Washington Square Park in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan in New York City in June 1977.

What the 50 biggest cities in America looked like 50 years ago

Written by:
July 10, 2019
Peter Keegan/Keystone/Hulton Archive // Getty Images

What the 50 biggest cities in America looked like 50 years ago

More than simply numbers, the statistics surrounding a city's population growth or decline can help to tell the story of a city and its inhabitants in a way that the history alone cannot. Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau produces a survey. The demographics and population counts in this document affect things such as political representation, allocation of federal funding, and where people choose to live for the next decade.

There are multiple events and factors—natural, man-made, and others—that can affect a city and its census data, and we wanted to take those into account when putting together this list and presenting this data. In some cities, for example, natural disasters have caused relocation to other states, while in others a booming economy has attracted people from outside the state for the prospect of new jobs.

More important than the raw data, however, is the way each city is represented. The 1970 census may have been less controversial in determining how many seats in the House each state would have; in an era where political factions are so deeply divided, it may be more important than ever that we understand not only where we come from, but where we're going, and how to make the most of a country with such a diverse and rich history. Read on to find out how 50 major cities have evolved over the past decades and which are the most populous today, growing in popularity, or losing population to other states.

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#50. New Orleans, LA

- 2018 population estimate: 391,006 people

The birthplace of jazz has been affected by natural disasters in the past, including Hurricane Camille in the late 1960s, but the city's most significant recent event was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The city's current population estimate of approximately 391,000 is lower than it was in 2000 and significantly lower than the 1970 census estimate of 593,471. Many residents fled after the city's infrastructure effectively collapsed during Hurricane Katrina, and the city is still rebuilding its economy.

#49. Tampa, FL

- 2018 population estimate: 392,890 people

After a surge in population growth in the 1950s and '60s, Tampa saw a leveling off, but it continues to outpace the national average for growth. Much of its recent increase in population can be attributed to new arrivals, while in the past, the influence of Disney World on the central Florida economy could have caused the influx of new residents.

#48. Arlington, TX

- 2018 population estimate: 398,112 people

Arlington more than doubled its population between 1980 and 2000. Possible reasons for its surge in population in recent years could be the 1972 relocation of the Washington Senators baseball team (now Texas Rangers) to what is currently known as Ameriquest Stadium and resulting economic growth, or the stadium for the Dallas Cowboys that was completed in 2009. Seating 80,000, it's the third-largest stadium in the NFL.

#47. Tulsa, OK

- 2018 population estimate: 400,669 people

Tulsa has grown significantly since 1925, when it became a rest stop on Route 66, the interstate highway connecting California and Chicago. Between 1960 and 1980 it underwent a period of urban renewal, where the city was granted eminent domain for the acquisition of property to develop new real estate. After the 1982 oil bust, Tulsa was forced to diversify its economy and even survived the early 2000s economic recession, buoyed by low housing prices relative to other parts of the country.

#46. Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN

- 2018 population estimate: 425,403 people

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul saw a peak in population growth in the 1950s, at 521,718, which eventually stabilized by about 1990. The population of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, on the other hand, has increased quickly as residents have relocated from city to surrounding suburbs. Though there has traditionally been a large European (especially Scandinavian) flavor to the area, there has been increased ethnic diversification in recent years, with about 20% of the population identifying as black.

#45. Oakland, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 429,082 people

Oakland is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.S.; the San Francisco Bay Area city ranked first on ethnoracial diversity on WalletHub's 2019 list. The black population peaked at 47% of Oakland's total population in 1980 but has since declined to 28% as of the 2010 census.

#44. Virginia Beach, VA

- 2018 population estimate: 450,189 people

Virginia Beach is seeing a slowdown in population growth in recent years, part of a statewide trend. Experts attribute this to, among other things, a death-to-birth imbalance in the state and the fact that retirees are not moving there.

#43. Long Beach, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 467,354 people

Southern California's Long Beach has seen a slow population increase in recent years. Like in much of the rest of the region, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of the population that comprises non-Latino whites since the 1970s, from nearly 90% in 1970 to less than 50% as of the 2010 census.

#42. Omaha, NE

- 2018 population estimate: 468,262 people

Despite a 1975 tornado that inflicted between $250 and $500 million worth of damage to Omaha, the city has seen a rise in population since the 1970s. While 1970 estimates were around 346, 929 people, the current estimate is 468,262.

