Back in November, the Brookings Institution reported that Youngstown has the highest rates of concentrated poverty of any city in the U.S. The report shocked some city officials and local boosters who had been promoting an exaggerated story of Youngstown’s “renaissance” over the last seven years.
They had long bragged about the Youngstown 2010 Plan, which argued that Youngstown could thrive as a smaller city. The plan called for rezoning, neighborhood stabilization, making the city more attractive to business, and downtown redevelopment. It drew positive national attention to a community that has been an icon of urban decay ever since the steel mills began closing in the late 70s. In 2005, the Ohio chapter of the American Planning Association awarded Youngstown its outstanding community planning award. In December 2006, the New York Times Magazine listed the 2010 Plan as one of the 74 best ideas in America in the 6th Annual Year in Ideas awards, and the American Planning Association gave it an Excellence Award for Public Outreach in 2007.
Youngstown has succeeded in revitalizing its downtown and becoming more attractive to business – so much so that it has been named one of the best cities in the country to start a business. The city has been profiled in Inc., Entrepreneur, and the Wall Street Journal. The Youngstown Business Incubator has generated a modest number of high-tech jobs downtown, new restaurants and shops have opened, and several developers are renovating old office buildings into apartments.
But despite these signs of progress and growth, we were troubled by the response of city leaders to the Brookings report. The director of Youngstown’s Community Development Agency said he was “stunned” by the report and found it “hard to believe we’d be classified as the poorest in the nation.”
Perhaps he needs to get out of downtown. As the Brookings Institution’s report makes clear, the situation in Youngstown’s neighborhoods looks nothing like what’s happening downtown. According to Brookings, 49.7% of Youngstown residents live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 40%. The Ohio Department of Development reports that 32.1% of Youngstown residents live in poverty, and between 1999 and 2009, the poverty rate for the broader metro area increased from 12.5% to 16.7%.
Given the effects of the Great Recession, the rate of poverty here is almost certainly even higher today. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the area lost 20,000 jobs between 2007 and 2010. In other words, the Mahoning Valley lost as many jobs in that period as in any three years during the late 70s and early 80s as the mills were closing. Worse, 20,000 jobs today represent a larger proportion of the area’s workforce, which has shrunk over the past three decades.
The Brookings Institution report came as no surprise to most Youngstown residents, who see every day how little has been done to alleviate unemployment and ongoing social problems, evident in high rates of crime, poverty, housing vacancy, and blight. While the city, with aid from the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce and state economic development funds, has attracted new businesses to downtown and cut a deal with a French corporation to expand one of the remaining local steel mills, it has done little to address the problems in the city’s neighborhoods. Demolition of abandoned property has increased, although at a rate that struggles to keep up with new vacancies resulting from the recession and foreclosure crisis. The city also working on a new zoning plan, but the bulk of the work of neighborhood development has fallen to volunteers and community organizations. They have been increasingly vocal in their frustrations with what many see as the city’s inertia when it comes to developing neighborhoods other than downtown.
A major local foundation helped establish two thriving non-profit groups, one focused on community organizing and political activism and another on economic development in the city’s neighborhoods. Energetic, committed organizers from the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative have helped develop more than a dozen new neighborhood associations, and those groups have funneled their energies into issues such as access to healthy food, the quality of housing, human trafficking, voter registration, and other political issues that resonate both locally and nationally. The MVOC played a key role in founding a statewide group, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which is starting to leverage neighborhood-level work across the state into effective political action.
The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation takes a different approach, focusing its attention on economic issues in targeted neighborhoods. Working with the neighborhood association in one of the city’s struggling areas, the YNDC developed an urban farm, invested in improving housing stock, mobilized an array of residents and volunteers in a range of community projects, and rehabilitated homes that are then marketed to low-income residents through an affordable housing program.
These efforts are inspiring, but while they are improving the quality of life in Youngstown’s neighborhoods and empowering residents to take action on their own behalf, they do not address the root problem: the lack of good jobs in the city. That presents a challenge to city government and the regional chamber. They need to focus their energies on creating jobs in the city, jobs that suit a population with relatively low levels of education, are accessible via public transportation, and pay a living wage. Most of the new jobs in the Valley are being created on the edge of the metropolitan area, in places that city residents can’t get to without reliable private transportation – one of the resources many lack.
Of course, job creation never comes easy. Industries that promise hundreds of new jobs too often either don’t deliver or bring new problems. Both seem to be playing out in the latest economic development “opportunity” in the Mahoning Valley: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of the Marcellus shale. While the shale industry has already brought some jobs to the area, it also seems to have brought real problems. On New Year’s Eve, Youngstown experienced a 4.0 magnitude earthquake that seems to be related to a wastewater injection well, and experts are divided on whether fracking threatens the safety of local water. 15 years ago, Youngstown leaders claimed that private prisons would be the answer to the city’s economic woes, but the Corrections Corporation of America created relatively few jobs and a number of local problems, including deepening the city’s image as a crime center. We hope that local and state officials will be more cautious about fracking.
The Mahoning Valley needs a broad, diversified approach to economic development and serious efforts to strengthen the city’s neighborhoods. Without secure, well-paid jobs, without stable neighborhoods, and in the absence of any political vision to address these issues, urban redevelopment can never truly succeed.
John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies
James Rhodes, University of Manchester