A Rust Belt city tries to shrink its way to success

Youngstown, Ohio’s groundbreaking plan for revival collides with recession and hard choices about neighborhood survival.

By , Correspondent

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    Former mill: An old steel mill on the outskirts of Youngs­town. The city’s population has fallen from 170,000 30 years ago to 80,000 today.
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Mark Peyko has spent his whole life in the Rust Belt – a childhood in Youngstown, Ohio, and six years as a newspaperman outside Detroit. He had seen firsthand what census after census had suggested: Residents were fleeing by the thousands. Slowly, the region’s cities were dying.

Yet nothing had prepared him for the announcement that city leaders in his hometown made seven years ago: Youngstown would no longer dream of a return to its heyday, when steel mills thronged the banks of the Mahoning River and 170,000 residents crowded its city limits.

Instead, it dreamed only of survival, and to do this, Youngstown would not grow, but shrink – shuttering swaths of the city through demolition and consolidation on a massive scale.

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The announcement was the beginning of Youngstown 2010, a bold plan for a new mode of urban sustainability. With only 80,000 residents left in the city, Youngstown leaders hoped to redirect limited resources to parts of town that they felt had viable futures. Residents would be offered incentives to move into parts of town not yet overrun by vacant properties, reorganizing the city around the university and a long-neglected urban core. A new Youngstown, smaller but more vibrant, would grow amid the shell of the old, which would either be demolished or ignored.

But Youngstown 2010 is faltering. Recession is challenging its plan. The city has little money to demolish vacant buildings; no one has taken the $50,000 incentive to move.

A handful of other Rust Belt cities from Flint, Mich., to Buffalo, N.Y., have considered similar plans. Youngstown’s experience underscores the difficulties of urban engineering on such a massive scale, as the promise of renewal collides with the sacrifices needed to make it work.

The effort is groundbreaking, in many respects. “The mantra of cities has always been, ‘We need to revitalize, to grow bigger,’ [but Youngstown] is saying, ‘Chances are we’re not going to get that population back, certainly not in the short term and maybe not ever,’ ” says Jennifer Vey, a fellow in the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. “Youngstown plans to shrink its footprint and ask, ‘How can we best use our resources to produce a healthier, smaller city?’ ”

Mr. Peyko, editor of The Metro Monthly, a local paper, says that the idea was “psychologically challenging” at first. “But once I [accepted it], it opened up all these possibilities for making change,” he says.

Reaching that point of acceptance – that a city’s grandest days might be behind it – is a challenging one for city leaders, who often act more as boosters than politicians, says Joe Schilling, an urban planning professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

“We’ve been operating under a fallacy in all of these Rust Belt cities that we can build our way out of this mess: ‘Let’s build a convention center, let’s do as much as we can to keep the auto industry, it’s going to turn the city around,’ ” he says. “Maybe you reinvent the formula in a slightly different way, using the lens of sustainability.”

When the steel mills closed more than 30 years ago, Youngstown was left without much of the stable, middle-class base that kept the city humming. Thousands of vacant properties now blight city streets, and natives often find themselves the only remaining residents on a block that once housed 10 families.

But without manufacturing, the city was forced to redefine itself, says Hunter Morrison, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University. Successfully reorienting a dying city requires identifying what strengths the city has left and building out from there, he says.

“It’s the big bang theory: Just the way the universe expands it also contracts, and when you contract you go back to the core,” says Mr. Morrison, an early architect of the 2010 plan. For cities in flux, the core becomes any kind of business that can’t go anywhere – the permanent economic engines, Morrison says. With the steel mills gone, what’s left in Youngstown is a university and a couple of hospitals – “eds and meds,” city planners say.

“We’re going from a mill town to a college town,” Morrison says. Youngstown State is far from an economic and research powerhouse, but, he says, it’s the city’s best hope for a future, and it’s here to stay.

