Elements of Urbanism: Youngstown

December 29, 2009 13 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville explores a city so devastated by abandonment that city leaders have chosen the path of retraction and population reduction to find stability: Youngstown, OH.

Youngstown Population 2008: 72,925 (City); 565,947 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1848)

Jacksonville Pop. 2008: 807,815 (City); 1,313,228 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Youngstown (168,330)

Metropolitan Area Growth rate (2000-2008)

Youngstown: -6.14%
Jacksonville: +16.97%


Urban Area Population (2000 census)

Youngstown: 417,437 (ranked 80 nationwide)
Jacksonville: 882,295 (ranked 43 nationwide)


Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

Youngstown: 1,828.7
Jacksonville: 2,149.2


City Population Growth from 2000 to 2008

Youngstown: -9,101
Jacksonville: +72,312


Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Youngstown: N/A
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Adjacent to Convention Center:

Youngstown: N/A
Jacksonville: N/A


Tallest Building:

Youngstown: Metropolitan Tower - 224 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet


Fortune 500 companies 2009 (City limits only):

Youngstown: There are no Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Youngstown, OH.
Jacksonville: CSX (240), Winn-Dixie (340)


Urban infill obstacles:

Youngstown: Downtown is completely cut off from surrounding urban neighborhoods by an expressway loop.
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.


Downtown Nightlife:

Jacksonville: East Bay Street  


Common Downtown Albatross:

Surface parking lots.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Youngstown: 83 out of 100, according to walkscore.com
Jacksonville: 88 out of 100, according to walkscore.com

City Land Area

Youngstown: 33.9 square miles
Jacksonville: 767 square miles

Green = Jacksonville's city limits (current urban core) before consolidation in 1968
Red = Jacksonville's current consolidated city-county limits

Jacksonville's current and original city limit boundaries over Youngstown's limits (highlighted in orange).

A Creative Plan to Sustainability?

When the mills shut down in the 1970s and ’80s, the smokestacks and foundries that symbolized steel belt manufacturing cities gave way to factory shells and rust. First unemployed, workers then began to move away for good. Unlike former steel powerhouses, such as Pittsburgh and Allentown, that have tried to attract new industry and grow their way back to prosperity, Youngstown, Ohio, is hitching its future to a strategy of creative shrinkage.


About the Youngstown 2010 Plan

The announcement was the beginning of Youngstown 2010, a bold plan for a new mode of urban sustainability. With only 80,000 residents left in the city, Youngstown leaders hoped to redirect limited resources to parts of town that they felt had viable futures. Residents would be offered incentives to move into parts of town not yet overrun by vacant properties, reorganizing the city around the university and a long-neglected urban core. A new Youngstown, smaller but more vibrant, would grow amid the shell of the old, which would either be demolished or ignored.


Downtown Youngstown

Youngstown's downtown, which once underscored the community's economic difficulties, is a site of new business growth. The Youngstown Business Incubator, located in the heart of the downtown, houses several start-up technology companies, which have received office space, furnishings, and access to utilities. Some companies supported by the incubator have earned recognition, and a few are starting to outgrow their current space. One such company–Turning Technologies–has been rated by Inc. Magazine as the fastest-growing privately held software company in the United States and 18th fastest-growing privately held company overall. In an effort to keep such companies downtown, the incubator secured approval to demolish a row of vacant buildings nearby to clear space for expansion. The project will be funded by a $2 million federal grant awarded in 2006.


Looking north into downtown Youngstown from the Market Street Bridge

Mahoning County Courthouse at Market & Boardman Streets

One of the city's most recent sports-related attractions is the Covelli Centre (formerly the Chevrolet Center and during planning the Youngstown Convocation Center), which was funded primarily through a $26 million federal grant. Located on the site of an abandoned steel mill, the large, high-tech facility opened in October 2005. The Centre's main tenants are the Youngstown Phantoms, which play in the United States Hockey League, and the Mahoning Valley Thunder, an af2 arena football team which began play in 2007. Previously, it was home to the Youngstown Steelhounds hockey team, who played in the CHL. The city plans to develop vacant land adjacent to the Centre. Plans included using the space for a park, riverwalk (the Mahoning River flows through the site), amphitheater, or athletic stadium for the city's public and private high schools.


In 2005, Federal Street, a major downtown thoroughfare that was closed off to create a pedestrian-oriented plaza, was reopened to through traffic.

NE corner of Wick Avenue and E Commerce Street.

