Rust Belt resurgence

Youngstown steadfast through community plan, changing image

Rust Belt resurgence
2011-03-13T00:00:00Z 2012-07-16T17:51:10Z Youngstown steadfast through community plan, changing imageBy Bowdeya Tweh, (219) 933-3316

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio | Mayor Jay Williams said progress started in the city after residents decided Youngstown was in need of a reinvention.

Vestiges of the decline in Youngstown's steel industry parallel what has happened in Gary and other urban areas. Abandoned residential, commercial and industrial properties dot the city's landscape. Urban and suburban areas reflect the isolating effects of balkanization after decades of race and class struggles. Unemployment and poverty remain stubbornly high as a result of low educational attainment levels and a dearth of high-paying jobs.

Williams said the community's response to help redefine Youngstown, restore its relevance and make it viable was the creation of a comprehensive planning initiative.

But nearly a decade after launching "Youngstown 2010," the city is at another crossroads. The plan must be updated every 10 years to loosely correspond with the country's decennial census, Williams said. It now has to continue its momentum from the first phase and placate those who are fed up by the lack of progress on some issues.

"It was always designed to be a journey, not a destination," Williams said.

Launched in 2002, Youngstown 2010 forged partnerships with Youngstown State University, community groups and development agencies to envision what the city could and should look like.

The plan's themes were to accept that Youngstown needed to be a smaller city, to better define the city's role in the regional economy, to improve the city's image and enhance its quality of life -- and to call residents to action.

"Youngstown is similar to Gary," Youngstown State University professor John Russo said. "It produced a lot of middle-class Americans. ... Youngstown's story is America's story."

Losing the dream

The story of the "Young's Town" settlement starts in the late-1700s. But the 144-year-old city has been defined by the iron ore industry and, later, steel mills that lined Ohio's Mahoning Valley and nearby Shenango Valley in Pennsylvania.

The city amassed great wealth as steel barons and industry titans operated profitable businesses, and people from other parts of the country and Europe were able to find work and populate the middle class. Youngstown's regional identity has been molded by its larger neighbors, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, which are both about 70 miles away from the city.

Ohio state Rep. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, who has worked for railroad companies for nearly 40 years, watched the mills' progress in the form of railcars loaded full of Ohio steel. He said he's also worked long enough to see the city's "lights go out" from the window of a locomotive.

On Sept. 19, 1977, known as "Black Monday," more than 4,000 mill workers lost their jobs. Youngstown Sheet and Tube's parent company closed a mill in neighboring Campbell (pronounced Camel), Ohio, that day, and it wouldn't be the area's last.

Thousands more lost their jobs in the next few years when U.S. Steel and Republic Iron and Steel closed mills. Supplier businesses and those that depended on steel incomes also suffered as a result.

Hagan, who has been a legislator for 24 years and works for CSX Corp., said some people still haven't forgiven the steel companies for abandoning the area. He said part of the industry's legacy is the health problems some people face as a result of years of breathing in coke-dust particles.

"They used up our natural resources," said Hagan, echoing residents' comments. "They polluted our river. They sucked the breath and life out of our workers. Grandparents died of lung disease because of the struggles here. I have the beginning stages of emphysema just from living here."

Communities and community development corporations – such as Castlo Community Improvement Corp., which was founded in 1978 – made progress grouping vacant industrial space, performing environmental remediation and remarketing it.

But once-stable neighborhoods continued to fall into significant disrepair, and some residents say community morale plummeted.

"I felt like a lot of people in Youngstown lost the ability to dream," said Tammy Thomas, community organizer with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. "There were several times we were sold a bill of goods. People were devastated by the disinvestment. They felt uncared about."

Turning the corner

Population declines in Youngstown and Gary tell similar stories.

Youngstown's population is less than half what it was in 1960. The 2010 U.S. Census said the city's population was 66,982, down 18 percent from 2000. Gary's population has dropped 22 percent since 2000.  

Gone are the days of dreaming the city would return to being a bustling mill town, said Hunter Morrison, YSU's director of campus planning and community partnerships.

Morrison served as director of Cleveland's Planning Commission from 1980 to 2001, and also was part of the Youngstown 2010 planning team. He said organizers realized early the plan needed residents' support. Multiple community meetings helped carve the plan's direction in 2004.

"It involves people taking ownership of the things that need to be changed in Youngstown," Mahoning Valley community organizer Thomas said. "It has to be something they want."

Mayor Williams said Youngstown could no longer be defined by its failures. The city also decided to stop waiting for the steel industry to return to its earlier prominence.

Youngstown had to become a smaller place. It needed to get in touch with its roots. It needed to be itself – "only better," Morrison said.

Youngstown 2010 so far has required lobbying the federal government for assistance, helped the county establish a land bank for vacant property and encouraged neighborhood groups to form. Morrison said the type of teamwork required to fix complex urban problems is similar to the teamwork seen on championship sports teams.

Attention to details

Williams points to Youngstown's downtown becoming more relevant as an early success of the city's plan.

