wouldn’t you?
Yet still we keep moving around Texas, or in some case, simply moving to Texas. For example, El Paso and San Antonio are showing huge growths due to immigration from south of the Rio. Arlington and Plano have broken in to the top 10 due to immigrants from north of the Red. You ever get the idea the Border Patrol is watching the wrong river?
Population booms mean land booms, which is traditional here. Land was a major reason people came to Texas, and the General Land Office was the first agency created by the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Land was also the coin of our realm — ex-soldiers from the Texas Revolution and the Civil War were paid off in state-owned acreage. Our Johnny Rebs got 640 acres. So why didn’t your great-great granddaddy stake out his 640 free acres in west Austin or River Oaks or along the San Antonio River Walk? Shortsighted, he was.
Where’s the next boomtown? There are 167 million land acres in Texas, so we have a lot of opportunities. Is Odessa the next Monaco? Pampa’s famed Top O’ Texas Rodeo may overtake “American Idol” in popularity. Sanderson – Gateway to Marathon! “What happens in Port Arthur stays in Port Arthur.” Here’s a thought: We have 150,000 cons in state prisons – this doesn’t include those in our city, county and federal slammers. That’s a city in itself. The state can save money, guards and land mines by putting all the inmates together on, well, whatever land we buy.
Don’t roll your eyes. If you’re so smart, why didn’t you buy the Permian Basin when it was dust and tumbleweeds, huh? But I’ll give you another chance. Want downtown Sulphur Springs? It’s coming back.
Ashby moves to email@example.com