HOUSTON — Sorry Houston, maybe next decade.
The largest city in Texas is staying put as the fourth-largest in the nation, falling just short of passing Chicago for No. 3, according to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
David Thompson, who helped organize a private city promotion program called "Houston. It's Worth It," acknowledged national perceptions might have started to change had Houston finally cracked the top three, joining New York and Los Angeles.
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"It does take something that large to get people to reposition us in their heads," Thompson said. "You are used to seeing New York, L.A., Chicago. To say New York, L.A., Houston — that would have been a big one."
It almost happened. During the past decade, Houston grew by 7.4 percent to 2.09 million. While Chicago's population dropped by nearly 7 percent, it remained ahead of Houston at 2.7 million people.
The Windy City got its other nickname, The Second City, more than a century ago for its runner-up status to New York in population. The name has stuck, but the status didn't. Los Angeles passed Chicago for No. 2 during the 1990 Census.
Some demographers speculated this Census would effectively make Chicago the Fourth City, undoubtedly causing grumbles among Chicagoans who like to boast of having the country's tallest building, the second-largest Great Lake and of being the hometown of the nation's first black president.Story: Census shows huge Hispanic growth in Texas
"When you go throughout the world and people ask you where you're from, and you say, 'Chicago,' you're proud to say it," said Bryan Kingsbury, 31, who has lived there for a decade.
But Steve Murdock, a former Texas state demographer and previous director of the U.S Census Bureau, said while he wasn't shocked Chicago didn't slip, residents shouldn't feel too comfy at No. 3.
"If Chicago doesn't change direction, it's obvious Houston could overtake Chicago and become bigger sometime in the next decade," Murdock said.
Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which promotes the city's business community, wasn't disappointed Houston failed to surpass Chicago.
"We made dramatic strides. We knew it would be very, very difficult to overtake Chicago in this census take. Those of us who follow the numbers know it's just a matter of time," he said.
Houston's growth this past decade was in line with recent Census counts. While the 1980s saw only a 2.2 percent population growth because of the oil bust, the 1990s saw an increase of 19.8 percent.
Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg credits Houston's continued growth to various factors, including: a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the country (8.1 percent compared to the national rate of 9 percent); a lower cost of living; and a continued influx of immigrants.
Klineberg said while immigration slowed down because of the recession, it continues to play an important role in Houston's growth. The city is home to large populations of immigrants from Latin America and Asia.
"The main advantage is Houston is the least expensive major city to live in," he said.
Among the factors for Chicago's drops was an 18 percent decline in the city's black residents, many of whom left Illinois entirely and others who may have been affected by the demolition of the city's housing projects. While Chicago's Hispanic population grew from 2000 to 2010 — from 753,644 to 778,862 — the rate of growth slowed as many migrated out of the city, said Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer
Bill King, a former Houston-area politician who runs a web site that focuses on local public policy issues, said credit for Houston's continued growth also has to be given to the oil industry.
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Houston, known as the nation energy capital, is home to the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants.
"At the end of the day it's the oil industry that drives Houston," King said.
While 43 percent of Houston's primary sector jobs are tied to the oil and energy industry (down from 82 percent at the height of the oil boom), the challenge for the city will be whether it can make the transition to a post oil economy, Klineberg said.
"The jury is out on that," he said.
For some, Houston's failure to overtake Chicago fits in with the image many outsiders have of the city, not as one of the country's top urban areas but as a place known more for its pollution, stifling humidity, seemingly endless urban sprawl, miles and miles of freeways and patience testing traffic.
Thompson, who used the city's perceived flaws to help promote it in his campaign, said he believes Houston will eventually overtake Chicago.
"I think Houston is the last great American frontier," he said. "I mean that in terms of Houston having amazing opportunities down here. It's the best kept secret in the world for being the fourth largest city in the nation."
But even if Houston ultimately becomes No. 3 in population list, Chicago (or at least its South Side) will always have one bragging right. The Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series against the Houston Astros.
Associated Press Writer Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.
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