Monday, December 11, 2006

Learning from Youngstown

Jim Russell beat me to the post with this comment on developments in and around Youngstown, Ohio:
Mayor Williams and his cadre of urban scientists moved into a vacuum. Youngstown has developed into a frontier geography, a fringe space, where novel ideas thrive. Cleverly, the city used the anxiety about population loss to engage citizens, activating them in the process. People are talking, but there appears to be little opposition to the renewal scheme of downsizing the city.

As word gets out that all the old bosses have left Youngstown, developers will smell opportunity. I must admit, I'm intrigued.

Jim also links to this piece in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, on interesting ideas from 2006:
At its peak, Youngstown supported 170,000 residents. Now, with less than half that number living amid shuttered steel factories, the city and Youngstown State University are implementing a blueprint for a smaller town that retains the best features of the metropolis Youngstown used to be. Few communities of 80,000 boast a symphony orchestra, two respected art museums, a university, a generously laid-out downtown and an urban park larger than Central Park. “Other cities that were never the center of steel production don’t have these assets,” says Jay Williams, the city’s newly elected 35-year-old mayor, who advocated a downsized Youngstown when he ran for office.

Williams’s strategy calls for razing derelict buildings, eventually cutting off the sewage and electric services to fully abandoned tracts of the city and transforming vacant lots into pocket parks. The city and county are now turning abandoned lots over to neighboring landowners and excusing back taxes on the land, provided that they act as stewards of the open spaces. The city has also placed a moratorium on the (often haphazard) construction of new dwellings financed by low-income-housing tax credits and encouraged the rehabilitation of existing homes. Instead of trying to recapture its industrial past, Youngstown hopes to capitalize on its high vacancy rates and underused public spaces; it could become a culturally rich bedroom community serving Cleveland and Pittsburgh, both of which are 70 miles away.

Something that Jim leaves implicit is something that Youngstown may be learning before Pittsburgh: The city as an urban experience may be going and gone . . . forever. The automobile and interstate highways killed city-based manufacturing and then killed downtown, and now the internet is killing them all over again. As I wrote here, after reading Douglas Rae's fabulous history of New Haven and, by extension, of the 20th century American city:
Cities, in other words, aren’t arguments for themselves. If you build it, they may not come, at least not in numbers sufficient to justify the investment. New Haven is like Pittsburgh, where I live now, and like dozens of other mid-sized cities that owe their former prominence to accidents of industry and now find themselves wondering what, exactly, to do next. New York is the exception that proves the rule; elsewhere else in the U.S., no one rushes downtown in the evening just to hang out with other people. And there is little, if anything, that governments can do to change things. The forces of governance are too powerful for that. City governments didn’t need to do much to sustain urban fabrics in the late 1800s. City governments don’t have the power to do so today.

In other words, cities became cities 150 years ago because of a confluence of technological and social interests that are unlikely ever to be repeated, and cities faded during the last two-thirds of the 20th century because the techno-social tides changed gradually and eventually dramatically. We can't fight history; we can only go with the flow. Rae is the anti-Florida, someone whose instinct is to look at the historical fabric of urbanism rather than the interests of a professional [creative] elite, and someone whose argument deserves special attention in a place like Pittsburgh. Physical connectivity built cities 150 years ago. Can virtual connectivity justify them today?


Anonymous said...

Wow. I can't think of an elected official in Pittsburgh who would have the guts to even propose what is being described in Youngstown. Back in 2003 when all those swimming pools closed, we want crying to the foundations, hat in hand. Even the most modest redevelopment plans in the city are predicated on the city being "big" again.

Robert Bruegmann in his book "Sprawl" briefly discusses the growing suburban development around Youngstown, and notes that anti-sprawl zealots (like me, I suppose) point to these communities as evidence of all that is wrong with current development trends. Why are developers throwing up all these subdivisions when you the population of Youngstown proper keeps plummeting? The answer to Bruegmann is that the presence of these communities is the only thing that keeps the remaining middle and upper-middle class families from fleeing the metro area; and eventually, it is these people who are most likely to revitalize the city itself. It's definitely a different take on the relationships of suburbs to cities than many Pittsburgh residents maintain.

Anonymous said...

Extremely well said. And provocative.

I wonder if Youngstown can approach things this way because Pittsburgh exists. That is, it is perhaps becoming a bedroom community because it can. Pittsburgh does not have a similar "job center," other than its own downtown.

Which makes me wonder: Why would someone choose to commute to Pittsburgh from Youngstown? Other than because they have roots there? I mean, Pittsburgh is pretty cheap, too. And it has universities and parks and museums. Why live in a nice Victorian 70 miles away when you could live in a nice Victorian in Squirrel Hill?

Either way, thanks for linking to the stories. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

All you really need to KNOW about Youngstown can be found in Youngstown's own Sam Moffie's 1st novel-SWAP. Not cheerleading newspaper facts that are slanted creating a false image.