Anniston has lived alongside Oxford for more than a century, and never have the neighbors been closer in population size than they are today.
Rutherford B. Hayes was president and the U.S. flag featured only 38 stars the last time Oxford’s population nipped this close to Anniston’s. It was 1880.
That was the year newly born Anniston made its first appearance in a U.S. Census count. The town had only 942 residents, many of whom were carpetbaggers or Southern industrialists seeking their piece of the New South pie, but that already eclipsed Oxford’s count of 780 — a 162-resident difference. The story of that ever-widening population gap drives Calhoun County’s narrative, a tale much different now than it was then.
Among the county’s foregone conclusions is that post-Leon Smith Oxford’s population will eventually surpass Anniston’s. It hasn’t happened, yet. But recently released Census estimates for 2018 show they’re separated by the slimmest margin in nearly 140 years.
That’s a difference of only 408.
The explanation is embedded in that Calhoun County narrative, and it’s not as sophomoric as saying (a.) Anniston stinks; (b.) Oxford doesn’t; and (c.) it’s because of one city’s marriage to Interstate 20 and another’s addiction to political misery.
Over time, Anniston’s Census heyday — 1960 — dissolved into a spreadsheet of events, some terrible, others untimely, most destructive to progress. We recite them often: pipe shops and textile mills closed, the Army shuttered Fort McClellan and stored Cold War-era chemical weapons here, Monsanto got away with environmental pollution for decades, white flight resegregated its schools and City Hall too often responded with chaos, not expertise.
To the south, well, the story turns sweet. Smith’s heavy-handed leadership cultivated a political climate addicted to retail growth, civic improvements, annexation and lock-step messaging. I-20’s completion proved invaluable. And the Census numbers are devastatingly impressive: Oxford’s population between 1990 and 2000 grew by 55.9 percent; in 2010 its population had grown another 46.3 percent.
Oxford Councilman Mike Henderson has lived through most of that ascendancy. “Not sure what to say,” he wrote back in an email, and then typed out an impressive list of things to say about the city, none of which are secrets: Oxford’s quality-of-life improvements, the reputation of Oxford City Schools, and facility upgrades and city services.
“An additional hope,” Henderson wrote, “is that people will want to move here, thus kick-starting a resurgence in the need for housing (due to population growth) that hopefully will have an overall positive effect on our economy.”
A seldom-mentioned truth is that Oxford’s meteoric population rise has stalled. Henderson mentioned that, too. The 2018 Census estimate shows Oxford may be headed to its first decline — albeit slight — since 1910, given that the current figure is a 0.9 percent decrease from 2010.
I’ll spin that: Anniston hasn’t had positive Census growth since 1960, and when it loses the county’s population crown — not if, but when — it will not be merely because Oxford catches up, but instead because it hasn’t reversed that downward trend.
“Certainly,” Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said Thursday, “it tells us that we need to do a better job of keeping our residents, particularly our young people, so that they’ll stay here or come back here. I think a lot goes into that.”
That youthful brain-drain isn’t Anniston’s problem alone. Upwardly mobile graduates and young adults across Calhoun County want what everyone wants — opportunities and options. Those who can afford to chase their dreams elsewhere often do, lured by larger cities and riper job choices. Draper admits that. Plus, Anniston’s population is older than Oxford’s, which heightens the disparities. And even with Anniston’s embrace of cycling, mountain biking and ecotourism, “It tells us that we need to do a better job of attracting things people can do,” Draper said.
By the way, this numbers competition isn’t a winner-take-all affair. The result is preordained, and Oxford will prevail. And I’ll admit, the topic is endlessly fascinating, a narrative I can’t put down. But let’s be honest: Calhoun County needs not a winner and a loser, but two cities whose varied successes spill over to their neighbors.