Monday, September 24, 2007

Youngstown's place at the regional table

Much has been made – in local blogs, regional politics, and in national and international media – about Youngstown’s innovative approach to its shrinking size. The 2010 plan has been widely touted as a breakthrough model for urban planning, promising to remake the city in greener, less wasteful, and more productive ways. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with one of the key advisors to 2010, urban development expert Hunter Morrison. The conversation explores where Youngstown is now, what its future might look like, and how we’re being affected by regional economic developments.

Hunter has only been in Youngstown for about five years, after spending many years working in Cleveland. Despite that short tenure, he talks about this place with incredible, infectious passion. He acknowledges the challenges but emphasizes the positive potential of this community. He sees the growth of small businesses, the return of what he calls “the Youngstown Diaspora,” and our growing sense of regionalization as sources of hope. Even when I’m skeptical about some ideas, I come away from a conversation with Hunter feeling optimistic.

For example, Hunter predicts that the Cleveland/Youngstown/Pittsburgh corridor will become one large economic region, and because Youngstown is geographically central, we will play an important role as these cities learn to work together to promote development and do economic planning as a region. While I agree that the region is becoming a sort of megalopolis, and that does bring new money into the Mahoning Valley, I have doubts about whether it’s entirely a good thing. Do we want to be a bedroom community for people working in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Akron? How will that affect local workers and the local economy? If we become the meeting place for leaders from the big cities, will our needs and issues be heard? Hunter is enthusiastic that regionalism can help this area, and while I hope that’s true, I also have some doubts. Regional growth may be inevitable, but I think we need to be strategic about our role and our interests.

You can hear the full interview at

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Making history all over again

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Tim Sokol about “Iron Soup,” his ambitious project to renovate the concrete townhomes built by Youngstown Sheet and Tube back in 1918. Tim’s excitement not only about this project but about this community’s past and future come through loud and clear in our conversation. For me, this project is a great example of how building a new future for the Mahoning Valley is deeply connected with the history of this community.

The neighborhood where Tim and his colleagues are working was originally built by Sheet and Tube, largely in response to a strike in 1916 that had resulted in fires that destroyed a large part of the town, which was then known as East Youngstown. For the company, building worker housing was both a way to help workers create more stable lives and a way of persuading them against union involvement. The homes were available only to those designated as “good company men,” people who didn’t cause trouble or make demands. The Blackburn plat, the homes on which Sokol is working, was built for immigrant and African-American workers, with segregated sections. From the company’s perspective, such segregation was also strategic: if they could keep workers of different backgrounds separated, they’d be less likely to organize or stand up for each other’s rights.

That combination of conflict and innovation, divisions between people and collaboration, reflects well the power of our past to shape our future. Out of a turbulent and conflicted period in the area’s history, we developed housing that was historic – not only because it helped to shape the landscape of Campbell but also because it was the first prefab concrete housing ever built. Unlike the more conventional areas of worker housing built by Sheet and Tube, this one has been designated a historic site by the National Historic Register.

Sokol hopes to make history all over again by using the remnants of Campbell’s earlier history as the foundation to create another kind of model community, one that will demonstrate the potential for grassroots organizing, community building, local economic development, and environmental innovation. His vision goes far beyond simply “saving the neighborhood”; he has ideas about how communities ought to work and what can happen here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Remembering Black Monday

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Brian Corbin, Executive Director of Catholic Charities Services and Health Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, about the Ecumenical Coalition, a local effort spearheaded by area clergy to respond to the closings of steel mills that began 30 years ago. One of the leaders of the Ecumenical Coalition was Bishop James Malone, and Brian talks about Malone’s vision for the role of religious organizations in social and economic justice.

Next Wednesday, September 19, we will commemorate Black Monday, the day that the first of the major Youngstown mill closings was announced. The event is jointly-sponsored by the Center for Working-Class Studies, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society Young Leaders’ Advisory Board, YSU Center for Applied History, the Office of Social Action of the Diocese of Youngstown, and the Youngstown Historical Center (also known as the “steel museum”), our host for the evening. The event will include comments from four men who played key roles in the steel industry of the era, including fight to save the mills: William Farragher, who had worked in management at Youngstown Sheet and Tube; Gerald Dickey, a steelworker who also edited the Brier Hill Unionist, representing 1,500 workers at Sheet & Tube’s Brier Hill Works; the Reverend Ed Weisheimer, one of the clergy involved in the Ecumenical Coalition; and Attorney Staughton Lynd, who served as chief counsel to the Coalition.

Many people have asked me why we should remember Black Monday, suggesting that this community should stop holding on to its difficult history and focus on building a new kind of future. My answer has two parts. The first is simply that I believe that the present and future of this community will inevitably reflect its history, and if we want to create a different kind of future, we must recognize both the strengths and challenges of our past. That is, we must build on our history of hard work, strong community ties, and resilience, but we must also wrestle with our history of racial, class, and geographical divisions, of corruption and competition, and of relatively low levels of educational achievement. To build a stronger future, we must address these challenges.

At the same time, I think we should remember this history because it matters far beyond Youngstown. The ideas that were generated here went on to shape national positions of the Catholic Church, as Bishop Malone brought ideas from the Ecumenical Coalition to the US Council of Bishops as they wrote their historic Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy in 1986. This community’s struggle also led to national legislation on plant closings, helping to protect workers in other areas. While those national outcomes may not affect the local community in concrete ways, they have helped to put Youngstown on the map not only as the poster child for deindustrialization (as John Russo and I wrote in Steeltown USA), but also as a community known for its persistent struggle for economic justice and survival.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Barzak's first novel

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I'm talking with Christopher Barzak, whose first novel One for Sorrow was just released by Bantam Books (the link takes you to a review in the Village Voice). It's a ghost story set in the Mahoning Valley, centered on a 15-year-old working-class boy and his relationship with a classmate who has been murdered, but it's also a story about the relationship between life and death, struggle and hope. Along with taking us inside the mind of a teenage boy who's not sure of his place in the world, Barzak invites us to see our own community in new, sometimes eerie ways. He uses real places -- Dorian Books, the old partially-burned church on Elm Street across from the cathedral, and Youngstown's streets -- but he makes them at once familiar and strange.

In our conversation, Chris talks about how growing up here influenced his writing, the process of writing fantasy fiction, and about how his life as a writer is changing as he's having more success and therefore becoming a more public person. Along with publishing this novel, Chris had another piece -- "The Language of Moths" -- nominated for a Nebula Award in Science Fiction and Fantasy earlier this year. You can find that story and other links to Chris's work on his blog, Meditations in an Emergency. As always, you can listen to the interview at 7:30 Wednesday evening on the air, or hear it online by visiting the WYSU webpage.