This is a post I’ve thought about for some time. We’ve talked quite a bit about memories, and the richness of life in the Youngstown we grew up in. Yet there is also a sense of what has been lost — the mills, many vibrant neighborhoods and businesses throughout the city, and a significant part of the city’s people. But as many have written about Youngstown, we’ve been knocked down, but not knocked out.
I’d like to think, and hopefully hear your thoughts, about what it takes to renew the city so many of us grew up in and love. Before I write about that, I have to acknowledge that I don’t live in Youngstown and won’t be among those who have to do the heavy lifting to make it happen. Nor do I consider myself an expert in these things. Rather, I simply love the place I grew up in and would love to see the city not only get back on its feet, which I think it has, but thrive once more. What I think this involves is building on what Youngstown still has, learning from the past, and learning from healthy cities.
Building on what Youngstown still has. Youngstown became an industrial powerhouse, not just because of the mills, but because of the work ethic and spirit of its people. People who open restaurants, small machine shops, or new technology start-ups reflect that spirit. There are people who remember what good places neighborhoods can be and whether they live on the north side, Brier Hill, the Idora neighborhood or elsewhere, they are doing the hard work to reclaim that heritage. Youngstown has a rich heritage of cultural institutions in the Butler, the McDonough, the DeYor Center, the Covelli Centre and so much more that make it a place to live as well as work. There is the beauty of Mill Creek Park which needs to be preserved, including the health of its lakes. The city has been the home of a great urban university since 1908 and the partnership between the university and industry in providing a well-trained work force can be a key to renewal.
Learning from the past. I would contribute only two things here. Just as investors diversify, so should the city and not rely on a single industry. The great thing about things like the Youngstown Business Incubator and other entrepreneurial efforts is that it has the potential of building a diverse economic base. The other thing is to relentlessly pursue the rule of law rather than criminal or economic interests that drain the city’s wealth into the coffers of the few rather than the pockets of many.
Learning from healthy cities. We’ve lived in a city the past twenty five years that works pretty well. None are perfect but Columbus does some things that might be helpful for Youngstown. One is that it has had a history of good and shrewd city government and foresight that extends back to the 1950’s when Mayor “Jack” Sensenbrenner made plans to allow Columbus to grow in the 1980’s and ’90’s. That has continued through successive administrations. The other is that this city knows how to solve problems, getting political, civic, and business leadership together to quietly work toward solutions. At least when I was growing up in Youngstown, it seemed that it was much more common to play the blame game in the press or wait for someone else to solve the city’s problems for us.
My hunch is that good cities are not “90 day wonders” but are built over several generations. Columbus is a growing city today because of fifty years of reasonably good leadership. That was true at one time of the Youngstown of the past as well.
My sense is that there are people all over Youngstown who are rolling up their sleeves, at very least to make their own living, but also to make the place around them a bit better. They are in government, running businesses, leading faith communities, rehabbing homes, teaching in schools and the university, working in the arts, or simply clocking in each day to do their job in exchange for a paycheck.
Sometimes we keep looking around for others to provide the leadership a place needs. I wonder if it is the case for those of you who are rolling up your sleeves like the people I listed above, that you are the people you have been waiting for. And why not? It’s your city after all.