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Allegheny County Grows In Population And Complexity

Matt Rourke

Allegheny County added 27,230 residents during the past decade, according to long-awaited data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. That 2.2 percent increase puts the county’s population at slightly more than 1.25 million people, and it represents the first increase in the county’s population since 1960, a time when the Pittsburgh Pirates played in Forbes Field and their fans were capable of feeling emotions other than existential despair.

Census figures also show the county’s make-up becoming increasingly diverse — and in some ways, increasingly complex. The number of residents who identified as having Asian ancestry increased by nearly 72 percent, according to an analysis by University of Pittsburgh researcher Chris Briem. The number of people who identified as Hispanic or being multiracial also leaped, by 80 percent and 190 percent respectively.

The city of Pittsburgh’s population, which has also experienced a decades-long decline, slid a little further — but by less than 1 percent — to land at 302,971. That keeps the city above a 300,000-person threshold that is often used to define a city as major. (Although a decent ballclub wouldn’t hurt either.)

But the city's stabilizing overall head count conceals considerable shifts within its borders.

'Really drastic changes'
The census reports a Black population within the city limits that is 13.4 percent lower than in 2010 — a drop of 10,660 people, to 69,050. At the same time, the Black population in the rest of the county grew by 12,477. Taken together, the numbers offer strong proof that Black residents have moved across the city line and into nearby communities.

“There were really drastic changes from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Matt Merriman-Preston, a political consultant who has long made a study of demographic trends. “Black-majority neighborhoods in the East End and the neighborhoods in the North Side declined pretty significantly. But in the other East End neighborhoods, you see a huge increase in population.”

His own analysis shows that City Council District 9, which represents Homewood and other mostly Black communities, lost more than 2,600 people, while nearby mostly white districts 7 and 8 grew by more than 2,000 people each.

Overall, the Black population in Pittsburgh now makes up 22.7 percent of the city, down from 26.1 percent in 2010. And Merriman-Preston says the job of ensuring that population is fairly represented may get trickier in the days ahead.

Mathematically, those Black residents would have proportional representation in city government if two of the nine members on City Council were Black. For years, the city's council map has been drawn to assure Black voters held the majority in two districts. But Merriman-Preston, who worked on drawing the council maps after the last census, says it won’t be easy to do that again.

“Ten years ago when we drew the lines, it was pretty difficult to find a shape that worked in order to draw two minority-majority districts," he said. With the Black population smaller and more geographically scattered, "There’s going to be challenges when the city does reapportionment this year," he said.

But that challenge may contain an opportunity, he adds, if Black voters end up having significant, even if not overwhelming, influence in more districts.

“The question you have to answer is whether city voters are in the same place they were in 30 or 40 years ago, when only Black voters would vote for Black candidates,” Merriman-Preston said. The city’s nine school board districts regularly produce three Black board members, he noted, and the nomination of Ed Gainey as the Democrat running for mayor this spring suggests that attitudes among white voters are changing, “even if we haven’t eliminated all the barriers to political power.”

In fact, demographically, the group that would appear to have suffered the largest decline is people identifying themselves as white alone. Briem's analysis suggests their numbers dropped by nearly 51,000 countywide, and by nearly 12,000 in the city itself, during the past decade. But complicating efforts to gauge such changes is the fact that there was a massive increase — by 43,000 in the county and more than 10,000 in the city — in the number of people who reported being of more than one race.

Such shifts, said Briem and others, are shaped not just by a different demographic make-up, but by residents thinking about their own make-up differently.

The big getting bigger
But whatever the make-up of Allegheny County’s population, its raw growth is a notable reversal from earlier census estimates that the county would continue to shrink — as well from the overall pattern in western Pennsylvania.

Only two other counties in the western part of the state grew at all during the past decade: Butler and Washington. And only Butler’s 9,901-person increase was statistically notable: Washington grew by less than 1 percent. Every other county in the region lost residents, led by Westmoreland’s worst-in-state 10,506-person decline, with Cambria’s 10,207-person loss close behind.

Indeed, both nationally and in Pennsylvania, most counties lost population during the past decade, with growth concentrated in large metro areas that have only gotten larger.

Philadelphia County added nearly 78,000 residents, a growth rate of more than 5 percent, and other southeastern Pennsylvania counties also enjoyed solid population increases.

The new census data will be used to draft new district maps for the state’s Congressional delegation — which is set to shrink from 18 to 17 seats — and for state legislators. Politically, the most obvious impact of the numbers is that the state’s political center of gravity is shifting eastward, towards Philadelphia and away from the lagging west. And broadly speaking, counties that have trended Republican in recent years have shrunk, as Democrats look to build on favorable trends in the suburban areas that have grown.

Some worst-case scenarios for Democrats — which involved communities of color being undercounted with a loss in political weight for cities — did not appear to bear fruit.

Still, challenges remain for Democrats going forward. The tendency of Democratic base voters to concentrate in urban areas can limit their party’s options when it comes time to draw maps. That can give Republicans an advantage in representation not much different from intentional efforts to gerrymander districts.

The tendency for Democrats to pack themselves in “is true everywhere in the country,” said Merriman-Preston. “We have a big problem with the map favoring smaller Republican districts. It makes it even more apparent that we will need a fair redistricting process.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.