In the mind of most any longtime Connecticut resident, Stamford is not one of the Big Three. Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, the old-line, core New England cities, all are anchors for suburban towns that grew up in the post-World War II era, and all struggle with a legacy of poverty.
Stamford, an edge city with corporate and media spillover from New York — and no suburbs — remains smaller than the Big Three in that vision.
No longer. Census data being released Thursday show that Stamford passed Hartford in population in 2012 by the thin margin of 216 resident souls — 125,109 to 124,893.
Bridgeport remains the state's largest city at 146,425, and New Haven, which used its Yale-based stability to overtake the capital city in the '90s, stands at 130,741, according to the new census estimates.
Surprising? Not to people who have followed the direction of these places. Stamford is the fastest-growing city in a slow-growing state — not despite its heritage as a smaller, edge city, but because of it.
Consider: In 1950, when Hartford was at its peak with 177,073 people, larger than Bridgeport or New Haven, Stamford had fewer than 75,000 residents.
To understand how Stamford evolved, certainly it's important to look at I-95 and the train line that has become America's busiest intercity rail corridor, just 50 minutes to midtown Manhattan. Stamford's welcoming of such New York exiles as GTE Corp., with its upside-down, square-wedding-cake building, was the hallmark of a modernist state and local economic strategy that later snagged two giant investment banks, and more recently lured NBC Sports and a bevy of other media companies.
What about the residents of Stamford? In recent years the city has grown by a tad less than 1 percent a year, sluggish by Texas standards, while Hartford has remained flat. Some of the new Stamford addresses are townhouses and low-rise apartments near downtown, a triumph of mixed-income urban development.
But to really understand the city's long-term growth, first think of the neighborhoods in the state's other largest cities. Old blocks of stores, multifamily houses, one-story commercial buildings, a few tree-canopied streets with stately homes lined up in rows.
Stamford has that, for sure. But now take a drive up High Ridge Road, past the Merritt Parkway into a landscape that simply doesn't come to mind when you think of the third-largest city in an old industrial state. Find Rock Rimmon Road — you'll need a map or some luck — and travel along a meandering, two-lane byway flanked by stone walls, thick hedges, ponds and estates on multi-acre parcels, some valued at well over $1 million.
And it's not just that one road.
"There are parts of Stamford that are back-country Greenwich," said Michael Freimuth, who was Stamford's economic development director under then-Mayor Dannel P. Malloy, and is now executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority in Hartford. "There are homes up there that would blow your mind."
Those homes are hardly the source of population growth, of course. But they are the source of stability and a tax base that has girded Stamford for economic success, laying the groundwork for a new generation of business growth that brings jobs and people to the city's core.
That broad swath of middle-class stability that anchors Stamford tends to exist outside the grasp of the traditional Big Three, over the city lines in places like Bloomfield, Hamden and Trumbull. Stamford made a brilliant move in 1948, in Freimuth's view, joining the old Stamford city with Stamford town, the suburb.
"If you wanted to be in that marketplace, you had one town that would take you, and that was Stamford," Freimuth said. "It's got a blended economic base and it's got a blended political base and it's been able to drive its development to its most optimum point, to the train and the highway, not sprawling across the entire region."
Stamford gained some momentum, though not as much as many predicted, after the 9/11 attacks when financial firms moved from downtown New York, and it has gained mightily from the hedge fund boom, run by managers who live in nearby mansions and estates.
Malloy was credited with leveraging these forces that were pushing on the city before he was elected governor in 2010.
"It's not just the push on the string; you've got a guy who's willing to pull on the string," said David Panagore, a development consultant and interim New Haven parking authority chief who was until last year the chief operating officer of the city of Hartford. "And in the last couple of years, Stamford has been able to access state and federal grants."