“Defending Youngstown: One City’s Struggle to Shrink and Flourish
Daniel Denvir. Jan 31, 2013.
Progress is measured by the bulldozer’s pace in Youngstown. The hobbled Ohio steel giant has lost more than 100,000 residents since the 1950s and has been racing to tear down the now dilapidated homes jobless workers left behind.
The city has demolished at least 2,566 structures since January 2006 and is constantly seeking new funds—from the stimulus, from the multi-billion dollar state attorneys general settlement with misbehaving mortgage servicers, and now, perhaps, from leasing the city’s land for natural gas drilling, or fracking—to knock down more. Many homes, however, fall to arson first. It is a way to cash in on insurance, or for scrappers to steal copper wiring and plumbing. Or, sometimes, it’s just the pyromaniac ennui born of unemployment and nihilism.
“We have guys,” says local activist Phil Kidd, my guide through the city’s pockmarked streets, “who are caught and say, ‘I like watching houses burn; I like the lawlessness of it. I wanted to see how long I could get away with it.”
Firefighters have even suggested that neighbors might set some ablaze, eager to see a long-decaying vacant structure prioritized for demolition. Arsonists torched 158 houses in 2005 alone.
Transforming this decaying tableau was at the heart of an ambitious plan called Youngstown 2010, implemented in 2005, set to retrofit a city built for more than 200,000 for the much smaller city of today. In a sober inversion of traditional civic boosterism, city leaders and community organizers set their sights on small.
Kidd imagines a more ecologically in-tune metropolis, a “rurban” post-industrial city interspersing large-scale urban farms and forest amid neighborhoods targeted for density. Knocking down the blight must come first.”
Photo: Sean Posey