Leaders also found the city could better promote its assets such as the downtown convocation center, the 4,400-acre park shared with the county, and the Butler Institute of American Art, which has works by such luminaries as American artists Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol and Winslow Homer.

For nonprofit organization director Sharon Letson, the shift in Youngstown's image started in its central business district.

About 13 years ago, Letson said a small group of business people got together and decided they didn't like the image the downtown area projected. Six people got their brooms and rakes, flower pots and seeds, and began sprucing up downtown streets before any dollars were used to tear buildings down.

Public and private dollars have helped improve conditions. Letson said the main goals of her Youngstown CityScape organization are to beautify and preserve downtown and other areas.

"When you're trying to promote your city, you have to look a certain way," said Letson, the group's executive director. "The flowers and attention to those sort of things do a lot in trying to court a business and convince (them that) this is the place to be."

Letson's group also has been vocal on preserving classic buildings, helping to give the city "character." One building that almost met the wrecking ball was a Warner Brothers movie theater that opened in 1931. The stately renovated building, saved from demolition in 1968, is now the site of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, a college arts program, a 600-seat concert theater and a restaurant.

Federal Plaza, which is one of the main arteries in the city's downtown area, houses the Youngstown Business Incubator, a multitude of business and government offices, and a few restaurants. When area native Mike Broderick returned to the region in 1990, this was not the case. This area – along with others – was all but forgotten, as vacant multistory buildings and vagrants dotted the landscape once home to a thriving retail center in the mid-1950s.

Location was one challenge; another was the perception that cutting-edge businesses couldn't be launched from an old Rust Belt city, said Broderick, 52-year-old CEO of a Youngstown-based software firm.

But he soldiered on, co-founding Turning Technologies in 2001 at the business incubator. Now, the 200-employee software and hardware company is on track for about 35 percent growth in revenue and employment in 2011 compared to a year earlier. Handheld devices Turning Technologies produces are in classrooms and boardrooms around the world.

"On a smaller and smaller scale, there's still some of the old Rust Belt mentality that, 'Oh, if we could only get steel back. If we could only get large-scale manufacturing back. That's the only hope,' " Broderick said. "That's gradually going away, but the sad part is we saw the steel mills leave this area in the late '70s, early '80s, and it (has) taken 30 years – almost a generation – for that mind-set to leave with it."

Broderick said if there were more people sounding the alarms 30 years ago to reduce the city's reliance on steel, the area would be a different place.

Williams said proof his city's business climate is improving can be seen in its landing high-profile job commitments from employers.

VXI Global Solutions Inc. plans to employ 1,200 by the end of the year after opening a call center in downtown Youngstown in October 2009. By early 2012, V&M Star LP will employ 350 people at its new seamless pipe rolling mill, which is near its pipe production minimill in the city.

A tale of two – or more – cities

In the middle of the 20th century, expectations for Youngstown's population to exceed 200,000 residents helped officials bet on expanding in parts of the city farther away from the mills.

As the infrastructure grew and roads expanded, more people moved away from the central city, and once-rural areas became suburban.

Retail corridors such as the one on Market Street – a major north-south artery bridging downtown and the city's south side – became a shell of the brilliance it showed in the 1960s with the tax base flight. Big-box retail establishments and other businesses, along with more affluent residents, headed farther south into bordering suburbs such as Boardman, which now resembles Merrillville in Northwest Indiana.

Youngstown's neighborhoods are full of contradictions. Passers-by can see the wealth that built mansions and continues to support manicured lawns on tree-lined streets in the city's Idora neighborhood and on Fifth Avenue through north side neighborhoods similar to Gary's Miller section. But about four miles northeast of downtown Youngstown, some blocks are ghost towns. Fire hydrants and street signs designate residential areas, but there are no houses. On sparsely populated blocks, crumbling structures and errant foliage are the primary land dwellers.

"There's been a growing reality that we cannot allow the specific successes in those instances to overshadow the bigger picture of how we have to revitalize Youngstown, which is very much where people live," said Phil Kidd, lead community organizer with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. "Not just the next restaurant that's going to open downtown, or whether our mayor can give a great speech and impress the hell out of people."

The Arlington Heights development, located west of downtown, tapped different funding sources to demolish a housing project Williams said was a haven for drug use and to build new single- and multifamily houses. The affordable-housing effort started more than seven years ago, and Williams touts how restoring that section of Youngstown has helped increase its desirability for people looking to live near institutions such as the university and a regional hospital.

The city also has stabilized communities by helping demolish 2,000 homes in five years in various neighborhoods, he said.

Waiting for change

Despite the national and international acclaim Youngstown 2010 has received, City Councilwoman Janet Tarpley is among critics who are not convinced all the city's residents are included in the new vision. Tarpley said her sixth district leads the way in some unfortunate statistics – the highest proportion of vacant or blighted structures, crime and unemployment.

She said the neighborhoods targeted for significant infrastructure investments are in more stable areas, not in her ward.

"Really, we don't fit in," Tarpley said. "So I think that the city has to take a better look as far as making sure every neighborhood is part of the restructuring. We have a small, limited pool of money, and everybody needs something."

