Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Musings about the State of the City - Youngstown

Please note that this map is one associated with foreclosed homes. Youngstown which has more foreclosures than anywhere else in the state is not even on the map. Why?

Lately I've been feeling blue. As you know, I have been very involved in Youngstown activities ranging from greening Youngstown to support for the arts in the Youngstown. If anything I generally suffer from being overly optimistic. The reason for my overall malaise these days is that I've begun to notice a very large and what appears to be an almost insurmountable disconnect between those who are in positions of power in city government and citizens working in the community.

Yesterday, it came to my attention that Sean Safford, Assistant Professor of Organizations and Markets at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business has written a book to be released in January 2009. It is titled, "Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown: The Transformation of the Rust Belt". Many of us who are interested in urban development are familiar with the article of the same name that was written several years ago.

The author compares the recent history of Allentown, PA with that of Youngstown, OH. Allentown had a noticeable rebound over the course of the past twenty years. Their economy has reinvented itself. Youngstown although similar to Allentown in its industrial history, has as the author stated, "fallen into a race to the bottom". It was while reading a review of the book, that I decided it is time to talk about my current state of mind.

Safford, argues in the book, that the structure of social networks among the cities' economic, political and civic leaders account for the divergent trajectories of post-industrial regions like Allentown and Youngstown The book offers a probing historical explanation for the decline, fall and unlikely rejuvenation of the Rust Belt. It emphasizes the power of social networks to shape action, determine access to and control over information and resources, define the contexts in which problems are viewed, and enable collective action in the face of externally generated crisis.

The author presents the view that the rejuvenation of the rust belt is unlikely. I do not share Safford’s view about rejuvenation of the rust belt. However, I agree with his theory about social networks. Youngstown needs better communication between its leaders and the citizenry, we need to move beyond the social network as defined by organized crime, where I'll do a favor for you, if you do a favor for me, tit for tat and where it is all about who you know in a position of power. It is time to move toward open source communication to borrow a tech term. Power is in participation, it is through open communication that communities can grow, knowledge can be acquired, and markets developed.

As you may know, Youngstown has not received its fair share of demolition money from the State of Ohio. Youngstown also was not included in the feasibility study for a light rail system connecting major cities in Ohio. So far, it does not appear that Youngstown will be in the forefront of development of wind power, solar power, alternative energy or anything else. The companies that engage in these things appear to like other places in Ohio better. So once again our politicians have failed us by not actively seeking this new development.

Simultaneously,our population is steadily diminishing, our school system is in horrible shape and Forbes is including us on their list of fastest dying cities along with the Austintown community. People who would like to bring about change run into brick walls every which way they turn. Now, we are in a recession. The foundations that have been giving their funds to help us undoubtedly had their money tied up in the markets and undoubtedly have diminished revenues to share with the community.

I fear the reason that Youngstown has received so little state and federal support is because of preconceived notions some may have about our area. I've been told that the mafia no longer has a strong hold in Youngstown. I have no idea whether or not this is factually true, however I do know one thing, when individuals, cities, states, and nations have lived with a particular type of culture for a very long time, whether that be totalitarianism, slavery, or organized crime, the vestiges of that culture may be destroyed, but the people continue to carry the cultural mindset. I fear that many of our citizens and our politicians in Youngstown have lived in a culture of corruption for so long that they fail to see the ethical problems inherent in cronyism, and favor exchanging. They fail to see that democratic government should be transparent so the people who are represented know whether or not their interests as citizens are being served. It is time that we here in Youngstown start talking about ethics, not as they pertain to organized crime, but as they pertain to good government.

Our current politicians do not seem to understand their role in the development of legislation or the need for legislation that will bring about cohesiveness and consistency between the city and its 2010 plan. What’s more, so much time has passed since the 2010 plan was designed that I now believe it is time to revisit the plan in order to update it and make needed changes. For example environmental issues have become more important in recent years and need even more consideration in the 2010 plan. We need zoning that recognizes the need for walkability to stores, cafes, etc. We need mixed use zoning and if we can’t have that, we at least need to have the ability to make spot zoning changes that would serve the public good.

Currently, the emphasis in the city has been on demolition. It is of course important that the properties be taken down; it would however be a good thing to rehabilitate those properties that are salvageable. Furthermore, we could be turning our demolition efforts into the creation of a new industry, deconstruction. We could be deconstructing properties, salvaging those parts that are valuable and reselling them on the market to offset the expense of the deconstruction. We could become experts in this field. We could be in the lead on this, but we aren't, we are passing up an opportunity. It is this kind of thinking outside the box that should be encouraged by city government. Unfortunately it is not.