#41. Raleigh, NC

- 2018 population estimate: 469,298 people

Raleigh's population has grown by leaps and bounds since 1970, when it was 122,870, to today, when it is more than triple that number. Some possible reasons for this growth include the 1987 bond proposals for improvements to the city, including a baseball stadium and a $40 million road program, and the 1991 opening of Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, a $13.5 million entertainment complex.

#40. Miami, FL

- 2018 population estimate: 470,914 people

Miami has historically been a city of immigrants and strong cultural influences. In the 1970s and 1980s many Haitians and Nicaraguans fled to Florida after their countries' governments were overthrown, with an influx of Cubans following. The African-American and Caribbean populations made up approximately one-third of the city's population prior to these surges.

#39. Colorado Springs, CO

- 2018 population estimate: 472,688 people

Initially, a Victorian resort town in the Old West, Colorado Springs has evolved into a military base as home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and a large university town. The population of the area has grown steadily from 283,308 in 1990 to an estimated 472,688 today.

#38. Kansas City, MO

- 2018 population estimate: 491,918 people

It may have recently gained national visibility by being featured on the fourth season of "Queer Eye," but Kansas City, Mo., has a rich history beyond its association with the Fab Five. On the border between Kansas and Missouri, it expanded rapidly after the Civil War because of the strategic placement of railroads and became a hub for African-Americans who settled there. The city has continued to grow since then, due to public housing, and growth has expanded to the suburbs rather than downtown.

#37. Atlanta, GA

- 2018 population estimate: 498,044 people

A capital city of the Southeast and one hub of the national civil rights movement, Atlanta has experienced tremendous growth in the past few decades. The official city population remains the same but that of the metro area has grown exponentially between 2010 and the present, from 2.9 million to 4.1 million.

#36. Sacramento, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 508,529 people

Sacramento's population has increased slightly in the past 30 years, from just under 400,000 in 1990 to just over 500,000 today. It's a racially diverse area, with only 48.5% of the population identifying as white, compared to 76.5% in the United States overall.

#35. Mesa, AZ

- 2018 population estimate: 508,958 people

Mesa, now the third-largest city in Arizona and home to approximately 508,000 residents, had humble beginnings but has grown exponentially nearly every decennial census through 1990. The city grew 89% from 1980 to 1990 and continues to draw people to its strong retail-based economy in the larger Phoenix-Mesa Metropolitan Statistical Area.

#34. Fresno, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 530,093 people

Fresno experienced California's statewide trend of outward domestic migration between 2010 and 2018. Still, the city's population increased overall because of higher birth rates than death rates and international migration, according to the Census Bureau.

#33. Tucson, AZ

- 2018 population estimate: 545,975 people

The Old Pueblo, as Tucson is known, is about 115 miles southeast of Phoenix. The city's dry, sunny climate draws tourists and retirees alike in addition to new residents each year—it grew almost fourfold between 1950 and 1960 and continues to climb.

#32. Albuquerque, NM

- 2018 population estimate: 560,218 people

Officially founded in 1706, the city of Albuquerque had Pueblo roots for hundreds of years before its official settlement by the Europeans. It's well-known for an economic emphasis on technology, including Sandia National Labs, which opened in 1949, and draws worldwide recognition for the International Balloon Fiesta, started in 1972.

#31. Milwaukee, WI

- 2018 population estimate: 592,025 people

Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, was discovered by the French explorer Marquette in the 1600s but started to experience settlement beyond simply fur traders in the mid-1800s. The rise of factories and the accompanying economic opportunities drew African-Americans from elsewhere in the U.S.—in the 1960s, 15% of the population was African-American—but the city remains largely segregated.

#30. Baltimore, MD

- 2018 population estimate: 602,495 people

Baltimore underwent a steady population decline in the 1950s and '60s as people began to migrate out of the city itself and into the surrounding suburbs, both because of the relocation of the centers of shopping and industry and because they were forced to move due to demolition of their residences. Overall, the city has lost more than a third of its population in the past 60 years because of these developments, though a recent migration of young professionals to the area has positively influenced population statistics.

#29. Louisville, KY

- 2018 population estimate: 620,118 people

Louisville merged with surrounding Jefferson County in January 2003, making it the 16th-largest city in the country when it had previously been the 67th largest. As a result, the city named for King Louis XIV of France nearly tripled its population overnight.

