Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Race, Class, and Politics

This week’s conversation with Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams covers a lot of territory, including the challenges of regional development and the presidential election. I asked Williams to explain why he believes that Joint Economic Development Districts – JEDDS – will benefit both the city and surrounding communities. While local leaders in Liberty, Austintown, and Boardman seem to view JEDDs as a form of civic blackmail that offers them no benefit, Williams argues that the experiences of other communities, especially Akron, suggest that this model of regional cooperation will bring economic growth to the whole metropolitan area. As Williams points out, Akron’s mayor pushed for JEDDs 15 years ago, and the same suburban leaders who resisted then are now strong supporters of the program, because they see tangible and significant benefits in their communities.

It’s a hard sell in the Youngstown area, mostly because many in the suburbs view the city as a problem rather than a resource. I’ve had too many conversations with suburban leaders who argue that the Valley should simply give up on the city. “Tear it all down and make it one big park,” one suggested. As Williams points out in our interview, the idea that the suburbs of Youngstown could exist without the city is absurd. Erasing the various government, education, business services, and health care jobs in the heart of Youngstown would be as economically-devastating to this area as closing steel mills was 30 years ago. And imagine getting rid of the city’s incredible cultural resources – the Butler, the two historical museums, Mill Creek Park, or all the arts organizations that bring us music and theater.

But that this isn’t just about economics. It’s about race and class. The suburbs of Youngstown grew dramatically in the 1950s and 60s for two reasons: upward mobility and white flight. Economic growth and strong unions allowed industrial workers to afford suburban homes and to send their children to college, creating a growing middle class in what had long been a working-class community. That same economic growth allowed more African Americans to buy homes in the city, which scared away many white families. That pattern isn’t unique to Youngstown, but its effects remain especially strong here. And it has created persistent divisions, fear, and even resentment. That division becomes political when the city wrangles with suburban communities over water, jobs, and taxes for parks and public transportation.

Youngstown’s struggles have long been national news. Just in the past year, we’ve been recognized by the Wall Street Journal for the 2010 plan and criticized by Forbes as one of America’s “fastest-dying” cities. We’ve seen important changes in productive directions in recent years, but we have a long way to go. To get there, we need forceful leadership and effective strategies for economic growth, but we also need to build stronger partnerships with surrounding communities and to move past the divisions that make regional efforts almost impossible.

1 comment:

Janko said...

It would be an interesting experiment to have a town hall meeting with the suburban leaders who originally opposed the JEDDs in Akron as guests.

I think it would be a very powerful statement for non-believers to first state why they opposed this issue in the first place, and what caused them to change their opinions over time.

I also wonder how much local media, local blogs, and talk radio flame up the whole city vs. suburb debate.

Maybe the walls of division are not as high as they are perceived to be.