What The Census Says About Knoxville

Who the heck are we? Here's what the latest census numbers reveal.

Every 10 years, Knoxville looks in the mirror, and tries to be brave. The U.S. census is generally regarded as an opportunity to prove how healthy we are as a city, and will be quoted for the next 10 years as entrepreneurs, journalists, retirees, and others around the country appraise Knoxville’s strengths and weaknesses as a city worth investing in, visiting, moving to. The census also serves an immediate and practical purpose, to prove that we deserve our share of certain state and federal funding earmarked for cities.

Not all the census data is in; some hasn’t been fully released yet, and some local keepers of statistics, like the Metropolitan Planning Commission, admit that local-government funding cutbacks have slowed some of their Knoxville-specific analyses.

But several data sets have been released, and once again, there’s a peculiar reality that’s hard to overlook. In terms of some often-quoted census figures, Knoxville—Knoxville proper, at least—hasn’t changed much in almost half a century. Though Knoxville’s Hispanic population has increased, it’s still under 5 percent of the population. The balance of blacks and whites is comparable to what it has been for the last several decades. Its median age hasn’t changed a whole lot. The weirdest thing about the 2010 census may be the eerie consistency of its total. As of 2010, the census counts, in all, 178,874 Knoxvillians.

The population of Knoxville, strictly defined, has been hovering right around 175,000 since the last major annexation in 1962, the one that brought Fountain City and Bearden into the fold.

Confident city boosters have long been accustomed to rounding that figure up, just a little bit, to 180,000. For 40 years, 180K has always seemed a pretty safe guess of Knoxville’s current population: this year, if not last year. Procreation itself should boost us across that line in short order; in American populations, it usually operates a little faster than death. And you’d think we’ve made the city so much more appealing, in the last 40 years, with our festivals, renovated theaters, a World’s Fair, major traffic improvements, that some folks might even want to move here. But when people did move here, their addition has always been negated by Knoxvillians themselves, fleeing their old city, often for the suburbs.

The truth is that Knoxville has never officially gotten to 180,000. Like one of Zeno’s ancient paradoxes, Knoxville approaches, but never quite arrives at that line. We’ve never been quite as big as city boosters in 1962 said we already were then.

It’s more than just bragging rights at play. Knoxville gets state and federal funding based on the demands implied by its size. The difference between what the census counted in April 2010 and what city and census authorities had estimated is about 7,000 Knoxvillians. That could mean a difference of about $1.5 million in city funding per year, much of it for such public services as police and fire protection—until the next census in 2020.

City administrator Rick Emmett says the city’s contemplating filing a request for a recount. Looking at their own figures, based partly on 911 rolls, which he believes may be more specific and accurate than the census’s post-office-based figures, he thinks the city should have more than 178,874. His office, along with the Metropolitan Planning Commission, is preoccupied with city and county redistricting right now, but he says they mean to look more into recount prospects in the fall.

Even if city-limits Knoxville is about the same size as it was during the Kennedy administration, by several other definitions, Knoxville’s bursting its seams. Knoxville is still the pretty obvious cultural, economic, political, and commercial center for several much larger areas: a county, a metropolitan area, and—a new invention—a combined metropolitan area, all of which are growing like crazy, faster than America itself.

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Knoxville’s flat line might be hard to accept. The city’s almost unrecognizably different today, compared to when the city first reached this general demographic neighborhood. When Knoxville initially surpassed 170,000, our main claim to ethnic cuisine was pizza pie; burritos were an exotic rumor. Newly named Neyland Stadium was shaped like a horseshoe and held about 52,000. Festivals were rare—Dogwood Arts was brand new. There was no such thing as a covered shopping mall or a downtown condo. Knoxville still had two passenger train stations; the new federal expressway some were calling the “interstate” wasn’t quite ready for through traffic. Movie theaters were still racially segregated. Legal package stores were new, but liquor by the drink was still illegal.

It was a different place, and maybe a pretty odd one. But somehow, we had just about the same number of people as we do now.

The 1970 census put Knoxville at 174,587. It seemed a lot at the time, enough to place the city securely within America’s Top 100 cities. City fathers were convinced the city was going nowhere but up. But the 2000 census put Knoxville’s population at 173,890. So 30 years of highway work and school construction and subdivision development, and lots of interesting new businesses, like a national cable network and an international theater chain, not to mention a World’s Fair, resulted in a net loss of 697 Knoxvillians.

The 2010 census is just a little cheerier. The first decade of the 21st century added almost exactly 5,000 (just 16 new Knoxvillians shy of that round number). That’s almost 3 percent growth, maybe nothing to sneeze at. Many cities, including New Orleans, St. Louis, and several Northern “Rust Belt” hubs like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, suffered major population losses in the last 10 years. (Those who think of New Orleans and St. Louis as historical metropolises might have a hard time processing that they’re each now less than twice as large as Knoxville.)

Still, Knoxville’s growth was far short of the Census Bureau’s own estimates—in 2005, demographers had reason to believe we would hit 185,000 this time. Compared to America as a whole, which grew by 9.7 percent, and the famously prodigious Sunbelt—the South, as a region, registered a 14.3 percent growth rate—3 percent can seem pretty anemic. Knoxville’s no longer in America’s top 100 cities; most rankings put it around #130 in population, about 50 places lower than it once was.

