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Does Youngstown’s Revival Leave the Working Class Behind?

15 August 2010 5 Comments

Who is benefiting from the strides being made to redevelop the city of Youngstown?

That is the question posed by Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, in a critical article titled “A Renaissance for Whom?”

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The authors point out that despite the success of high-tech start-ups in the city’s downtown, the average city resident has seen her fortunes decline during the current recession. And the situation wasn’t pretty before that.

“Much has been written recently about Youngstown’s Renaissance,” write YSU professors James Rhodes and John Russo on the CWCS’s blog. “Fox News, BBC, The Economist, Entrepreneur, and Inc. have all touted the local area as recovering economically.

“While all the publicity and positive representations have been great for the city’s self-image and provided much-needed momentum for economic development, both local leaders and most journalists have ignored the city’s real problems:  high unemployment, poverty, continued high crime rates, and the deterioration of the Youngstown’s neighborhoods.”

Rhodes and Russo point out that Youngstown’s Metropolitan Statistical Area has lost a net total of 9,000 jobs since the recession began. In March, the local unemployment rate hovered at 14 percent, among the highest in the state.

“The Mahoning Valley, like the nation at large, is in the midst of major social and economic upheaval,” they write. “Long-term unemployment contributes to drug abuse, crime, domestic violence, health problems, the break-up of families, and racial antagonisms.  Community support institutions are besieged by requests for help even as their economic support – whether from donations or state funds – is declining.”

Rhodes and Russo are absolutely right and their point is important to keep in mind. People are suffering in Youngstown. I’m not sure that diminishes the city’s success in certain initiatives–downtown revitalization and technology-based economic development–although it’s obviously troubling.

I think everyone hopes that someday these developing areas of strength will reach the point where they have a recognizable effect on unemployment, poverty and the associated ills. Perhaps Russo and Rhodes’ point is that the benefits won’t be as widely distributed as was the case with a manufacturing based economy. That may be true. There’s a certain paradox in progress, I guess.

-AS

  • Sean Posey

    The article that you mentioned hits the nail right on the head. The vast majority of citizens in Youngstown are being left out of any kind of economic revitalization that certain parts of the city are experiencing.

    The last five years or so have seen a noticeable revival in the downtown area, as well as an expansion in both the high tech sectors-Turning Technologies and the Youngstown Business Incubator-as well as some traditional manufacturing, e.g. , the recent expansion of V&M Star Steel. However, these developments will do little to address the long term issues the city faces.

    While the downtown develops, most of Youngstown’s neighborhoods are decaying rapidly. Joblessness is rampant; crime is expanding out of the central city into the suburbs; and political corruption and cronyism remain far too prevalent. Minority business growth is also stunningly low. In fact, the term minority is a misnomer, as the city of Youngstown is now majority African American. Yet, you would never know it from the publicity and media attention devoted to the “Youngstown Renaissance.”

    There is not nearly enough space here to discuss this at length in this forum. However, if anyone is interested, I will be giving a talk on the subject of the historical roots of Youngstown’s core problems, as well as what can be done to address them, on September 19th, at 9:45 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown. The title of the talk is “Origins of Issues Facing Youngstown Today: How We
    Got Here and What Can Be Done ? “

  • Anon

    Look across the entire country at all the “reviving” and “renewed” cities. Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle, etc. Outside the university and business districts, there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of working class people who are no better off, probably worse off, than they were in 1980.

    City renewals don’t involve working class people. Can you name even one metro area where they ever have? What are you expecting – factories opening and hiring 5000 people at union wages? Don’t act surprised if Youngstown renews itself for educated people and the working class sees minimal benfits.

  • http://www.DefendYoungstown.com Defend Youngstown

    I think the people in Youngstown are most certainly appreciative of all the positive economic development news that has taken place in the last several years. It speaks to the future of the city as well as its potential for rebirth/redefinition. However, it can’t be allowed to singularly dominate the work we need to be conducting. Neighborhood stabilization must be an equal priority. Youngstown remains a city with the highest unemployment, foreclosure and poverty rates in the state. There are over 4,500 vacant properties and 22,000 vacant lots in the city. Rental has exceeded homeownership rates. Our public school system is in academic emergency. Small businesses – particularly for and by minorities – are virtually non-existent.

    Citizens understand the scale of the problem. They understand the resource and capacity issues. They are realistic. That being said, however, the question being posed in Youngstown and in this article is: are we doing all we can do for the people who live here now in the neighborhoods of Youngstown? Many people who actually live in the city and are involved in their neighborhoods will tell you we are not. Let’s remove capacity and resources for a moment and focus on the basics. Many of the most fundamental tools have not even been corrected since the launch of Youngstown 2010. We effectively have zero code enforcement in the city. We cannot even enforce simple Design Review decisions in the central business district. No one knows how the demolition process works or can track progress of housing or demolition cases in an efficient manner. City Watch – the primary communication tool neighborhood groups – has been riddled with problems for months despite repeated public meetings to fix the program. It’s taken one neighborhood group over a year to get so much as a stop sign and a blinking yellow light at intersection where two people have died due to speeding…this at an intersection of a school and two churches. One individual (a Cleveland parking czar) has purchased many of the major structural real estate in downtown Youngstown. He has developed a single building in the 10+ years he began purchasing…but maintains a close relationship with City Hall administration. Even our singular neighborhood development agency – Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, the programming of which is most consistent with Youngstown 2010 neighborhood planning and largely funding by local foundations – seems to continue to push the rock up the hill with the city.

