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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.

(Page 3 of 3)

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.

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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.”