Youngstown’s Urban Agriculture Efforts Breathe New Life into Struggling Neighborhoods

This story originally appeared in HiVelocity and was reprinted with permission of the author, Rust Wire contributor Lee Chilcote.

Everybody loves Youngstow's Lots 'o Green. Even babies!

In the heyday of Youngstown’s steel industry, wealthy families settled in the city’s Idora neighborhood, building solid, brick homes near Mill Creek Park. Trolley cars whistled down Glenwood Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, and shot-and-a-beer bars like the Empire Club Tavern served steel workers coming off their shifts.

Yet today, Idora’s decline is like an oft-repeated refrain from a Springsteen song. The community is packed with empty lots, foreclosed homes and corner stores hocking beer and cigarettes. The Idora amusement park, dubbed “Youngstown’s Million Dollar Playground” when it was built, burned down in ’84 and left an empty lot behind.

Something is happening in Idora these days, however, and green shoots of renewal are starting to show. Over the past two summers, residents have planted gardens on empty lots, and homeowners have painted their porches and spruced up yards. The city has torn down dozens of eyesores, and a local nonprofit has fixed up vacant homes.

These visible improvements are part of a concentrated effort to repurpose vacant land that has been dubbed “Lots of Green.” It is being led by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC), a nonprofit community development corporation that is giving Idora a strategic lift by focusing resources on this once-vibrant area.

“Idora was teetering on the brink – yet now residents have more confidence in their community,” says Presley Gillespie, Executive Director of YNDC. Not every neighborhood can be saved, he admits: “We’re making strategic investments.”

Of course, you wouldn’t be wrong to wonder how isolated patches of wildflowers, fruit trees and tomato plants, no matter how beautiful, can revive a community’s fortunes. In recent decades, Youngstown has lost half of its population and been ravaged by foreclosure. On many streets, there are more vacant lots than occupied houses, leaving hardy residents stranded on streets plagued by an eerie, ghost-town-like feeling.

Yet Idora’s leaders say that the “Lots of Green” program is about far more than just putting lipstick on a pig when reconstructive surgery is needed. More than mere beautification, land reuse is inspiring hope, shoring up home values, growing fresh produce, laying the groundwork for development and adding new jobs, they say.

“We’re creating economic opportunities,” says Gillespie, who cites examples in the new investments made in older homes throughout the area, as well as a new grocery store that broke ground last fall on Glenwood Ave. “We’re providing job training to youth that live here, and creating urban farms where residents can sell produce,” he adds.

For Gillespie, who spent more than a decade working in community development lending for major banks before taking the helm of the newly-created YNDC a few years ago, saving Idora has become something of a calling card and personal mission.

“Idora is our flagship, and we want to create a model of neighborhood transformation,” he says proudly. “This is the largest land reclamation project in Youngstown history.”

If not exactly transformed yet, plucky Idora is showing some signs of improvement. Since Lots of Green launched in the summer of 2010, the program has reclaimed more than 150 urban lots (about 17 acres of city land). Some completed projects include community gardens, side yard expansions, pocket parks, a storm water mitigation demonstration site, a block-long soil research site and a 2.5 acre urban farm.

“We now have five community gardens with over 100 registered gardeners,” Presley says. “We’re igniting innovative projects and empowering residents to get involved.”

To assist residents with implementing their projects, YNDC offers small grants ranging from $500 to $10,000 as well as hands-on technical assistance. The group has also published a how-to guide for residents, including tips on tracking down evasive property owners, a list of micro-loan programs and examples of creative reuse. YNDC has also created a catalogue of successful projects and a photo bank to share with residents.

To build on its successful Lots of Green program, YNDC has also initiated a program to acquire, rehabilitate and sell foreclosed homes. Using funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, part of the federal stimulus program, YNDC has renovated five homes, three of which are sold. The homes typically sell for under $50,000; down payment assistance and homeownership counseling are offered to buyers.

After two years, the success of the Lots of Green program is finally starting to show, says Presley. Last year, YNDC attracted a 5,000 square foot grocery store, Bottom Dollar Foods, to Glenwood. In the past, there was no grocery store in Idora, despite the fact that over 60 percent of residents here do not own cars. The Atlanta-based grocery chain also plans to build additional stores in other Youngstown neighborhoods.

YNDC also recently launched Lots of Green 2.0, which expanded the successful program citywide. Projects slated for 2012 include a practice putting and chipping green for youth, conversion of a derelict commercial building into a colorful sunflower patch and a recreation field slated to be built on empty, polluted commercial land.

Thanks to a $70,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, YNDC will also soon expand its land reuse program to other municipalities along the Mahoning River Valley Corridor. Using the Lots of Green program as a model, YNDC will begin offering small grants to pioneering land reuse projects in these cities.

Since launching Lots of Green two summers ago, Presley has gotten calls from other cities across Ohio and the U.S. seeking to learn from its model. One parallel effort exists in Cleveland, which recently launched Phase II of “Reimagining Cleveland,” an initiative that provides small grants to entrepreneurs who take on land reuse projects. In its first year, Reimagining Cleveland funded 56 new urban farms, community gardens and fruit tree orchards in neighborhoods that have been hard-hit by foreclosure and blight.

Elsewhere in Ohio, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy last year launched the Thriving Communities Institute (TCI) in Akron and Summit County. Director Jim Rokakis landed a spot on 60 Minutes last month to tout his crusade against blight before a national audience. And in metro Columbus, Franklin County officials are working to create a countywide land bank to repurpose thousands of bank-owned properties.

“People are starting to see land reuse as a new approach to neighborhood revitalization in post-industrial cities,” says Presley. “Youngstown now has more momentum than we’ve had in the past 50 years, and we’re starting to move forward again.”

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