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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.