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.
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“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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.