Mahoning County Jail

Oak Hill Neighborhood

Just south of downtown, Oak Hill is one of the urban neighborhoods that may not be a part of Youngstown's future plans.

Today, nature is reclaiming her Oak Hill neighborhood. The once-dense section of Youngstown is again a refuge for hawks and rabbits. Trees are taking over lots where houses once stood. Sidewalks lead from one abandoned lot to the next, and fire hydrants sprout incongruously, like phone booths in a cornfield.

"I've been in this neighborhood 28 years," Harding recalled. "It used to be full of people."

These days, Youngstown leaders hope to close down Oak Hill and other dying neighborhoods. It's a slow and fuzzy process that will likely involve carrots, in the form of subsidies or buyouts, and sticks, in the form of government disinvestment in streets and services.


St. Patrick's Catholic Church

“This is a war, man,” he says. “Youngstown is literally a war. There are battles that are won and battles that are lost. This is a 30-year plan to get to the point that we’re stable and quasi-viable.”

For the Rev. Ed Noga, the war takes on a different form. Outside his church, St. Patrick’s, on the south side of town, manicured lawns give way to block after block of abandoned housing, boarded up and punctuated by empty lots where structures in even worse shape have already been torn down. This is Oak Hill, and by the measure of Youngstown 2010, city planners say the neighborhood doesn’t have much of a future.


Unique Youngstown

Rather than resigning itself to a sad and inevitable fate, however, Youngstown leadership has embarked on a novel approach toward a noble destination. For lack of a better term, one might call it “shrinking toward prosperity.”

In the past year alone, city planners estimate they have demolished more than 500 buildings as part of a plan to raze all of Youngstown’s slums and allow green space or new development to connect neighborhoods and commercial districts that survived the collapse of the local steel economy.


- The city was named for John Young, an early settler from Whitestown, New York, who established the community's first sawmill and gristmill.

- In the early 20th century, the community saw an influx of immigrants from non-European countries including what is modern day Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. By the 1920s, this dramatic demographic shift produced a nativist backlash, and the Mahoning Valley became a center of Ku Klux Klan activity.

- Endowed with large deposits of coal and iron as well as "old growth" hardwood forests needed to produce charcoal, the Youngstown area eventually developed a thriving steel industry. The area's first blast furnace was established to the east of town in 1803

- Between the 1920s and 1960s, the city was known as an important industrial hub that featured the massive furnaces and foundries of such companies as Republic Steel and U.S. Steel. At the same time, Youngstown never became economically diversified, as did larger industrial cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Akron, or Cleveland. Hence, when economic changes forced the closure of plants throughout the 1970s, the city was left with few substantial economic alternatives.

- The September 19, 1977, announcement of the closure of a large portion of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, an event still remembered by many Youngstowners as "Black Monday", is widely regarded as the death knell of the old area steel industry. This was followed by the withdrawal of U.S. Steel in 1979 and 1980, and the bankruptcy of Republic Steel in the mid-1980s. Attempts to revive the local steel industry proved unsuccessful.

- In the wake of the steel plant shutdowns, the community lost an estimated 40,000 manufacturing jobs, 400 satellite businesses, $414 million in personal income, and from 33 to 75 percent of the school tax revenues.

- The largest employer in the city is Youngstown State University (YSU), an urban public campus that serves about 13,000 students, located just north of downtown.

- From 1911 to 1919, Youngstown was the home of the Patricians.  The Patricians won the 1915 championship of what became the National Football League.

- Youngstown's cityscape includes relatively few contemporary buildings, and from certain angles, the downtown area appears to have changed little since the 1960s.

- In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Youngstown was nationally identified with gangland slayings that were often committed with car bombs. Hence, the town gained the nickname "Murder City", and the phrase "Youngstown tune-up" became a regionally popular slang term for car-bomb assassination.

A short list of luminaries who were born and/or raised in this mini-metropolis include President William F. McKinley; movie mogul Jack Warner; boxers Ernie Shavers and Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini; shopping mall magnate and San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo; football quarterbacks Ron Jaworski and Bernie Kosar; TV stars Catherine Bach and Ed O’Neill; movie director Chris Columbus; actor Austin Pendleton; economist Arthur Laffer; American Communist Party President Gus Hall; and imprisoned Ohio congressman James Traficant.


Youngstown State University

Youngstown State University, the primary institution of higher learning in the Youngstown-Warren metropolitan area, traces its origins to a local YMCA program that began offering college-level courses in 1908. YSU joined the Ohio system of higher education in 1967. Once regarded as a commuter school, YSU serves about 13,000 students, many from outside the Youngstown area. The campus is situated just north of the city's downtown and south of Youngstown's historic district, a neighborhood of Tudor-, Victorian-, and Spanish Colonial Revival-style homes.


