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Volume 8, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2010

New Orleans:
The Long-Term Demographic Trends


Carl L. Bankston III

Tulane University

     The City of New Orleans is frequently portrayed as an urban center that underwent great changes following the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and much of the attention given to the city has dealt with its revival and reconstruction following the storm In the half-decade since Hurricane Katrina stuck the Gulf Coast, caused the flight of most of the citizens of New Orleans, and destroyed large parts of the city, both the popular media and the scholarly literature have largely focused on short-term issues of recovery from devastation. This focus is understandable and reasonable, given the trauma of the event, ably documented by Haney, Elliott, and Fussell (2007), among others. While observers will sometimes recognize that New Orleans was declining in population and facing many problems before the storm (see, for example, Fussell 2007), most commentators have tended to concentrate on the changes brought about by the hurricane and on reconstructing from the hurricane. Studies have most often concerned the return of residents and the repopulation of the city (Elliott, Bellone-Hite, and Devine 2009; Sastry 2009). Differences in return rates across demographic groups, the entry of new ethnic groups (particularly large numbers of Latinos), and consequent demographic changes in the immediate wake of the hurricane have been especially notable topics (Barnshaw and Trainor 2007; Donato, Trujillo-Pagán, Bankston, and Singer 2007; Elliott, Bellone-Hite, and Devine 2009; Vu, VanLandingham, Do, and Bankston 2009). The disproportionate suffering of black citizens of New Orleans and the apparent decrease in the majority black population and increase in the minority white population following the storm have been matters of discussion and often heated commentary (Mann 2006; Marable 2006).  On this issue, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin proclaimed on January 16, 2006 that New Orleans before the storm had been a "chocolate city" and that God wanted it to continue to be a majority black city (Transcript of Nagin's Speech, 2006).

    The pre-Katrina / post-Katrina orientation toward New Orleans has generally shaped thinking about planning and policy for the city.  Both advocates of social reform  (such as Mann 2006; Marable 2006) and urban planners (Olshansky 2006) have called for re-building that a city according to their respective visions of social justice, affordable housing, and participatory democracy. The view that possibilities for New Orleans may be limited by history and economics is rarely expressed.

    While I do not mean to minimize the trauma of the storm for residents of the city, I believe the concentration on the effects of the hurricane and the response to it overlooks the long-term demographic trends affecting the city and that this contributes to unrealistic goals and expectations.  In this brief examination, I want to suggest that although Hurricane Katrina was an important event in the history of New Orleans, considered in the long run it was only a single event that was less important than underlying structural changes. 

     We sometimes think of New Orleans as a thriving city that suddenly underwent a disaster.  The disaster, in this view, caused a huge population loss, and the city is now struggling to recover its previous population size. In reality, the storm simply exacerbated a long historical trend. Figure 1 places the decline of New Orleans in a broader historical context. This shows that the trend in numbers that peaked in 1960 had been part of a long-term increase from the time that Louisiana in its current form was incorporated into the United States, following the addition of the West Florida Parishes in 1810.  The drop in numbers from 2005, the year of the storm, to 2009 here shows itself to be only an intensification of a loss that began over forty years earlier.

Figure 1
Total Population of New Orleans, 1810-2009 

Source: Decennial; Census of the United States, American Community Survey; 2009. Please see footnote (1) below for the sources and limitations of the data shown in Figure 1.

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    Of course, the entire United States grew over the course of these decades. Therefore, Figure 2 shows the population of New Orleans as a percentage of the whole population of the United States. This gives us a view of the centrality of the city within the country as a place of residence. Essentially, this shows New Orleans increasing in importance as a population center until 1860, just before the Civil War.  We then see a decline during and just after Reconstruction and a long leveling off throughout the twentieth century until 1970. After 1970, the city dropped steadily in relative as well as absolute size.

Figure 2.
New Orleans Population as a 
Percentage of the U.S. Population, 1810-2005

Source: Decennial; Census of the United States, American Community Survey; 2005

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    Figure 2 illustrates the general periods of New Orleans economic history.  The great increase in relative population of the early nineteenth century occurred when it was the main southern port, and the second most important port city in the United States, after New York.  Following the Civil War, the shift in economic activity and immigration to the northeastern part of the country diminished the role of much of the South, including New Orleans. Throughout much of the twentieth century, New Orleans stabilized as a blue-collar, working class city with jobs centered around imports and exports at the port (especially from Latin America), ship-building, and the petroleum industry in the Gulf of Mexico (Lewis 2003 [1976]; Sublette 2008).

    By the late twentieth century, the New Orleans economy was dominated by four major sectors: oil/gas and related activities, tourism, the port and ship/boat building, and aerospace manufacturing.  However, even before the hurricane, the administration of the petroleum industry was shifting to the west, mainly to Houston, but also to cities in Louisiana such as Lafayette.  Tourism had become a major part of the economy, reflecting the growing parts played by leisure services in the American economy of mass production. Although some complained that the city was in danger of being "Disneyfied" after the storm,  in fact it was already being turned into a historical theme park, with developments such as the conversion of the formerly seedy, working class neighborhood of the French Quarter into an upscale mall. The jobs that tourism offered, moreover, were typically low-income service jobs (Lewis 2003 [1976]; Gotham 2007)

     Although the port did continue to be active at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, its capacity to generate employment was affected by a movement of traffic to other ports, especially Houston. Second, the rise of containerized shipping in the 1960s made ports much less labor-intensive Ship building continued, and there were some fairly large ship construction businesses in New Orleans, most notably at Avondale shipyards. However, this type of construction tended to provide work for relatively small numbers of mostly skilled workers. In addition, it could be less expensive to build ships at other places along the Gulf Coast.  The aerospace manufacturing industry, located mainly in eastern New Orleans, declined in activity with the slowing of the space race after the 1970s.

