The latest round of Census numbers show Richmond is on the rise, gaining millennials, Baby Boomer empty nesters and Hispanic immigrants. But the city is still afflicted with a ghost from its past.
Depopulation, the dreaded D word. It’s a legacy of white flight, when families abandoned inner cities like Richmond for the suburbs. That transformed Virginia’s capital into a city known mainly for its abandoned buildings and street crime.
“We lost population. We lost retail, and we lost some manufacturing and some other businesses.” That’s John Accordino, director of the Douglas Wilder School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Certainly retail sales tax is huge. So when you lose that you are also losing tax base. There’s no question.”
Now Richmond is rising, a hipster urban city in the new South. And Accordino says it’s attracting all kinds of people. “There have been more millennials now, and they’re living in the city now. They’re preferring the city. We’re seeing Baby Boomer empty nesters coming back into the city and we’re also seeing immigrants, especially Hispanic immigrants, coming into the city.”
But here’s the catch — despite all that growth, despite adding 3,000 people last year, Richmond is still depopulated. Luke Juday is a researchers at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. “The city is currently booming. It’s currently doing very well. The population is on the rise again. The economy is very strong. But that population is only slowly approaching its peak population.”
That would be in 1970, when the Census shows Richmond had about 250,000 people. The city hit rock bottom in the 1990s and then started its long slow climb up.
Even now the city has yet to reach the population it had back in 1970. “Despite the significant growth and all the construction happening in Richmond, the area still has lower population than it did in the past. So you still see lots of abandoned blocks and industrial buildings and things like that that aren’t being fully utilized.”
Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University says Richmond is not the only city facing this kind of problem. “We’ve got several cities in Virginia like Richmond. Norfolk to some extent; Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth, Richmond. All five of those cities are dealing with either decline, very slow growth or almost no growth.”
And that’s a trend that has consequences at the ballot box. “Over the last couple of decades, politics in Virginia has shifted away from rural areas toward suburban areas and away from urban areas toward suburban areas.”
In the next two or three years, Richmond will reach the population it had way back in 1970. That may be a technical sign that depopulation is over. But the real test will be when the bulldozers arrive to tear down the abandoned houses and vacant industrial space.