“The university has 14,000 immigrants to the knowledge economy every year,” he says. “If we link and leverage our resources, more will stay here.”

Virginia Tech’s Professor Schilling agrees: “There are a lot of engaged young folks who like to live at the scale of Youngstown.”

Downtown is emerging as the city’s new heart after years of decline and neglect. Restaurants have opened on the main street, and a public-private venture to nurture locally founded technology companies has opened. There are even plans to do something few thought possible: build new, market-rate housing between the university and the downtown’s main drag, in the hope that some people actually want to live here.

The development, called Smokey Hollow, embodies the essence of Youngstown’s new focus on its future, says Margaret Murphy, executive director of Wick Neighbors, which is developing the 270-unit project.

The project provides some of the first new housing built downtown in half a century, Ms. Murphy says. “If this project doesn’t succeed, nobody will take another one seriously. It has to be the catalyst for other things to happen.”

Smokey Hollow, however, has been waylaid by the nation’s economic meltdown. It’s still an empty field on the edge of downtown.

It is only one of several disappointments for Youngstown 2010. With more than 4,500 vacant structures and a declining tax base from an ever-shrinking population, the city can’t stay ahead of the abandonment trend, says William D’Avignon, deputy director of the city’s planning department.

In 2006, 351 structures were demolished. In 2007, 474. But the budget shrank in 2008, when only 103 were razed. Now, the city is almost entirely dependent on federal funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program – about $2.7 million – to stem the tide of vacant buildings.

The Campaign offering $50,000 to people to leave their homes largely failed, and local politics have meant that city funds are still apportioned to all neighborhoods – including the ones already deemed unsustainable.

To the most vigorous supporters of Youngstown 2010, this is deeply troubling.

“We’re just randomly assorting money as needed, and we see the results of this,” says Phil Kidd, a young community organizer for the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. “If we continue to do this, we stand to lose every viable neighborhood.”

Mr. Kidd exudes Youngstown pride. He started a minimovement in the city when he stood downtown holding a sign that read, simply, “Defend Youngstown.”

He worries that political will in the city might be dissipating as leaders confront tough choices that involve getting people to change their ways of life.

“This is a war, man,” he says. “Youngstown is literally a war. There are battles that are won and battles that are lost. This is a 30-year plan to get to the point that we’re stable and quasi-viable.”

For the Rev. Ed Noga, the war takes on a different form. Outside his church, St. Patrick’s, on the south side of town, manicured lawns give way to block after block of abandoned housing, boarded up and punctuated by empty lots where structures in even worse shape have already been torn down. This is Oak Hill, and by the measure of Youngstown 2010, city planners say the neighborhood doesn’t have much of a future.

Father Noga’s Life is a portrait of the city he’s trying to save. He was, he says, the product of a family of steelworkers long before he became a servant of God, and one piece of art dominates his office: a diorama of Youngstown’s former skyline – downtown towers ringed by industrial smokestacks.

But fighting for the neighborhood he loves has put him on the wrong side of history. “I’m going to campaign for [Oak Hill] – for anything to enhance these properties,” he says. “If anything, it would just be saying thanks to these people for sticking it out.”

He has been a supporter of Youngstown 2010, knowing the city needed radical change if it was to survive. But the city’s shrinking revenues have put him and Oak Hill in a bind. He says hope has returned to Oak Hill, and “I’m not just going to let the city council take all the money and shove it [to other neighborhoods].”

His stand highlights the city’s challenges. When it comes to picking neighborhoods that are winners and losers, politics has dampened some of the early optimism about Youngstown’s plan.

Stanching the population loss in the neighborhoods competes with economic development needs, and planners can’t figure out how to reconcile the twin demands.

“We have to work within the realm of existing resources,” says Sarah Lown, Youngstown’s economic development director. “You really just can’t target a neighborhood for emptying out, it’s just not a very good way to work. These are human beings here, not pawns on a chessboard.”

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