Monday, November 12, 2007

A View from the City: Growth and Challenges

Come January, Youngstown’s city council will be dominated by new members, though some are not new to local politics. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I talk with Jamael “Tito” Brown, who was just elected to represent the 3rd Ward. Brown’s not new to local politics, though. He’s just completing a term on the Youngstown City Schools Board, and he’s worked on a variety of local projects, including 2010. In our interview, we’ll discuss local schools, issues facing the city, and regionalization.

The primary city council concerns Brown raises are housing, crime, and economic development. He expresses concern about people buying local houses online without understanding the local conditions that create these seeming “bargains,” as well as concern about the quality of life in Youngstown’s neighborhoods. Part of that is about controlling crime, but neither housing nor crime can be fully solved without economic development.

Economic development will shape everything else, but it will require us to deal with two issues that most people would prefer to ignore: class and race. We’re facing a class divide in current discussions of development, which focus on bringing high-tech jobs to the region. That’s a great idea, but it won’t necessarily help many who live in the city. The local economy will certainly benefit from growth in the technology sector, but we also need jobs that don’t require specialized skills or high levels of education. We need to think about Youngstown’s working class, not just its professional class. Brown’s ward reflects that: he represents everyone from those living in poverty to leaders in the new tech boom.

Another key issue in economic development is regionalization, and that presents challenges related to race. If we want to create more regional networks, of any kind, we will have to face up to the realities of segregation and racism. We live in one of the most segregated areas in the country, and that’s partially a result of the white flight in the 1950s and 60s. But the problem isn’t just segregation. It’s also about attitudes. A few years ago, at a meeting of local government officials from townships in Mahoning County, I heard several comments about how “those people” in the city can’t manage anything. Of course, racism isn’t just a city vs. suburbs problem. I live in the city, in a neighborhood that is more integrated than any place I’ve lived before (in terms of both class and race), and I hear more openly racist comments here than I ever have anywhere else. That creates divisions that make it harder for us to address the local problems that affect all of us. Ignoring those divisions doesn’t make them disappear, but, as Brown suggests in our conversation, we can make progress by keeping our eyes on the prize of economic growth for the whole region and all of its citizens.

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