Smaller is Better for Youngstown, Ohio

Youngstown, Ohio, a former steel town an hour west of Pittsburgh, is getting ready to spend millions of tax dollars to shrink. It's a fairly radical plan, but one that Youngstown's mayor says is the best way to bring his struggling city back to economic health.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Another presidential hopeful is visiting some of the nation's poorest places. This is a decades-old tradition made famous by Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy's poverty tour in 1968 is the blueprint for this week's trip by Democrat John Edwards. Today, Edwards visits Youngstown, Ohio, where city officials have decided that shrinking the struggling city is the best way to restore economic health.

From member station WCPN in Cleveland, Mhari Saito reports.

MHARI SAITO: Virtually no one lives on Meltonia(ph) Avenue on Youngstown's east side, but it wasn't supposed to be that way. The city's chief planner, Anthony Kobak, points to utility wires and rusted fired hydrants that line the street. But it's an odd juxtaposition. There are no driveways and no homes.

Mr. ANTHONY KOBAK (Chief Planner, Youngstown, Ohio): This was a situation where the city was ready for this development and it never happened. But we still have these streets and all this infrastructure that needs to be maintained.

SAITO: When Youngstown was the country's third largest steel producer, planners in the 1950s saw only growth. But after the mills closed in the '70s and '80s, the city lost more than half its population. Left behind were miles and miles of crumbling streets lined with empty homes, churches, schools and factories.

Mr. HUNTER MORRISON (Director, Center for Urban and Regional Studies, Youngstown State University): Youngstown is perhaps the poster child of the decline that's occurred in the industrial heartland.

SAITO: Youngstown State University's Hunter Morrison has been helping put together the city's development plan. It sounds simple, but it's actually pretty radical, says city Mayor Jay Williams.

Mayor JAY WILLIAMS (Youngstown, Ohio): And I know for mayors, I mean, there are these magical round numbers, 100,000 sounds great and somehow puts you in a different category. But why not be a city of 80,000 or 85,000 that offers a quality of life that allows you to compete?

SAITO: Youngstown had spent over a million dollars to demolish 400 structures in the past two years. The Brookings Institution's Jennifer Vey says the city is building one of the most aggressive proposals in the country to deal with rustbelt decline.

Ms. JENNIFER VEY (Senior Research Associate, The Brookings Instituttion): A lot of eyes are going to be on Youngstown because many of these cities are grappling with a lot of the same issues in terms of population laws, economic declines, declines in jobs.

SAITO: The question now is exactly how to execute the plan. In an auditorium at a city garden, planners meet with residents to hash out ideas for a neighborhood that is fighting early signs of blight.

Unidentified Man: Here's what could be a possibility of how the street could end.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SAITO: Officials hope ideas like this and proposals to turn abandoned lots into parks will get neighbors excited to stay and invest in their homes. Long-time resident Doug Cressman(ph) has watched neighbors leave and says these plans seem realistic.

Mr. DOUG CRESSMAN: I think it's finally time for the city to move on and concentrate on what it can do now for the people who live here now.

SAITO: This is the first of dozens of neighborhood brainstorming sessions set for this year, but the direction appears to be clear. Throughout Youngstown, officials say they will save money by cutting services, taking neighborhoods off the power grid and closing down streets. Planner Anthony Kobak stands outside a home that has only overgrown trees and hip-high grass for neighbors and says the city will not force anyone to move.

Mr. KOBAK: This person might relocate in an adjacent neighborhood. Or they might say they like this, so we'll try to maybe work with them to have them acquire all these lots. But then we would also say we're not going to maintain this road, now it's going to become a private drive. That's going to be up to you.

SAITO: The city has not yet said exactly what parts of town will close. And there are worries that those neighborhoods will be home to Youngstown's poorest residents. But it's not just getting people to move that's the challenge. Rutgers University's Frank Popper says controlled shrinkage is hard to sell to a culture used to suburban sprawl and growth.

Professor FRANK POPPER (Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University): We've never done it in this Youngstown-like, prototypical industrial city.

SAITO: You mean it's never been done in this large of a populated area?

Prof. POPPER: Right. With such obvious high-stakes politics, at least for the local people.

SAITO: Youngstown is also looking at cutting the number of local politicians. But maybe to no one's surprise, Mayor Williams had talks to reduce the number of city council seats and local wards have not gone as well as plans to shrink this city.

For NPR News, I'm Mhari Saito.

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