#28. Las Vegas, NV

- 2018 population estimate: 644,644 people

Known for its bright lights, casinos, and larger-than-life persona, Las Vegas is also home to a booming population, in part because of the 1987 expansion of McCarran International Airport, which cost a cool $300 million and created thousands of new jobs in the area. The Las Vegas metropolitan area contains about three-fourths of the Nevada population.

#27. Oklahoma City, OK

- 2018 population estimate: 649,021 people

Despite migration from the city to suburban areas in the 1960s, when the oil that had been a source of wealth in the area dried up, the population of Oklahoma City has steadily been increasing since the 1970s. Renovations proposed by Mayor Ron Norick in the early 1990s helped to revitalize the downtown area, and even bad press from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 did not deter new residents.

#26. Memphis, TN

- 2018 population estimate: 650,618 people

Home to the late Elvis Presley, Memphis has experienced a decline in growth in recent years while its neighboring city of Nashville outpaces it in terms of expansion. As of 2018, the Memphis metro area was showing growth, but only at a rate of 1.77% from 2010 to 2017.

#25. Portland, OR

- 2018 population estimate: 653,115 people

Since the Great Recession of the mid-2000s, Portland has seen several changes to its metropolitan area. The Pacific Northwest city has experienced significant gentrification, which has caused the population to rise steadily and changed the makeup of the city.

#24. Nashville, TN

- 2018 population estimate: 669,053 people

Music City is more than the home of country music; its industries include education, manufacturing, and publishing and printing. While the state of Tennessee has been declining in population in the past few years, the capital city continues to attract new residents.

#23. Detroit, MI

- 2018 population estimate: 672,662 people

Detroit's population has been on the decline for the past half-century, and concerns about Michigan's representation in Congress are afoot. The state is seeing more of a reshuffling of long-term residents than an influx of new ones, which may cost Michigan crucial seats following the 2020 census.

#22. El Paso, TX

- 2018 population estimate: 682,669 people

Although its population grew at a rate of 7.8% annually between 1950 and 1960, the numbers have dropped off in El Paso, and the population growth rate hit an eight-decade low earlier this year. Journalists and others attribute this migration away from El Paso to a lack of job opportunities—those with a college education or higher seek higher wages outside the city, and those with below a college-level education seek work outside the city as well.

#21. Boston, MA

- 2018 population estimate: 694,583 people

According to a January 2019 study from the Boston Planning and Development Agency Research Division, the capital of Massachusetts is becoming more diverse and also more expensive as time goes by. Also unsurprisingly, the city remains well-educated, with more than one-fifth of its residents in possession of a graduate or professional degree as of 2017.

#20. Washington D.C.

- 2018 population estimate: 702,455 people

The U.S. capital experienced a steady growth rate of 1.4% as recently as 2017, ranking it 8th among the states in percent growth. Some of this growth could be attributed to international and domestic migration as well as natural increase (i.e., a higher birth rate than death rate), part of a decade-long upward trend in the city.

#19. Denver, CO

- 2018 population estimate: 716,492 people

Denver has experienced explosive population growth since the 1990s, creating a long-running population boom that mirrors that of the state of Colorado as a whole. Having surpassed the 700,000 mark a few years ago, the city continues to grow with few signs of slowing soon.

#18. Seattle, WA

- 2018 population estimate: 744,955 people

Seattle is making headlines as the fastest-growing big city in all the U.S. In the past decade, the rainy city has grown by more than 18.7%, outpacing its fellow trendsetter, Austin.

#17. Indianapolis, IN

- 2018 population estimate: 867,125 people

Population growth in Indiana has been slow but steady in recent years; this can be attributed to migration from other states as well as a higher birth than death rate. In 2017, approximately 23,000 new residents joined the Indianapolis metro area, and the region is the primary driver of population growth in the state.

#16. Charlotte, NC

- 2018 population estimate: 872,498 people

Charlotte has one of the fastest growth rates of any U.S. city—59.6% in the past decade, to be precise. New residents are drawn to the bustling economy, which accounts for 26% of North Carolina's GDP, as well as the low cost of living and livability of the city.

#15. San Francisco, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 883,305 people

Despite sky-high rents, San Francisco continues to add residents at a rate of 10,000–14,000 residents per year on average in the past decade. New arrivals are particularly drawn to the mild weather, cultural scene, and tech jobs.