Williams disagrees. For neighborhoods and residents who feel left out, he suggested they look at the places that received concentrated investments and what the benefits were. He said decades of problems can't be turned around overnight, and he hopes people will accept the rationale for the investment decisions.

"This wasn't about picking winners or losers," Williams said. "This wasn't about saying to people who lived in a deteriorating neighborhood (they) were somehow inferior to people who maybe live in a stable neighborhood. But we had to make very tough decisions about how to invest limited resources and where we would get the most return."

Kidd said the group he's part of, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, was formed in mid-2008 to encourage grassroots organizing among city residents. The group assists the city's campaign to identify vacant property and has launched efforts to engage voters, promote health equity, organize neighborhoods and support community labor partnerships.

With the help of the organizing collaborative, the number of neighborhood groups in Youngstown has increased to 50 from 19 in two years, Kidd said.

Pushing for progress

The impetus to organize also can be borne of tragedy.

Councilwoman Tarpley said in January 2010, an elderly woman was murdered in a church parking lot. Nine months later, a husband was shot and killed, and the wife lost her leg. She said those incidents were turning points in her district, and people were encouraged to speak up about crime despite the pervasive "snitches get stitches" mind-set.

Tarpley said neighborhood block watches are a key component of fighting crime, and she said she's proud their numbers have increased.

At a Feb. 6 fraternity party near YSU's campus, one man was shot and killed and 11 people were injured after a dispute.  

Youngstown Police Chief Jimmy Hughes, who has been in the position since 2006, said the city has had "consistent problems" with crime. But what gets the headlines and attention of the community are the "crazy killings."

Hughes said despite a police department built for 225 now operating with about 150 officers, violent crimes have decreased in the city.

State Rep. Hagan said it's difficult to convince his colleagues in the Legislature that Youngstown is a different city than it was 50 years ago. They remember the headlines about organized crime syndicates finding opportunities in the city for gambling and prostitution.

Hagan said with the mob and mill jobs gone, the rough-and-tumble sport of Democratic politics is a vestige of Youngstown's history that remains.

He said there's hope in those younger than 30 who don't remember old Youngstown.

"There's a value of a lack of memory for some of these kids," said Hagan, 61. "For some of these kids, they don't give a shit (about the way things used to be). They want to see things happen."

Another vestige of old Youngstown – and many urban areas – are the race and class issues surrounding where people work and live.

Between 1980 and 2000, the city's white population fell about 20 percent to nearly 51 percent, according to U.S. Census figures. The percentage share of minority groups grew during the same period.

"It's real bad," Kidd said about race issues in the city. "There's like 95 percent of minorities living in urban centers of Warren and Youngstown. ... It's very segregated in that regard."

Russo, co-director in YSU's Center for Working-Class Studies, said limited discussions in the Valley have looked at local governments consolidating to form a regional government for economic reasons. Although people may say they would support it behind closed doors, it's a political grenade in public settings because of attitudes about race in the city and suburbs.

Williams, who was elected the city's first black mayor in 2005, said a "considerable" amount of time has been spent assuaging residents' fears about gentrification and discussing race relations.

Economic conditions also present a challenge for the city. City coffers aren't as flush as they once were, and YSU's Russo said city and regional financial conditions won't improve until employment increases.

Russo said the call center jobs pay about $9 to $10 an hour, and while the jobs are important, it's not the type of economic opportunity to sustain communities.

"You can talk about economic development, but it's not a real recovery," Russo said.

A recovery also is needed at the Youngstown City School District because it is among the lowest-performing in Ohio. The Ohio Department of Education said the 6,550-student district was in a state of "academic emergency," the lowest of six designations in the 2009-10 school year. The district met one of 26 state performance indicators. City officials hope newly installed Superintendent Connie Hathorn can produce results in a district where 89 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

Williams said he isn't seeking to control the school district, but all economic development would be in vain if it fails to adequately educate its young people.

Owning a new city

Out of Youngstown 2010, Kidd, of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, noticed civic pride needed to be improved and the city needed to send a message that people should care about where they live. Kidd created the "Defend Youngstown" concept in 2006 and took his message to the streets – literally – and stood downtown holding a "Defend Youngstown" sign. The effort spawned a blog, T-shirts and about 5,000 friends on a Facebook page.

"A lot of our work isn't for the short term," Kidd said. "We recognize that we're taking a longer vision here, and it's going to take a tremendous amount of work with a lot of people over a long period of time to continuously and gradually push toward a better and better place. The work I'm doing in Youngstown, this is for my kids."

The spirit and will of residents to keep a community alive is an intangible element of Youngstown that will help it even through down days, said Morrison, of YSU. He said a few years ago, one of his friends described Youngstown as the "Hotel California," borrowing the name of The Eagles' 1976 song. "You can check out ... but you can never leave," he said.

"We may not be as big as a New York or L.A., but we deserve just as much as the people in New York and L.A. deserve," said Thomas, the Mahoning Valley community organizer. "We deserve safe neighborhoods, jobs, a viable community. We deserve all those things here."

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Follow The Times

Featured Businesses



Who do you support for the U.S. House of Representatives in District 1?

View Results