    Finally, we often hear New Orleans described as a city that was historically black, but then became a city with a much more proportionately white population after the hurricane.  In fact, neither of these characterizations is true. New Orleans moved from a majority white population to a majority black population only in recent years and it continued to have a black majority following the storm. 

    Figure 3 shows the New Orleans population by race from 1810 to 2008.  The shift from a white majority to a black majority occurred during the 1970s.  New Orleans In 1960, when the overall population was at its peak, the city was close to two-thirds white.  We can also see that the population decline shown in Figure 1 above, was due to a decline in white residents until 2000 while black residents actually increased in numbers until that year. Here again, though, a demographic change cannot be attributed exclusively to the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Between 2000 and 2005, New Orleans lost well over 30,000 black citizens, compared to a loss of a little over 13,000 white citizens.

Figure 3. 
New Orleans Population by Race, 1810-2008

Source: Decennial; Census of the United States, American Community Survey; 2009 

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    The most likely explanation of the pre-Katrina decline in black residents was an inclination of the city's black middle class to settle outside the city, just as the white middle class had increasingly done earlier. Following the storm, the black proportion of the city did drop much more dramatically than the white proportion. Nevertheless, it had by no means become a majority white city again. In 2008, black residents made up 61%  of the total, compared to just under 68% on the eve of the hurricane. 

    What do these long term trends suggest? 

  •  First, the future of New Orleans cannot be understood solely in terms of recovering from the impact of the hurricane. Four years after the storm, the city was already approaching its pre-Katrina population. However, this was simply a matter of the slow return of a diminishing populace. 
  • Second, we cannot say what that the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans was necessarily the "right" size for the city. Arguably, the gradual drop in number of inhabitants meant that more people lived in New Orleans than its particular ecological niche could support. While I would agree that people have a right of return to their locations of residence following a disaster, this does not mean that their locations of residence are necessarily the best places for them. 
  • Third, we cannot say what the "right" demographic mix for New Orleans might be. Those of us without benefit of insight into divine will can only point out that the racial composition of New Orleans had changed greatly over a few decades and that numbers of black residents had already begun to decrease much more sharply than numbers of white residents in the half-decade before Katrina. If there is an increase in Latinos, this is only the most recent change in a city that has been constantly changing. 
  • Finally, the demographic changes in New Orleans over the course of its history have never been driven by visions of what the city ought to be, but by its place in the American economy. When we can say what role the city will play in the economic life of the nation, then we can make some predictions about what it will look like in the future.


Barnshaw, John and Joseph Trainor. 2007. "Race, Class, and Capital amidst the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora."  Pp. 91-106 in The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. Edited by David L. Brunsma, David Overfelt, and J. Steven Picou. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Donato, Katharine M., Nicole Trujillo-Pagán, Carl L. Bankston III, and and Audrey Singer. 2007. "Reconstructing New Orleans After Katrina: The Emergence of an Immigrant Labor Market."  Pp. 217-234 in The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. Edited by David L. Brunsma, David Overfelt, and J. Steven Picou. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

Elliott, James R., Any Bellone-Hite, and Joel A. Devine. 2009 "Unequal Return: The Uneven Resettlements of New Orleans’ Uptown Neighborhoods." Organization & Environment 22: 410-421.

Fussell, Elizabeth. 2007. "Constructing New Orleans, Constructing Race: A Population History of New Orleans." Journal of American History 94:846-855.

Gotham, Kevin Fox. 2007. Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy. New York: NYU Press.

Haney, Timothy J., James R. Elliott, and Elizabeth Fussell. 2007. "Families and Hurricane Response: Evacuation, Separation, and the Emotional Toll of Hurricane Katrina." Pp. 71-90 in The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. Edited by David L. Brunsma, David Overfelt, and J. Steven Picou. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lewis, Peirce Fee. 2003 [1976]. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. Santa Fe, N.M.: Center for American Places.

Mann, Eric. 2006. "Race and the High Ground in New Orleans." World Watch 19 (5): 40-42.

Marable, Manning. 2006. "Race, Class, and the Katrina Crisis." The Journal of Labor and Society 9:155-160.

Olshanksy, Robert B. 2006. "Planning After Hurricane Katrina." Journal of the American Planning Association 72:147-53.

Sastry, Narayan. 2009. "Displaced New Orleans Residents in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Results from a Pilot Study." Organization & Environment 22: 395-409.

Sublette, Ned. 2008. The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.
Transcript of Nagin's Speech. 2006 The Times Picayune (January 17). Available online at
011706_nagin_transcript.html (accessed May 3, 2010)

Vu, Lung Mark J. VanLandingham, Mai Do, and Carl L. Bankston III.2009. "Evacuation and Return of Vietnamese New Orleanians Affected by Hurricane Katrina." Organization & Environment 22: 422-436.


(1) Note on data. The decennial census figures on New Orleans are fairly uncontroversial. Population estimates after the hurricane are often disputed, but I take the 2009 estimate for total population from American Community Survey data available at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC), the most widely accepted source of census data on New Orleans. The 2009 population estimates do not contain estimates by race, so for Figure 3 I use the 2008 American Community Survey. The 2008 ACS data are available both in American Factfinder at the Census website and at the GNOCDC. I do not use the 3-year 2006-2008 estimate because this was the period of flight and return. The population estimates and other useful information on New Orleans may be found at the GNOCDC at the following URL: census_pop_estimates.html
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