#14. Columbus, OH

- 2018 population estimate: 892,533 people

Unlike many of its neighbors in the Midwest, Columbus has gained residents and kept up with the pace of some of the fast-growing cities in the Sun Belt or PNW. Many cities in the Midwest have experienced a downturn in population since the 1960s, but the population in Columbus has nearly doubled, perhaps due to a strong housing market and income growth, both of which attract young professionals.

#13. Fort Worth, TX

- 2018 population estimate: 895,008 people

Fort Worth, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, gained 1 million new residents in the years 2010–2018, the fastest growth of any metropolitan area in the country. The state has prepared for this level of growth in DFW and the surrounding suburbs by laying smart infrastructure that will enable residents to get to and from work easily and passing bills limiting property taxes.

#12. Jacksonville, FL

- 2018 population estimate: 903,889 people

The city of Jacksonville, known as the River City, grew at a faster rate than Miami in 2018 and had the seventh-largest rate of growth in the country. The growth rate has been just under 10% since 2010, about half of which includes newcomers from international locations.

#11. Austin, TX

- 2018 population estimate: 964,254 people

The population of Austin has nearly doubled from its count of approximately 497,000 in 1990 to what it is today. In fact, the population of the Texas city is predicted to reach 1 million by 2020, thanks to about 100 people per day moving to the city.

#10. San Jose, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 1,030,119 people

The third-largest city in California behind Los Angeles and San Diego, San Jose is a diverse community where the primary language spoken at home is English, at 43%, followed by Spanish and Asian/Pacific Island languages evenly split at around 25% each. The city surpassed the 1 million residents mark and continues to grow at about .9% per year, largely due to construction of new housing.

#9. Dallas, TX

- 2018 population estimate: 1,345,047 people

The Lone Star State's DFW metro area is experiencing tremendous growth; over the years 2010–2018, over 1 million people moved to the region, part of a larger trend in Texas as a whole. However, the rural areas in the state are suffering as emphasis and influence moves to the cities.

#8. San Diego, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 1,425,976 people

San Diego's proximity to Mexico and its economy's global-recruitment capabilities make it one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the country, in addition to being the home of 1.4 million people. Its recent growth places it among an elite few cities that are high in both population and growth.

#7. San Antonio, TX

- 2018 population estimate: 1,532,233 people

As with other cities that are experiencing large population growth, San Antonio's leaders must plan well to make way for the thousands of new residents coming in every year. The city has traditionally been a place for history and is the home of the Alamo.

#6. Philadelphia, PA

- 2018 population estimate: 1,584,138 people

After 30 years of population losses that began in the 1970s, the birthplace of America has experienced slow growth in recent years. Despite 12 years of increases in population, there are more people leaving the city than coming in, making for a net loss.

#5. Phoenix, AZ

- 2018 population estimate: 1,660,272 people

As of 2019, Phoenix is the fastest-growing city in the country, adding more than 25,000 new residents between 2017 and 2018. Much of that activity centers around jobs from big tech and manufacturing firms.

#4. Houston, TX

- 2018 population estimate: 2,325,502 people

Though they're not growing at quite the same speed as Dallas, the combination of the Houston, Austin, and San Antonio metro areas brings in 85% of the new residents to the state. Despite the 2015 oil bust, which the Houston economy depends on, that there continues to be growth in the area is a good sign.

#3. Chicago, IL

- 2018 population estimate: 2,705,994 people

Like many other cities in the Midwest, Chicago is actually losing population at a rate of .23% annually. This is similar to metro areas including Los Angeles and New York, but it's happening at a faster rate in Chicago and could affect political representation for Cook County residents soon.

#2. Los Angeles, CA

- 2018 population estimate: 3,990,456 people

Los Angeles has been both home to and the subject of many movies, but is it a great place to live? More and more people seem to be saying no, as the population has been shrinking in recent years; with the Golden Age of Hollywood many years in the past, the city is struggling with housing affordability and a lack of new home construction.

#1. New York, NY

- 2018 population estimate: 8,398,748 people

The city that never sleeps is also the most populous in the U.S., but like Chicago, its population is shrinking to the point where it is at risk of losing political representation after the 2020 census. Recent data shows that the population fell between 2010 and 2018 as a result of domestic migration, which was not entirely offset by foreign immigration.

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