Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rebuilding Youngstown, Block by Block

Last week, I talked with Kevin DeOliviera about his new film, Steel Valley: Meltdown.  If you saw the film on Friday night, you know that it focused on how young professionals and new leaders are trying to create a new Youngstown built primarily around high-tech and green energy jobs.  Much as I support the efforts of those who are trying to bring new businesses to the area, I was troubled that the film ignored the very real, concrete problems in the community.  It alluded to but did not fully explore the efforts of a number of local organizations who are doing the hard work of organizing – bringing people together around key issues – to create change here. 

At the heart of these organizing efforts is the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  MVOC uses old-fashioned strategies of canvassing, building neighborhood coalitions, and seeking financial support for concrete projects that will improve the quality of life for the majority of the citizens of Youngstown.  Their efforts remind us that building a better Youngstown involves not just creating jobs for highly educated young professionals but also empowering long-time poor and working-class residents to work together to rebuild their crumbling neighborhoods.    They remind us that Youngstown is not a white, middle-class city that just needs a few green technology jobs to make everything ok. 

We are a community scarred by old wounds of racism and economic struggle.  Our history gave us a strong work ethic, the determination to survive, and a commitment to this place, but it also left us with strong divisions between city and suburbs, white and black, middle-class and working-class and with persistent poverty, low rates of education, and underemployment.  If we want to rebuild Youngstown, we have to bring people together across those divides, and we have to address our most persistent problems.

Perhaps the most concrete scar left by deindustrialization is vacant property.  Ian Beniston, my guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, is spearheading MVOC’s efforts to address the problem.  Working with dozens of local volunteers, MVOC assessed every plot of land in the city, identifying where we have empty lots and abandoned buildings.  Armed with a map that shows a dramatic pattern of vacant properties on the east and south sides, Ian and his partners, including the residents of some of the most affected neighborhoods, are campaigning for state and federal funds, supporting efforts to create new urban green spaces and farms, and working with Congress to develop new policies to help cities like ours. 

What I appreciate most about the efforts of Ian and his colleagues is that they are focusing on the concrete, day-to-day realities of Youngstown’s poor and working-class residents as well as their middle-class neighbors, and they are approaching the problem from the streets, not just the offices. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From Scrap to What?

On Friday night, a new locally-made film about Youngstown,Steel Valley: Meltdown, will have its premiere downtown at the DeYor Center.  The film is the brainchild of director Kevin DeOliveira, my guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, in part as an effort to offer a fresh view of the Mahoning Valley.  The film's title, Kevin says, refers to the process of melting down scrap metal so that it can be reformed into something new, a process that he sees happening in the Mahohing Valley. 

No doubt, our community is being transformed, and I'm pleased to see that we are approaching that process without completely dismissing our history but also without feeling the need to define precisely what we will become.  We've identified some key problems to solve, like having too many vacant properties,  and some potential tools for remaking the region, like developing the arts, technology, and green energy manufacturing.  We don't yet know how all of this will play out.  Meanwhile, I sense a building pressure from within and outside.  Our efforts have drawn international attention, and even though everyone knows that these processes take time, both local residents and outside observers are anxious to declare either victory or defeat.

DeOliveira hopes that his film will contribute to changing the image of Youngstown, both locally and nationally.  It will join a growing series of newspaper articles, broadcast and web media stories, and academic studies all focused on how Youngstown, three decades after its defining industry began to fall apart, will finally be remade. 

The premiere is open to the public, free.  7:30, Friday, September 25, in the Ford Recital Hall at the DeYor. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beyond Traficant: New Politics in the Mahoning Valley

Jim Traficant’s return to the Mahoning Valley has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks. While his story matters, in all the hoopla, we seem to be forgetting that he’s just one of dozens of local officials who were convicted of some form of political corruption in the late 1990s. So invited political scientist and commentator Bill Binning in to talk about how the local political landscape has changed in the last decade.

Did the FBI sweep and efforts by local groups such as the Citizen’s League and ACTION work? Binning says yes, for the most part. Local politics these days rely less on pay-offs and promises. Some of that is about all of the attention we paid in the 90s, and some of it, Binning suggests, can be credited to the growth of state-sponsored gambling, which took away some of the funding that drove organized crime in the area. The mob just doesn’t have the money to control much anymore.

We also have a lot of new personnel. While a few local politicians have been in one office or another for a couple of decades, many new faces are occupying seats in city, county, and state government, as well as representing us in Washington. Binning applauds the efforts of Congressman Tim Ryan to bring federal money to the Valley as well as simply representing us well. And he says he’s interested to see how recently-elected Mahoning County Democratic Chair David Betras will handle endorsements and other issues.

As always, talking about politics with Bill is entertaining and thought-provoking. And it’s encouraging to hear someone who’s been following local politics for years confirm that, yes, things are really different now.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Development Disabilities: Your Vote Makes a Difference

As I’ve been listening to all the debates about health care over the last six weeks, I’ve been frustrated to hear so much selfishness from so many Americans. Many people say they support universal health care, but they’re screaming and yelling about any change that might cost them an extra dollar or decrease their care the slightest bit. I know the issues go far beyond that, but this aspect of it has troubled me deeply. So talking with Larry Duck and Frank Santisi about the programs offered by the Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabiities was especially inspiring.

You know this group as MRDD – mental retardation and development disabilities. If you live in Mahoning County, you’ve seen and hopefully voted in support of levies to fund their services on ballots over the years. This fall, the name is changing, dropping the phrase “mental retardation” in part to eliminate language that has overly negative connotations. But the purpose and strategy remains the same: support developmentally disabled individuals and their families through education and services. You can hear all about what they do in our interview.

The Board has also developed a new resource, a guidebook for parents. The booklet offers advice on legal matters, working with local agencies and schools, and long-term planning. To get a copy, contact Paul Iden by e-mail or call the office at 330-797-2825.

Here’s why this gives me hope: not only is it encouraging to talk with a professional like Larry Duck who is devoting his intelligence and skill to addressing the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and not only is it moving to hear Frank Santisi describe the challenges and accomplishments of his son Frankie, but it’s inspiring to recognize that part of what makes all of this possible is that people who are not directly affected by development disabilities vote for a levy to fund the Board’s work. In a community that has been struggling economically for decades, in a culture that is increasingly anti-tax, Mahoning County voters almost always support MRDD levies.