For the Count

W hen the nation’s first census was taken in 1790, New Haven was the 17th-most populous city in America, with 4,487 inhabitants. The 24th decennial count this year will record where everyone living in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five US territories is living on April 1. We don’t know how New Haven will stack up yet, but one thing is clear: we’ll still be a small city. We haven’t made the list of the 100 largest cities in the nation since 1960, and we won’t this time, either.

The 2020 census—you should soon receive an “invitation” to answer (participation is required by law)—includes questions about the age, sex, ethnicity, race and relationship of everyone who lives with you as well as whether you own, rent or have some other form of housing. Back in 1790, residents of 16 states as well as the Southwest and Northwest territories were counted in the categories of “Free white males of 16 years and upward, including heads of families,” “Free white males under 16 years,” “Free white females, including heads of families,” “All other free persons,” and “Slaves.” The nation’s total population was 3,929,214 (slightly smaller than the city of Los Angeles today), and most were settled in an area of 239,935 square miles—small enough to fit comfortably inside the area of Texas.

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In 1790, covering that territory in order to count its residents would have been significantly more challenging than it is today. “In many localities there were no roads, and where these did exist they were poor and frequently impassable; bridges were almost unknown,” notes an introduction to the 1908 government publication Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790, Connecticut. “Transportation was entirely by horseback, stage, or private coach. A journey as long as that from New York to Washington was a serious undertaking, requiring eight days under the most favorable conditions.”

The recording of data was also more challenging and somewhat haphazard, the 1908 publication reports. For each census through 1820, marshals recorded data using “such paper as they happened to have, ruling it, writing in the headings, and binding the sheets together themselves. In some cases merchants’ account paper was used, and now and then the schedules were bound in wall paper.”

On the other hand, some things never change. In 1790, as today, some residents were wary of the census. “The inhabitants, having no experience with census taking, imagined that some scheme for increasing taxation was involved, and were inclined to be cautious lest they should reveal too much of their own affairs,” the 1908 publication notes. Others objected “on religious grounds, a count of inhabitants being regarded by many as a cause for divine displeasure.”

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. The census bureau reports that workers will visit residences that have not responded online, by mail or by phone after April 27—and you can count on that.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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