[Excerpt from feature article by Kathy Leonard Czepiel, March 13, 2020]

"When the nation’s first census was taken in 1790, New Haven was the 17th-most populous city in America, with 4,487 inhabitants.


"The official aims of the census are to “determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding, and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade,” according to the United States Census 2020 website. The numbers also give us a window into the history of our city. New Haven held its own as a major US city, lingering in the top 30 or so, until 1900, when its rank began to drop. Even though its population continued to grow, other cities grew faster. By 1920, when the census counted 162,537 residents in New Haven, the city’s growth had leveled off. That’s mostly because it ran out of land, says Mark Abraham, executive director of DataHaven, a public service nonprofit that works with the community to “collect, share and interpret public information about Connecticut,” according to its website. Unlike western cities, which had plenty of space to continue sprawling, New Haven had reached its physical limits. Growth after 1920 occurred mostly in the suburbs—Hamden, East Haven, West Haven—where people could still build new homes and drive their new automobiles or take the trolley to work inside the city limits, Abraham notes.

The Elm City’s population peaked in the 1950 census at 164,443, then began a 30-year drop that ended with the 1980 census. Conventional wisdom often attributes that decline to urban flight. But that’s not really the case, Abraham says. “I think the main factor there isn’t people fleeing New Haven. It’s more [that] family sizes got smaller,” he says. A lesser factor in terms of numbers, though arguably greater in terms of its impact on people’s lives, was the demolition of a few densely populated parts of New Haven to make way for highways, industry and office buildings, most notably the Oak Street neighborhood. Those homes weren’t replaced by new homes elsewhere within the city limits, with the possible exception of a few houses built on the east shore, Abraham says.

After wobbling up and down through the last few counts, New Haven’s population was estimated by the census bureau to be 130,418 in 2018. Abraham says he wouldn’t be surprised if the city saw an increase of a few thousand people in the 2020 census. Younger people—mostly from New York City, he says—are moving into several new buildings downtown. The current boom of new apartments may look like overbuilding to some, but not to Abraham. The city’s young population doesn’t need—and can’t afford—a house out in the suburbs, he says. They’re also waiting about a decade longer to marry and raise families than their older counterparts, which means they’re spending more years living alone.

Immigration has also played a role in the city’s recent growth. A 2015 DataHaven study found that one in eight New Haven residents was foreign-born and that from 2000 to 2012, 75% of growth in the region was a result of immigration. (Compare that to the 1850 census, which found that nearly 22% of the city’s residents had been born outside the United States. New Haven has long been a city for immigrants.)

Those New Haveners who don’t respond to initial census mailings and reminders will be hearing a knock on their doors. [....]