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Philly slips from fifth to sixth, as Phoenix rises

If it seems like everybody is moving west, that's because they are

Looks like it's finally happened:

Philadelphia has slipped from the ranks of the five largest American cities, surpassed by that chunk of hot, dry sand known as Phoenix, Ariz.

The City of Brotherly Love is still growing, and for a 10th straight year, after decades of decline. That's no small achievement for a constrained, old Eastern city.

The challenge is that cities in the South and West are growing much faster, and Phoenix had the largest increase of all — 32,113 people between July 2015  and July 2016.

While Philadelphia is adding eight people a day, Phoenix brings in 11 times that, 88 a day, according to Census Bureau statistics released Thursday.

Philadelphia’s Ranking Among the Largest U.S. Cities

New York has been the largest U.S. city since the first census in 1790. Philadelphia was ranked second, and Northern Liberties, then a separate township, was sixth. Here are the cities that have topped Philadelphia's population rank since then.
Staff Graphic

Does it matter if Philadelphia falls from fifth to sixth?

Yes and no. Businesses here aren't packing up and rushing West. But it can sting to see vibrant, historic Philadelphia overtaken by a city known for scrub and scorpions.

"I think the competition this will inspire is healthy — we always need to be upping our game — but in reality, it's not a real loss," Mayor Kenney said. "Phoenix's metro area is still smaller than Philly's, and Phoenix has grown in population in large part because of land annexation."

The biggest difference between Phoenix and Philadelphia may be physical size. Philadelphia spans a compact 135 square miles, but Phoenix covers 517 — half the size of Rhode Island.

People in Phoenix are much more spread out. In fact, its population density is roughly that of Bensalem.

And something else:

"No one really likes it here," Vice writer Troy Farah wrote of the city.

The heat is ridiculous, shopping malls count as cultural landmarks, and the local wildlife — Gila monsters, rattlesnakes, mountain lions — will kill you if it gets a chance. Plus, he added, the whole place is beige.

Stephan Goldston, 74, begs to differ.

The Philadelphia native — Central High School, Lehigh University — moved to Phoenix in 1979 to start a specialized printing business. And stayed.

Phoenix isn't a desert, he said.  The surface of the city is asphalt, not sand. The hazards of the wildlife are overrated, though he did recently come across a rattler at South Mountain Park. And occasionally a coyote will snatch a small dog.

But basically Phoenix is a big, sprawling city of two- and four-lane highways, with a reviving downtown and condos full of newcomers.

"We're now having all the problems of the big cities, but at least the population is moving in, not moving out," Goldston said. "Philadelphia seems to be building at the edges. Phoenix is growing by leaps and bounds."

The census found that 10 of the 15 fastest-growing large cities with populations of 50,000 or more were in the South, and four of the top five were in Texas.

Congratulations, Conroe, Texas, with a growth rate of 7.8 percent. That's roughly 11 times the national rate of 0.7 percent.

"Overall, cities in the South continue to grow at a faster rate than any other U.S. region," said Amel Toukabri, a demographer in the Census Bureau's population division.

No Northeast cities ranked among the nation's fastest-growing. New York remained the largest city, its population of 8.5 million twice that of second-place Los Angeles. Chicago held third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million.

Fifth place? Phoenix counted 1,615,017 people, precisely 47,145 more than Philadelphia, at 1,567,872.

Not far behind was San Antonio, Texas, which added 24,473 people to grow to 1,492,510.

If there's a bright spot for Philadelphia, it's that the census has gotten it wrong before, prematurely predicting Phoenix's ascent.

Steven Seleznow, president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation, which is similar to the Philadelphia Foundation, expects his adopted city to keep growing.

"It's a great place to live and a great place to work, and people want to be here," he said.

He moved to Phoenix seven years ago after spending most of his life in the East, where he took crowded cities, stifling traffic jams, and biting winter snow and ice as normal. But it's not just the weather, he said. Phoenix is a place that welcomes newcomers, perhaps because it's so young, founded in 1881.

"I go back and visit the East Coast often, and every time I come back here," Seleznow said, "I exhale."