A Shrinking City Knocks Down Neighborhoods : Planet Money Youngstown, Ohio, gave up on the idea that a city needs to grow. Now, the city is trying to figure out how to shrink.
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A Shrinking City Knocks Down Neighborhoods

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A Shrinking City Knocks Down Neighborhoods

A Shrinking City Knocks Down Neighborhoods

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We are going to hear now about an American city struggling to survive. Youngstown, Ohio lost its steel mills years ago and has seen its population steadily shrink. Back in 2006, the city launched a bold new plan. The plan -accept that the city was going to be much smaller than it had been. Chana Joffe-Walt with our Planet Money team reports.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Before 2006 and the bold plan, there were other ideas. Or rather, multiple variations on the same idea. Youngstown was going replace the steel industry with a car factory. That never happened. OK, with a NASCAR racetrack. Nope. With a riverboat casino. Never materialized. Same deal with a blimp factory that was supposedly going to open by the airport.

Here's Mayor Jay Williams.

Mayor JAY WILLIAMS (Youngstown, Ohio): That was the mentality. It was grasping for straws. If you came in with what seemed to be an even marginally viable economic idea, there was a rush to make that the thing that was going to save Youngstown.

JOFFE-WALT: In 2006 though, the city abandoned all that. Actually, the city walked away from the most fundamental assumption of economic development, of city planning: The idea that a city needs to grow.

Here's Bill D'Avignon, head of Youngstown city planning.

Mr. BILL D'AVIGNON (Deputy Director, Youngstown Planning Department): We needed as a city to recognize that we're a smaller city. We're not going to grow; we're never going to be the Youngstown that we thought we were going to be. And we needed to start to make decisions based on being a smaller city.

JOFFE-WALT: A smaller city of 82,000 people, according to the 2000 census. So they wrote a plan, called "The Youngstown 2010," that essentially said: Let's stop obsessing about growth by the 2010 census. And instead focus on maintaining the population we have.

But without the dream of growth, Youngstown just had a bunch of empty houses that everyone had now accepted no one was ever coming back to.

Ms. DOLORES MARIE: They'd take the thing and just knock the home down. You know, the bulldozer knocks them down. Tear them down every time.

JOFFE-WALT: This is Dolores Marie. She's 83 years old and lives on the southwest side of Youngstown. In six years, the city demolished nearly 2,000 abandoned buildings, mostly empty homes.

Dolores has seen most of her block razed.

Ms. MARIE: Whenever they decide to do it, they might knock may be down two or three in the run of that week. And then they move down to another section and just do the same thing.

JOFFE-WALT: The problem of shrinking cities is that they don't shrink in a smart, organized way. It's chaotic. Thousands of people will leave one neighborhood and maybe five or a dozen people will stay behind. So Youngstown has been offering financial help for those people left behind; offering to move them to a place with more neighbors.

Here's Bill D'Avignon again, the city planner.

Mr. D'AVIGNON: The theory is, is that streets could be closed. The infrastructure no longer needed. Trash would not have to be picked up in that area.

JOFFE-WALT: That would save the city a lot of money. But nearly everyone responded to the offer to move the way Dolores did.

Ms. MARIE: I said I have six kids I raise here. And I said another thing. I been here, I don't even feel right moving in any other neighborhood. I want to be here.

JOFFE-WALT: So the plan is moving a little slower than expected. Bill says eventually, the people left in these neighborhoods will move or they'll pass away. And no one will come take over their houses. Then the city could close entire neighborhoods.

But no one claims the plan has been wildly successful so far, especially not after last week. The new Ohio 2010 census numbers came out. Youngstown population shrank by 18 percent in the last decade.

Mr. D'AVIGNON: You know, our goal of maintaining a mid-size city, we haven't been successful at. We continue to lose population. We can't force people to stay in the city of Youngstown.

JOFFE-WALT: They can just follow the people who leave with their bulldozers, take down their homes and hope that the population does eventually stabilize, while there's still some city left to enjoy.

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

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