Our mayor has received numerous awards and is regularly asked to give speeches about the shrinking cities theory. We have been visited by people from all over the world. I fear that they have taken the idea and run. Even Cleveland is moving ahead on their shrinking city plan, meanwhile, here in Youngstown, things are moving too slow and we are going to be left in the dust.

We all know, that funds are a problem, we also know that when the 2010 plan was first introduced it was stressed that citizens must participate and work to bring the plan to fruition. To the city I say, get the hell out of our way, help us streamline procedures for acquisition of land, development of urban farming, and citizen lead progress such as park cleanups and festivals. Citizens know what we need to do to get things moving.

In addition to obtaining more funds for demolition and neighborhood stabilization, we need to make certain allocation of current funds is appropriate, and take advantage of learned volunteers, whether they be urban planners, lawyers, teachers, etc. We need to bring people together to talk honestly about the problems we face, put aside the cronyism, the favors, the political games and personal feelings. We need to brainstorm and problem solve. We need a Youngstown Think Tank, and it needs to be made up of the best minds Youngstown has to offer, it needs to cross racial barriers, class barriers, religious barriers, age barriers, and it needs to be problem centered. As Toni Van Pelt on Lincoln Avenue indicates, public policy should be based on objective evidence. A Youngstown think tank needs to serve as the voice of reason as well as serve as advisor to the major and city council. City Council must understand that it is time to move beyond their petty turf wars, and toward a larger vision of the city as a whole.

Several years ago, it appeared that there was an influx of new blood to Youngstown. Young people who understand transparency in government, who understand that people will come back or move to Youngstown when Youngstown has something to offer them. They have brought their positive attitude and it has been infectious. The old guard rather than being mired down in their petty cronyism and feelings of personal grandeur need to get out of the way. Our city employees need a shot of morale, our school system needs to get real and bring to the attention of the powers that be that when you take the best students out of a public school system, and leave the lower achieving students and behavioral problems behind, that this is not the teacher's fault nor the administration's, but rather the result of what I now call the development of sub-prime educational markets. We need some magnet schools in the city and we need to make them competitive, and some of the best in Ohio so that students that currently go to the better schools will want to come to ours. This is how we will draw the middle class with families back to the city. We also need to work hard to make certain that Youngstown is included in the development of green collar jobs.

If not, I fear that the young folks won't be staying, as they will burn out, and also want a better quality of life. Our schools will continue to deteriorate, our politicians move on to more prestigious positions, or retire, and the rest of us will live in a city that isn't even on the map of Ohio. It is time to start asking our politicians the hard questions. We have been riding on a cloud of hope and optimism now for a while, it is time to see some results.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Street Music to Move the Masses

The Playing for Change Community is a group of artists and inspired people brought together to connect the world through music. People play music all over the globe and the impact it has on all of our souls is something we share.

The idea for Playing for Change came to Mark Johnson one day as he was going to work in New York City. He came upon a performance of two monks painted all in white from head to toe. He saw about 200 people of varying races,genders and cultures sourrouding the monks. It occurred to him at that moment that music is the key to a better world. He took up this calling and has been making films ever since to inspire everyone on the planet to come together as one.

The Playing for Change journey of discovery celebrates the freedom and the lives of street musicians everywhere. I saw the video this morning via an ODE e-mail. I found it very moving and had to share it with you all. Please support Playing for Change and their goal of creating a musical revolution in the world, one that will help to inspire and improve communities everywhere.

Friday, December 12, 2008

David Giffels - All the Way Home

David Giffels, author of the book All the Way Home Building a Family in A falling Down House,came to Youngstown in November to speak at Cedars as part of the YSU Youngstown Reader's Series. His book was also the November selection of the Oakland Book Club of which I am a member. I was hooked on this book from page one. This is probably the case because I have spent most of my adult life renovating different living spaces. However, I admit that I have never taken on anything as daunting as the task that David Giffels took on. I applaud those who have the will and determination to restore the beauty of old houses, and my hope is that more and more people will see the beauty in some of Youngstown's falling down houses and feel moved to take on the project of restoring them as David Giffels did in Akron.

For pictures detailing Giffels journey in home renovation check this video out.
All the Way HomeBuilding a Family in A falling Down House.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Changing Image of Youngstown

Janko over at Shout Youngstown posted this video today. I believe this information should be spread far and wide so I have posted the video here as well. Pass it on.