The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 29, 2011

Demographic Change in Washington, D.C.: Taking the Long View

March 29, 2011

The recently released Census 2010 data show quite clearly how the past decade has reshaped the District of Columbia. For the first time in about half a century, the city’s population is growing. During the boom of the 2000s, new housing, particularly high-rise condos, sprang up in the city’s downtown and along its waterfront. Investors and businesses competed for prime locations in once blighted and struggling neighborhoods. A new D.C. renaissance was under way.

The city’s face was also undergoing a transformation. In the once “Chocolate City,” African Americans now cling to a bare 51 percent majority. Whites, Latinos, and Asians are a growing presence in many neighborhoods where they weren’t seen a decade ago.

The new census data confirm what many knew all along -- the city is changing. And for some people, particularly long-time African American residents, this change is not at all comfortable. But how do these recent changes fit into the city’s longer history?

District of Columbia Population by Race and Ethnicity, 1800 to 2010

Since its founding in 1790, the District of Columbia’s story has been one of constant flux. For its first 60 years, the city grew slowly. By 1860, fewer than 100,000 people lived within its borders, almost all of them white.

The Civil War precipitated the first of several growth spurts. Between 1860 and 1910, the city added over 250,000 people. With the onset of the first World War, population growth accelerated and then took off again during World War II. By the 1950 Census, the city had reached its peak population of over 800,000.

But 1950 also marked the beginning of a white exodus. In only two decades, the white population fell by over 300,000 and D.C. became majority African American in the late 1950s. For the next few years, the black population continued to grow, but following the riots of the late 1960s, the black middle class began its own escape to the suburbs. From a high of 538,000 in 1970, the African American population declined steadily to 309,000 in 2010.

In the 1980s, the District’s white population stabilized, and Latinos and Asians became a growing presence. But their numbers weren’t big enough to make up for the outward flow of blacks, and the city’s total population continued to shrink. The real turnaround started in the last decade. Whites rediscovered the attractions of the city, and their numbers climbed by almost 50,000 between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, the city added 9,700 Latinos and 7,900 Asians and others. The combined increase was larger than the 38,000 drop in black population.

As Margaret Simms pointed out in her March 25 post, Washington, D.C., isn’t the only American city undergoing a shift from majority-black to something different. While some will welcome the diversity and the influx of residents to cities, these new data will do nothing to allay the fears of those who see poorer, primarily African American residents being pushed out to make way for the more affluent. Change happens continuously in urban communities. The challenge is how to manage this change for the benefit of cities, and all their residents.

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