Chattanooga population grew while most big cities in Tennessee and Georgia lost residents last year

Ko Im always thought she would live in New York forever. She knew every corner of Manhattan and had worked hard to build a community of friends. Living in a small apartment, she found her attitude shifting early in the coronavirus pandemic. After her brother accepted a job in Seattle in the summer of 2020, she decided to move there too.

"It was fine until it wasn't," Im, 36, said of her time in New York. "The pandemic really changed my mindset about how I wanted to live or how I needed to live."

Eight of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. lost population during the first year of the pandemic, with New York, Los Angeles and Chicago leading the way. Between July 2020 and July 2021, New York lost more than 305,000 people, while Chicago and Los Angeles contracted by 45,000 residents and 40,000 people, respectively.

San Francisco suffered the largest rate of decline, losing almost 55,000 residents, or 6.3% of its 2020 population, the highest percentage of any U.S. city.

(READ MORE FROM THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Chattanooga Finds Fresh Identity as a Tech, VC Hub)

Among the 10 biggest cities in Tennessee and Georgia, only Chattanooga, Knoxville and Murfreesboro showed population gains in 2021. Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta and other major cities in Georgia all had a drop in the number of city residents, according to the new population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Tim Kuhn, director of the Tennessee State Data Center, said Middle Tennessee remains the fastest growing region in the Volunteer State.

"To see a decline in Davidson County is somewhat surprising given the growth we're seeing in Middle Tennessee," Kuhn said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "But as you look at the moving trends in other metro cities around the country, it does look like people may be choosing surrounding areas rather than the core cities in a metropolitan area."

Biggest cities in Tennessee and Georgia

Tennessee’s two biggest cities and all of Georgia’s five biggest cities lost population last year, but Chattanooga showed a 0.3% gain in residents, while Murfreesboro had the biggest population gainTennessee major cities:1. Nashville - 678,851, down 10,3972. Memphis - 628,127, down 3,1993. Knoxville, 192,648, up 2,1544. Chattanooga - 182,113, up 4895. Murfreesboro - 157,519, up 4,177Georgia major cities1. Atlanta - 496,461, down 3,1852. Columbus - 205,617, down 1,3433. Augusta - 201,196, down 6544. Macon - 156,762, down 3425. Savannah - 147,088, down 613Source: U.S. Bureau of Census

The fastest growing city in Tennessee last year, according to the new census estimates, was Murfreesboro just south of Nashville. Spring Hill, another suburban city south of Nashville, emerged as one of the top 10 cities for the fastest rate of population growth among the 798 U.S. cities with at least 50,000 residents. Spring Hill's population jumped 5.3% last year, according to the new report.

The new population estimates capture a time early in the pandemic and don't reflect changes since last summer. Whether the virus has permanently altered the urban landscape of America remains an open question.

Brookings Institution demographer William Frey said he believes the population declines in most of the largest U.S. cities from 2020 to 2021 have been "short-lived and pandemic-related."

Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only San Antonio and Phoenix gained new residents, but they added only about 13,000 people each, or less than 1% of their populations, according to the bureau's 2021 vintage population estimates.

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Justin Jordan's move to Phoenix a year ago was motivated by a job offer paying him more money than the one in Moundsville, West Virginia, where he had been living. He has had to adjust to temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) and unwieldly traffic.

"I love the weather, the atmosphere, and all the stuff to do," said Jordan, 33, a senior operations manager for a business services firm.

Among the largest U.S. cities, Austin and Fort Worth in Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Columbus, Ohio also registered modest population gains.

Reasons for population changes vary from city to city, driven by housing costs, jobs, births and deaths. The pandemic and the lockdown that followed in spring 2020 made living in a crowded city less appealing for a time, and those who could leave - workers who could do their jobs remotely, for example - sometimes did.

Daniel Akerman, a New York real estate agent, said the Census Bureau data, which don't go past July 2021, fail to capture how people have returned to the city in the past year. He said real estate transactions have skyrocketed and available rental apartments have dropped.

"People have definitely returned to the city. There are a lot more people on the streets," Akerman said. "In July 2021, people were still guarded about COVID and a lot of that has gone away. People are a lot more free. They are out and about, going to restaurants."

When it came to growth rates, as opposed to raw numbers, the fastest-growing cities with populations of at least 50,000 residents were in the suburbs of booming Sunbelt metro areas. They included Georgetown and Leander outside Austin; the town of Queen Creek and the cities of Buckeye, Casa Grande and Maricopa, outside Phoenix; the city of New Braunfels, outside San Antonio; and Fort Myers, Florida. They had growth rates of between 6.1% and 10.5%.

Tennessee city among the fastest growing

Among the 798 U.S. cities with a population of more than 50,000, the biggest percentage gainers in 2021 were:1. Georgetown, Texas, up 10.5% to 75,4202. Leander City, Texas, up 10.1% to 67,1243. Queen Creek, Arizona, up 8.9% to 66,3464. Buckeye City, Arizona, up 8.6% to 101,3155. New Braunfels, Texas, up 8.3% to 98,8576. Fort Myers, Florida, up 6.8% to 92,2457. Casa Grande, Arizona, up 6.2% to 57,6998. Maricopa, Arizona, up 6.1% to 62,7209. North Port, Florida, up 5.5% to 80,02110. Spring Hill, Tennessee, up 5.4% to 53,339Source: U.S. Bureau of Census

As metro Austin has grown by leaps and bounds, so has Georgetown, located more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of the Texas capital, said Keith Hutchinson, the city's communications manager. The city grew by 10.5%, the most in the nation last year, and now has 75,000 residents.

"It's not really a surprise," Hutchinson said. "People are moving here for jobs."

The estimates also showed population declines of 3% to 3.5% in New Jersey cities outside New York, such as Union City, Hoboken and Bayonne. Similar declines occurred outside San Francisco in Daly City, Redwood City and San Mateo, as well as Cupertino in Silicon Valley.

Lake Charles, Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Laura in 2020, lost almost 5% of its residents, the second-highest rate in the U.S. behind San Francisco.