YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For this Rust Belt city, the hardest part of moving on has been coming to terms with the past.
“We have spent the past 20 to 25 years looking in the rearview mirror,” said Jay Williams, the city’s 38-year-old, independent mayor (above). “Letting go of the past has been difficult for many people because the past was so good.”
Youngstown – named for John Young, an early settler – was a boom town in the first half of the 20th century. The city’s main industry was steel manufacturing and the population grew rapidly and hit 170,000 in 1930.
But he city’s economy took a major hit in the late 1970s when the steel mills closed down. In one single day on Sept 19, 1977 – a day known to locals as “Black Monday” – when the first of its big steel mills shut down, 4,000 jobs were lost. Over a couple of years the city lost 40,000 jobs.
“When I left school there were six steel mills I could work at and five railroads,” said local state representative Robert Hagan, who spent many years as a locomotive engineer in the area. “Those opportunities are gone now.”
“I watched the fires of prosperity burn in this valley,” he added. “And then I watched those fires go out.”
Since the steel mills left, the city’s population has dwindled. As of 2008 the population was estimated at just under 73,000 people.
For years the city spent time casting around for the next big company to come and save it, hoping that it could regain its former glory.
But new leaders like Mayor Williams have decided on a new way forward, with a strategy called Plan 2010.
“We have accepted that this is a smaller city and have embraced that,” said James Cossler, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, which has focused on bringing in business-to-business software companies and currently has 28 firms in its portfolio.
Crossley said that the incubator has already encouraged many younger former residents, who have been leaving for decades to look for work, to come home again.
The new plan also involves painful decisions for a city that has some 4,500 vacant homes and neighborhoods that have been coming apart at the seams for years. With limited resources to cover fewer residents, the city’s leadership and other have come to the conclusion that some neighborhoods simply don’t have enough people left to remain viable.
“We are aiming to focus on the neighborhoods that can be saved,” said Phil Kidd, a community organizer at the nonprofit group Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. “But we have to accept the fact that we are going to have to wind down some neighborhoods gracefully.”
The MVOC is trying to organize residents to form into groups and drive much of the change themselves because the city cannot afford to do everything itself.
“We’re all in this together, so we’re going to have fix our problems together,” Kidd said.
Critics of the plan say the city is pinning all of its hopes on the business incubator and will therefore expose itself to the risk of being dependent on just one industry again, eventually dooming itself to a fresh “Black Monday.”
“We’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” Williams said. “We are trying to diversify our economy and are looking for other businesses to come here.”
As it happens, French steel company V&M Star Steel has also announced that it will invest $1 billion on expanding its operations here.
Congressman Tim Ryan, 36, said one of the benefits of having new, younger leadership is that people like him did not grow up during the heyday of the steel industry here.
“We don’t remember what Youngstown was like when the steel mills were here,” he said. “For us this is a blank canvas.”
Ryan said that with the business incubator and the steel expansion project, Youngstown could be on the front line of a U.S. economic revival.
“We could lead the recovery,” he said.
But state representative Robert Hagan is more cautious about how soon Youngstown will recover.
“The changes we’re going through are going to involve pain and shared sacrifice,” he said. “The city will be better off at the end of the process. But we’re not there yet.”
Photos by Brian Snyder