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.

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