Last week, the Center for Working-Class Studies distributed a commentary on how proponents of economic development and local government leaders were ignoring the continuing struggles of Youngstown’s neighborhoods. “A Renaissance for Whom? Youngstown and Its Neighborhoods” attempted to capture community discontent over the idea that developing downtown would, in and of itself, solve the city’s problems.
What’s happening in Youngstown will, we expect, sound familiar to readers from around the country. Widespread job loss affects not just individuals but also communities, and for deindustrialized areas, the latest economic wounds exacerbate old injuries. The same can be said for the tension between promoting economic development and addressing the needs of working-class people in urban neighborhoods.
Between us, we have been studying Youngstown for well over a decade. In preparing our analysis of the current situation, we attended dozens of community meetings and interviewed over 50 local residents and community organizers. We found that long term unemployment (see the CWCS’s discussion of the de facto unemployment rate), the loss of unemployment benefits and savings, the housing crisis, and the reductions in social services were devastating to the area’s already struggling neighborhoods. The Youngstown area has lost over 9000 jobs since the beginning of the ”Great Recession” and has 22,000 vacant parcels of land and another 4000 homes in delinquency or foreclosure. Yet local leaders have largely ignored problems of unemployment and housing in working-class neighborhoods, choosing to accentuate the so-called “Youngstown Renaissance” that has brought new high-tech jobs and several new restaurants and clubs to downtown. Yet many economic development staffers and most of those who have moved to the area to work in new downtown businesses live outside of the city. No wonder they prefer to tout the transformation their work brings to downtown rather than the conditions of neighborhoods they prefer to avoid.
Over the past decade, Youngstown’s media image has changed, as reporters have praised Youngstown’s 2010 plan to adapt to its shrinking population and identified the city as a good place to start a new business. New business and more efficient local government do contribute to the overall strength of the local economy. We applaud efforts to bring new businesses to town or support new restaurants and activities downtown. But in order to thrive, deindustrialized communities need good working-class jobs and neighborhoods, not just professional jobs and nice suburbs.
Unfortunately, Youngstown’s efforts to shrink wisely have been uneven, and city government has too often failed to address local problems effectively. In response, local neighborhood associations are growing, taking on the roles usually played by city governments. These neighborhood associations, many formed with assistance from the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, have become the de facto community planning agency. No doubt, similar moves are happening in communities around the country, especially as the recession decimates state, county, and local budgets.
Organizing around the goals of stabilization and sustainability, neighborhood groups are tackling everything from forming block watches to studying home ownership, the amount and quality of rental property, and vacant housing. Yet, they have limited economic power.
In our commentary, we made a point of suggesting some strategies for addressing the community’s problems. For example, small businesses can help stabilize neighborhoods, but community banking and support has been minimal. Local banks and governments could do much more to foster local microeconomies.
The area might also benefit from more efficient, consolidated local governance. The county’s population has dropped to the point that it is now smaller than many urban centers that have a single local government. But it is also highly balkanized, and racial and class divides have made even discussion of consolidation impossible. A few Joint Economic Development Districts (JEDDs) have been negotiated, but those efforts have been hard-fought, and most suburban communities in the Mahoning Valley reject that option, even though it’s been shown to work well in similar areas, such as nearby Akron.
What could happen in Youngstown and cities like it if not just city governments but also the creative, educated, technically sophisticated, and energetic young professionals who advocate for downtown development made neighborhood revitalization a priority? What role do non-governmental institutions, like local universities, the media, and community groups, have to play? Urban universities, like Youngstown State, should not just support research that could generate new businesses but must also pursue local community research involving urban blight, crime, and breaking down long-standing barriers of race and class. Local media should investigate neighborhood issues and serve as a watchdog for local development efforts. Community groups must move beyond blockwatches and research to engage in community actions that hold economic and political leaders accountable.
The response to the article was somewhat predictable. Many called or sent us notes saying how much they appreciated the piece. A few who generally agreed with the points expressed frustration that their own efforts were not acknowledged. Some in local government and economic development organizations dismissed the piece. Youngstown’s Mayor brushed it aside as the work of know-nothing “academics,” for example. This reluctance to engage with the broad arguments about neighborhood deterioration, racism, organizational inefficiency, crime, unemployment, vacancy, and high rates of concentrated poverty is disturbing. It suggests a refusal to recognize, never mind to address, the problems that continue to exist in Youngstown and America. Too many leaders are ignoring the decreasing access of most Americans to prosperity and the “American Dream.”
We see this most dramatically when critics dismiss policies aimed at ensuring equal opportunity and access to resources. The pattern played out in the health care debate and again as Congress delayed extending unemployment benefits. It isn’t just that critics don’t seem to care what happens to poor and working-class people. They define any effort to provide support for the have-nots as “socialism.” So we shouldn’t have been surprised when a member of the Youngstown Office for Economic Development suggested that the idea that the city should force corner stores to carry fresh produce – something we did not advocate — was “Stalinist.”
The working class, and indeed much of the middle class, is erased and ignored every time someone claims that America is “recovering” from the current recession. Companies may be earning record profits, but millions remain unemployed, and the data consistently shows that the poor and working class have suffered most during the recession.
A healthy city demands that wealth, opportunity, and resources are shared as equitably as possible. While any “renaissance” of Youngstown is welcomed, such a rebirth must benefit the majority of people. Until we see declines in crime, poverty, and unemployment and increases in home ownership, education levels, and economic prosperity, then any talk of a renaissance is premature. The same is true for the nation: until our leaders pay more attention to ordinary families than to the wealthy and privileged, until our economy creates not just profits for investors but also good jobs, until our neighborhoods thrive again, we haven’t recovered from the Great Recession.
John Russo is a professor of Labor Studies at Williamson College of Business Administration and codirector of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.
James Rhodes is the Simon Research Fellow at Manchester University (UK) and visiting scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.