But look around. Even without provable growth, Knoxville does appear to be very different. You don’t have to walk around downtown long to overhear a comment like, “Knoxville’s so much bigger than it used to be.” And depending on how you define it, maybe “Knoxville” is indeed much bigger. Growing more dramatically than the city is Knox County’s population, including Knoxville, which increased by 13 percent in those 10 years. Marked at 382,032 in 2000, the county’s population grew by more than 50,000, to 432,226. It’s almost twice as populous as it was in 1950. With comparable growth, by the time of the next census, Knox County would be very near the half-million mark.

However, as University of Tennessee demographer Stephanie Bohon affirms, a city’s corporate size has become much less interesting and useful to demographers, marketers, scholars of urban growth. “There’s actually very little attention to city size,” among scholars, Bohon says. “The metropolitan area is really the most important thing.”

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Though determined mainly by commuting patterns, joining counties whose borders are crossed daily by large numbers of people going to work, the metro area becomes useful to marketers as an educated guess at the population of people whose lives revolve around a nucleus city in some way. If residents cross borders to work, they’re likely to cross those borders to shop, or dine out, or go to shows or athletic events.

As currently defined, Knoxville’s metro area includes Knox, Loudon, Blount, Anderson, and Union Counties. Their growth hasn’t been even. Union County grew by about 6.6 percent, but still hasn’t cracked 19,000—it’s now about as populous as Knox County was in 1850. Anderson County, weathering Oak Ridge’s ups and downs, grew by just 5.3 percent. But burgeoning Blount County, including Maryville and Alcoa, and Loudon County, with Lenoir City and Loudon, to the west and south, have grown even faster than Knox County. Blount’s growth was 16.3 percent, but Loudon’s takes the prize for county growth in the metro area, with a phenomenal growth rate of 21.37 percent. Much of that’s lakefront development, which we shied away from for decades. The TVA-enabled lakefront resort known as Tellico Village is unincorporated and uncounted, but believed to be larger than many well-known towns, including neighboring Loudon.

In 2005 the Census Bureau deleted one notable county from Knoxville’s metro area. Sevier Countians still watch Knoxville TV and attend Knoxville concerts—and Knoxvillians return the favor by buying tickets to Dollywood and Ripley’s Aquarium and Tennessee Smokies games—but Sevier is now counted as part of its own “Sevierville Micropolitan Statistical Area.”

Knox and Sevier still share a long border, and it seems pretty weird that you can drive 15 minutes from downtown Knoxville and leave the metro area altogether. But Sevier County does have its own tourism-based economy. Smokies tourism once owed a lot to Knoxville, but it’s all grown up now, and living on its own, no longer heavily dependent on Knoxville proper—except for the amenity of the airlines landing at the Knoxville-city-financed McGhee Tyson Airport. Apparently most people who live in Sevier County also work in Sevier County, and vice versa.

To complicate matters further, Sevier County is indeed part of a relatively new designation, the Knoxville-Sevierville-LaFollette Combined Statistical Area, which also includes Morristown. So Knoxville is the largest population center in a CSA that has, as of the 2010 census, surpassed one million people, with a total tally of 1,055,086.

But back on the more commonly cited metropolitan-area level, the five remaining counties after Sevier’s departure from the MSA grew by 85,000—making up for the loss of Sevier, and pushing the Knoxville MSA past 700,000 for the first time. The precise tally is now 702,729. The five counties of Knoxville’s new metro area have grown by a combined rate of just over 14 percent, faster than the state as a whole. If all the people in Knoxville’s five-county metro area lived in the same city, by the way, it would be one of America’s largest 20 cities, bigger than Boston, Baltimore, Denver, or Seattle. (Of course, those cities have their own metro areas.)

Though it makes “Knoxville” look more impressive, the metro-area standard poses a challenge for all ethnic minorities, who, when the lens opens that wide, diminish almost to a vanishing point. In Knoxville proper, the black population has increased just a little, to 17.1 percent—low compared to most big cities, and especially to Southern cities, but higher than the black population of America as a whole, which is only about 13.5 percent. However, according to the newest numbers, blacks make up only 6.4 percent of the Knoxville MSA—less than projected, and just over one third of their share within the city limits. Hispanics register 3.4 percent, Asians 1.4 percent. Knoxville’s metro area is 88.5 percent percent white. Knoxville proper, consistently small-to-middling as it is, is in some ways demographically comparable to America; its metro area, on which much of the city’s livelihood depends, is less so.

Maybe a proposed recount of the city-limits population will happen, and even be successful, maybe not. If so, its outcome will be relevant to the city of Knoxville and its revenue. But for the next 10 years, we may hear that number, 702,729, more than any other in describing what “Knoxville” is. Knoxville proper may no longer be counted among America’s top 100 cities, but its metro area, currently about the 75th largest in the nation, will assure our assessment in any number of comparative surveys, whether we like it or not.

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Comments » 2

JrWong writes:

Ha, I knew it, Knoxville...."Whitest City in America".

luttrbp writes:

This was an extremely well written and educated article. You obviously did your homework. You are absolutely correct, the Knoxville census data has always proved just how constricted the city limits are and makes Knoxville look a lot smaller than it is. The fact of the matter is that Knoxville/Knox County are in desperate need of a consolidated government. The city/county needs to be one populous, its just way too convoluted now trying to figure out where the borders are. That would make Knoxville proper 430,000+ people and among this country's top 50 largest cities as it should be. Then the tax breaks would come flying in. A city/county proper of 430,000+ and a metro area of 1,000,000+ would make Knoxville a big visible player on the national scene and grow exponentially more in a quick period of time. It seemed to work out ok for Nashville.

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