    Keep in mind that we are a city that is viewed as a committed to older industrial neighborhood stabilization (Youngstown 2010 City Wide Plan). Many of our leaders regularly use this in their talking points. There are a lot of eyes and expectation. As you can imagine, 5 years later there is a growing sense of frustration over the fact that much of the positive attention that has been created seems to be creating further space for lack of meaningful outreach or urgency when it comes to actually being serious and committed to the implementation of such a vision.

    In my opinion, a big part of the problem (and solution) is political will, management and outreach. Citizen participation is at the highest levels that we have seen in years. There has been a 140% increase in neighborhood group development over the past 2 years: citizen groups creating neighborhood plans, raising grant money for projects, conducting cleanups, prioritizing issues, connecting with other city-wide community leaders…essentially, fulfilling their part of Youngstown 2010. I don’t think citizens feel a similar sense of outreach from City Hall. The leadership has to be much more transparent and their has to be a greater match to the citizen’s commitment. People have to see that you are doing everything you can. In a small, mid-western city that is internationally known for outreach planning, the irony is becoming thick.

    I hope what this article accomplishes – if nothing else – is an opportunity for we, as a community in Youngstown, to sit down and have an honest discussion of where we are, where we need to be and where we are heading. In fact, the Youngstown 2010 plan calls for that in the year 2010 (and every 10 years thereafter) and here we are. That’s a good and healthy thing and I think we are ready for that discussion.

  • http://www.carfreebaltimore.com Mark

    Great article. Reminds me of Baltimore – lots of progress along the Harbor while a lot of middle class neighborhoods crumbled in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Robert

    Youngstown, Buffalo, Syracuse, Columbus, and many more cities suffer from the same disease. The disease is not a lack of innovation or high tech startups. The disease is one that allows people who have employment or who oversee local government to say to themselves, “There are unavoidable casualties.” This is not to say that every sad soul should be given many handouts as an act of collective societal contrition for the suffering the unemployed endure. Handouts are not the answer.

    You have to think like a person who is unemployed to understand the dilemma. If you are 50 years old and have spent most of your working life building automobile engines or working on an assembly line to produce gadgets that everyone wants, the shipment of jobs to China or India creates an immediate vacuum that going back to school won’t fix. If you decide that you have to get more education at age 50, you won’t really be qualified to do anything that begins to approach your previous earning levels for another five to eight years, which is just about the time that employers take you aside to suggest that you might want to retire. Bear in mind that you would have no meaningful retirement savings resulting from working in entry level positions for those five to eight years, so in essence, you are really a throwaway.

    Retention of manufacturing jobs is not just an issue of national security, it is also a matter of preserving a stable social infrastructure with respect to the many hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have the academic credentials or high tech experience to slide into a different career at a time when geeks from the 80s and 90s are finally hitting their strides. Dependence on foreign manufacturing to supply not only consumer goods but also essential components for national defense and security might be economical in the short run, but it is lunacy in the long run. The U.S. automobile industry began its downward spiral in earnest when the OPEC embargo began in the early 1970s. Prior to that, the U.S. auto industry was robust, and it along with all the ancillary businesses that supplied it kept a large percentage of the U.S. workforce employed. We look back on those days and cluck our tongues saying that such was the consequence of our dependence on foreign oil. History, however, has a way of repeating itself.

    Today, China has a virtual monopoly on rare earth elements from lanthanum to yttrium. These metals have many similar characteristics and are very difficult to isolate from each other, but they are critically important resources for technological applications ranging from electric cars to wind turbines to computer components. China’s policies that have essentially dried up exports of these raw materials have forced U.S. companies that would use them, if they were available, to make investments in China’s construction of its own internal mining and manufacturing infrastructure. In effect, our own national resources are being used to construct the economic engine of a country whose exports to us have undercut the economic stability of our own country’s companies.

    The U.S. government has chosen not to subsidize domestic exploration for rare earth elements, oil production, railroad rebuilding, manufacturing, and a host of other sectors of the economy because it believes that other nations would do likewise, leading to trade wars. Yet, today, many European and Asian countries do precisely that. Their subsidized industries produce goods that cost less than ones made here, displacing domestic products and driving our own companies out of business. In the wake of all this is the social cost of the unemployment of aging workers who usually cannot find work that provides equivalent compensation and frequently, they are denied work of any kind because of their age because companies don’t want to hire older workers. They regard them as a waste of money, believing that they will retire in less than a decade.

    There are laws against age discrimination, but that does not mean that employers obey them. They find other reasons not to hire the person that are difficult to disprove, and quite frankly you can’t blame them. Why would a company want to hire a fifty year old who would think about retiring when he hits 60 when it could hire a twenty year old for far less and who might stick around for 20 years under the right circumstances?

    Manufacturing needs to be reclaimed as part of the economic landscape of America. It needs to be nurtured, encourage, and financed generously, and Americans need to look at the labels on products before they buy. When they see that something is made in China or India or Israel or Hungary or Mexico, they need to look a little further to see if there is a comparable product made in the USA. No commercial transaction is amoral. By voting with your dollars, you are assisting one nation or another whether you like it or not. If you live in the United States, pay taxes in the United States, travel in the United States, then at least consider buying things that are made in the United States. The likelihood is that they will be of equivalent or better quality than competing products from abroad and that they will last longer. Yes, they might cost a bit more, but it wouldn’t be much more, and you would be supporting another person’s ability to provide an income for himself and his family. If you were in their shoes, you would want the same consideration for yourself.