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A Shrinking City Knocks Down Neighborhoods

There used to be a house here. (Youngstown, 2007)
Mark Stahl
There used to be a house here. (Youngstown, 2007)

By 2006, most of the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, had been gone for decades. The population was shrinking year after year. So the city launched a bold plan to redeem itself.

The plan: Quit trying to redeem itself.

Before 2006 and the bold plan, there were other ideas. Or, rather, multiple variations on the same idea.

Youngstown was going to replace the steel industry with a car factory. Or with a NASCAR racetrack, or a riverboat casino. Maybe a blimp factory out by the airport.

"That was the mentality," says Mayor Jay Williams. "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."

In 2006, the city abandoned all that. And Youngstown walked away from the most fundamental assumption of economic development and city planning: The idea that a city needs to grow.

"We needed as a city to recognize that we're a smaller city," says Bill D'Avignon, head of Youngstown city planning. "We're not going to grow; we're never going to be the Youngstown we thought we were going to be."

But without the dream of growth, Youngstown just had a bunch of empty houses that no one was ever coming back to. So the city started demolishing thousands of empty houses.

"Whenever they decide to do it, they might knock down two or three in the run of that week," says Dolores Marie, who is 83 and has seen most of her block razed. "And then they move down to another section and just do the same thing."

The problem with 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 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.

"The theory is streets could be closed," D'Avignon says. "Trash wouldn't have to be picked up in that area."

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

I said I had six kids I raised here. And I said another thing, I got grandkids that's coming up. I been here. I don't feel right moving in any other neighborhood. I want to be here.

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

Earlier this week, the 2010 census numbers came out for Ohio. Youngstown's population shrunk by 18 percent in the last decade.

"We can't force people to stay in the city of Youngstown," D'Avignon says.

The city can only follow the people who leave with bulldozers. Take down their homes and hope that the population does eventually stabilize, while there's still some city left to enjoy.

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Chana Joffe-Walt