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.


Christopher Barzak said...

I've been feeling very similar to what you describe here for some months now. It seemed for a while like there was some movement here, and to some extent there still is, but I've never really sen the city government do much of anything to match the care and concern and attempts at rebuilding the community that the citizens and foundations around here have. And without your government working with you, you can only burn yourself out trying to get things done while they stand in the way, sit on their hands, and vocalize their support without helping us make things happen.

The federal money given to the state of Ohio for foreclosed homes? It's purely disgusting that Youngstown was not included in that distribution. That in and of itself makes me want to leave not Youngstown but Ohio altogether. There is a problem that goes to the foundation of this state. I was hopeful when Governor Strickland came into power, but now much of that hope has diminished.

We need something big to happen here in 2009 or we will slide even further.

TANTA1 said...

What would you have to do to make sure that this message is heard by each member of the local government and each and every citizen? Preaching to the choir is valuable, but not sufficient.
Suggestions: a delegation to Strickland's office for a conversation; radio shows, newspaper (if you can't get them to print it, buy space); neighborhood leafletting and household gatherings. If you create the fire the politicians will want a piece of the action. Make them come to you and you set the terms for their behavior.

Anonymous said...

As a smaller non resident Youngstown investor , I couldn't help but agree with most of this. Reforms seem to have slowed down & I worry 2009 will be consumed with the Mayoral election. The City seems to be ignoring the smaller investor in favour of the multi-million dollar deals . The machinery of government needs to be reformed . Most older cities have lost population from their peaks , its just that Youngstown has lost more than most & its real battle is to reassert its role as the center of the Valley . It seems to be working in the Downtown . A few years ago , few would think of going Downtown of an evening for entertainment !
I agree the City could be looking seriously at solar power. The solar research industry emplyes over 6,000 & growing in Toledo .
New technolgies make solar lighting viable even in cloudy environs such as Mahoning , but it is a cheap & quick way of lighting up Youngstown's dark streets , where many buildings are empty & not connected to electricity . Solar motion activated security lights ought to be a no brainer , yet I couldn't source them locally . Finally, someone should definitely set up a demolition recovery yard , so that there are "spare parts" with which to repair older buildings . Youngstown needs to be "absorbed" into the Valley, so that the Valley's growth corridor turns around 180 degrees & repopulates the City . To do this , it must answer the objetions of high income taxes , crime , poorer quality services & less transparent government styles

Michele said...

Thank you for speaking my language.

I'm not form Y-Town but our city which is in Ohio, finds itself behind even with the concept of "we will never be what we once were".

You are years ahead of us believe me, years ahead.

Joe W said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
elecpenciljim said...

I believe folks are coming to places like Youngstown, Flint and Detroit to see how we have survived for the last few decades with our major industry gone.

They see what happened to us now happening to them and are searching for answers. We have not been decades behind the times we have been decades ahead of the times.

I think we have found some answers but of course more are needed for our little corner of the world and for the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

As always, funding is a problem when it comes to being able to do something benefiting the area.
One way to raise some capital would be to levy a surcharge on absentee landlord's tax bills (call it a user fee if you will).
Many now own property in Youngstown but live far away, so even the rent money does not benefit the local economy.
Any funds collected could go into a dedicated fund and put to good use in the community revitalization efforts. Each individual homeowner can also do their small part by sprucing up their property. I have found that it's contagious when one homeowner makes their property a bit nicer, others follow.


Sean Safford said...

Hi there.

I hope you read the book. I do indeed compare Allentown and Youngstown, but I am hardly of the opinion that the rust belt is doomed. The point of the book was to look at places that had handled the changing economic environment well and others that had not. Unfortunately, for many of the reasons you mention, Youngstown did not fare well. But I don't think its too late. Simply that Youngstown is unfortunately behind the curve. I hope you will take the time to read the book. I'd be most interested in your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deb, it's Sean

It's good to see you tackling this topic on your blog. Youngstown faced a difficult problem right from the beginning: All of the cities eggs were in one steel basket. Economic and educational diversification were almost entirely absent from the picture. The response to the collapse of the steel industry was also a misguided one; the city looked for quick fixes, and one industry replacements for the loss of the steel industry. Congressmen Trafficant supported attempts to get a commuter aircraft company into Youngstown, which never happened. The Cafforo brothers brought in Avanti Motors, which stayed in business for a couple of years and then closed. In the 90's private prisons were brought into Youngstown. It took the city far to long to realize one industry or company was not going to solve Youngstown's problems.

Mr. Safford brings up a good point in his book about the role of Allentown's two universities in confronting the city's problems. Youngstown State should have really poured money into attracting top talent and researchers into the area; the university is the one tool Youngstown had to bring about some economic investment. However, Youngstown State was never meaningfully involved in the trials and tribulations of this post industrial city.

The situation involving Youngstown's local government is even worse. For decades Youngstown cultivated a richly deserved reputation for corruption. The city's political machine
turned out officials beholden to the mob, or candidates wholly unqualified to hold a public office. A long history of corruption might have ebbed; however, I don't believe the long history
of political incompetence has. It's time for Youngstown's citizens to demand an end to the plague of corruption and cronyism in public office; situations like the allotment of money for vacant
properties are wholly unacceptable.