Smokey Hollow

The Smoky Hollow district runs along the west side of Crab Creek near the Mahoning River. The neighborhood's name derives from the fact that the area was often saturated with smoke from the nearby Mahoning Valley Iron Company. The area was originally owned by the James Wick family of Youngstown. By the late 1800s, however, immigrants begin building simple homes on this land, which was within walking distance of the mills that sat along Crab Creek. Smoky Hollow was a high-density housing neighborhood of immigrants from around the world. By the early 20th century, however, the neighborhood was dominated by Italian Americans. In 1910 there were 576 families living in the Hollow – a mix of Irish, Italian, English, Jewish, German, and African-American. The area has produced many prominent residents, notably businessman and shopping mall pioneer Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr., who was born in Smoky Hollow in 1919. The neighborhood remained viable into the 1960s when it fell victim to suburban migration, university expansion, and real estate disinvestment.


Today, excluding a street or two, not much remains of Smokey Hollow.  However, due to its proximity to Youngstown State University, redevelopment lies within it's future.

Wick Park Historic District

Wick Park Historic District is a historic neighborhood on the north side of Youngstown, Ohio, with Wick Park as its centerpiece. During the first half of the 20th century, the residential district surrounding Wick Park included some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. The district is "roughly bounded by 5th and Elm Aves., Elm St. and Broadway".

In the era of industrialization, Youngstown's wealthiest business leaders and professionals migrated away from the downtown to the wooded areas near the city's northern border. These semi-suburban neighborhoods were secluded from the noisy activity of the city's steel mills and retail businesses. Wick Avenue is sometimes described as Youngstown's version of Euclid Avenue (Cleveland's Millionaire's Row), or Fifth Avenue in New York City: it was home to the community's most established families.

Although some of these mansions have survived, few are currently used for residential purposes. Youngstown State University, whose campus is located south of Wick Park, purchased several of these homes and renovated them for administrative use. One campus-area mansion now holds the Arms Museum of Local History.


Wick Park is named for donor James Wick, a Youngstown-area industrialist. The park occupies a central portion of the district and, maintained by the Youngstown Department of Parks and Recreation, is well tended.

Adjacent to Wick Park, Stambaugh Auditorium is located at the intersection of 5th and Park Avenues.

St. Elizabeth Health Center

New infill housing near the St. Elizabeth Health Center.

Brier Hill

The birthplace of "Brier Hill Pizza," this urban neighborhood was onced viewed as Youngstown's Little Italy.  Today, little remains of what was once a vibrant close-knit ethnic community.

Like many urban neighborhoods, Brier Hill faces an uncertain future. Beginning in the 1950s, large swaths of the neighborhood were razed to make way for urban renewal projects, including the building of modern expressways. Brier Hill was further depopulated by economic dislocations that came with the decline, and eventual collapse, of Youngstown's steel industry. Today, all that remains of a once-vibrant ethnic enclave is the ITAM Post (Italian-American War Veterans' Club), the bandstand, Modarelli's Salumeria, and the memorial wall.


Looking north along Belmonte Avenue.  At one time, Belmonte Avenue was a major commercial corridor in Brier Hill.

Youngstown 2010 Plan Today

Youngstown Iron and Metal Company.

Like many projects throughout the country, the Youngstown 2010 plan is being impacted by the economy.

But Youngstown 2010 is faltering. Recession is challenging its plan. The city has little money to demolish vacant buildings; no one has taken the $50,000 incentive to move.

A handful of other Rust Belt cities from Flint, Mich., to Buffalo, N.Y., have considered similar plans. Youngstown’s experience underscores the difficulties of urban engineering on such a massive scale, as the promise of renewal collides with the sacrifices needed to make it work.

With more than 4,500 vacant structures and a declining tax base from an ever-shrinking population, the city can’t stay ahead of the abandonment trend, says William D’Avignon, deputy director of the city’s planning department.

In 2006, 351 structures were demolished. In 2007, 474. But the budget shrank in 2008, when only 103 were razed.

Now, the city is almost entirely dependent on federal funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program – about $2.7 million – to stem the tide of vacant buildings.


No one knows what the future of the Youngstown 2010 plan will bring for this Rust Belt city.  However, it's success or failure will be closely monitored by several cities across the country.

Photographs by Ennis Davis