Tom McNamara, Blueprint America
In May as part of our “Shrinking Cities” series, the Blueprint America team traveled to Youngstown, Ohio, where a grand experiment in urban renewal is underway.
Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams is leading a closely watched effort to “shrink” this blighted rustbelt city back to health.
Over half a century ago, Youngstown was a steel town and at its peak was home to nearly 170,000 people. Most lived in tidy middle class homes. But in the late 1970s the steel mills started shutting down. And in a story all too common throughout the Midwest and Northeast, Youngstown fell into a slow, steady economic decline.
Today, fewer than 60,000 people live amid the ruins of closed factories and abandoned homes. On some streets, more homes are vacant than occupied. The tax base has been decimated. Still, Mayor Williams has rallied a surprising amount of local support for his plan to remake Youngstown into a place worth staying in.
Linda Jenkins is Youngstown born and raised. We met her as we filmed the demolition of the house across the street from where she lives.
Mayor Williams told us that he needs residents, like Jenkins, who are in Youngstown for the long haul — because living in a shrinking city isn’t for the fainthearted. And, in the last five years alone, the number of volunteer and nonprofit development groups in Youngstown is growing — up from 19 a few years ago to over 50 today.
Jim London is one of them. Presley Gillespie, president of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, is another.
Jacob Peters and David Rodriguez are city housing inspectors doing their part in shrinking Youngstown.
Can a city that has lost so much really recover? Phil Kidd, a local community organizer, believes in his city and its people, and says that Youngstown has turned a corner.
It’s a slow process. Youngstown didn’t lose more than 60 percent of its population overnight. It could take years, even decades, to rebuild. It will also take more than a mayor and his plan. To use a turn of phrase, it will take a village.