By John Cutlip
Special to The Vindicator
Youngstown isn’t down and out; it’s just taking a breather.
According to some historians’ theories, cities hit hard by dying industry have a bright future.
“Old towns have taken it on the chin in recent years,” said Joseph Garrera. “But cities are coming back.”
Garrera is the executive director of the Lehigh Valley Historical Museum in Allentown, Pa., one of the largest historical museums in the country, which features relics, articles and timepieces that define the area’s heritage.
Cities like Youngstown and Allentown have been suffering all over the country, but it might not stay that way much longer, Garrera argues.
Garrera and Jill Youngken, the museum’s curator, say modern woes like rising gas prices and soaring real estate costs are driving factors in urban revitalization.
Youngken and Garrera consulted history to predict the future of cities plagued by falling industries. Places like Youngstown and Allentown grew during the industrial age, but that growth shifted to the suburbs about midcentury, they explain. Soon, however, the tides will turn and the culture of America will be making big changes.
“People can’t afford transportation from their suburban homes to their jobs in the city,” Youngken says. “The decreasing price of inner-city life will become more and more attractive in the coming years.”
This renewed appeal in urban life may create a population increase reminiscent of wartime situations, they say. Allentown, however, seems to already be on the right track.
As a midsize city, Allentown is often compared to Youngstown in terms of economy and industry, and the municipal seat of Lehigh County has similarly had its ups and downs since the steel collapse. The death of Bethlehem Steel, a local industry comparable to Youngstown Sheet & Tube, cost thousands of laborers their jobs in the early 1980s. But the problems didn’t start there.
“Things started going downhill shortly after World War II,” Garrera, a New Jersey native, says, as he sits in an office filled with Abraham Lincoln relics. “The industry started slowing down and people said, ‘where did everything go?’ The steel problems of the ‘70s only accelerated things.”
And while both valleys suffered economically and developmentally, Allentown pulled out of it faster and is thriving. According to data from the U.S. Census, the city’s population has been steadily increasing since the early 1980s while Youngstown’s has done just the opposite. Today, Allentown has a population of 100,000 while Youngstown is close to 80,000.
Youngken, whose father had worked for the steel industry, says, “One reason we recovered faster was our location. … We’re close to big places like Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Washington D.C., and the influx of people from these places has done nothing but help the city.”
People came to Allentown because of the appeal of the city’s growing suburbs after the fall of city life. Today, she says, developments and condominiums surround the area, with construction lighting up expanding communities.
With Allentown acting as a microcosmic melting pot, the city’s cultural base has become more diverse and creative. Richard Florida’s 2002 Washington Monthly study, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” places Allentown near the top of the creativity index and Youngstown at the bottom.
A Fresh Start
Increasing population alone, however, is not the sole factor in revitalizing Allentown, the museum leaders explain. The city’s creativity and alternative ideas, such as having multiple college campuses adjacent to the city, brought about new leadership, which has been a huge benefit to economic prowess in recent years.
Allentown’s mayor, Ed Pawlowski, has done great things for the city, Youngken and Garrera say. Pawlowski, formerly of Chicago, earned a master’s degree in urban planning and attributes his education to his passion for “recycling the urban core.”
“Allentown could be a great example of revitalization,” Pawlowski says. “New housing downtown, a lot of new commercial and restaurants and working with Pennsylvania Power has helped the city. We are turning major buildings back to productive use.”
“You need destinations.” Pawlowski says. “Retail will follow.”
Members of Pawlowski’s staff also spoke positively.
“We’ve managed to bring the city out of an almost bankrupt state and get back investor confidence,” says Allentown Communications Coordinator Michael Moore. “The mayor has been in office since January 2006, and has since attracted new restaurants and straightened out the city’s finances.”
The mayor and his team’s other accomplishments include raising the city’s credit from triple-‘B’-minus to triple-‘B’-stable, Moore says. This means that investors won’t be as nervous about Allentown’s credit — a major problem in Youngstown.
Pawlowski and his office have also refinanced bonds to the benefit of the area.
Garrera says, “[The mayor] believes the city can do anything.” Talking about the mayor, Garrera often taps shelves and tables with excited hand gestures. “The way things have turned out so far supports that.”
Pawlowski’s use of tax-free zones gives breaks to new establishments and promotes new business. His positive outlook on the future, coupled with a $400 million building-projects fund to make things easier on new small businesses has done extraordinary things for the downtown area, Garrera says.
“His philosophy is if you invest in this city, the city will invest in you.”
Bill Lawson, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s executive director, is familiar with Youngken and Garrera’s line of thinking, and agrees.
“The cost of fossil fuel transportation will continue to grow,” the historian says. “This country was built around automobiles for the last 50 years, and this type of living will be outdated. People think Youngstown represents these facts.”
Last January, Lawson, 44, was featured in a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article, “Extreme makeover: City edition,” which brought Youngstown’s problems and future into light. Having seen many of his friends deal with the shock of the steel collapse himself, the Youngstown resident and historian can see where the situation is headed.
“The future is looking good, despite all that’s been happening,” he said. “Other cities like Chicago are following the same trend.”
Youngstown, like Allentown, is close in proximity to major cities. “But unlike Philadelphia and D.C., Cleveland and Pittsburgh are also [depressed] rust belt cities,” Lawson says. “They just don’t have the economic power to influence Youngstown.”
Allentown, he says, had other good things going for it after the steel collapse that Youngstown did not, such as the population pull and other methods of transportation.
What needs to happen
Instead of looking to one industry or one company to rescue a community, Allentown officials argue that residents need to alter their thinking and begin to embrace cities and urban life.
Youngken says, “The hardest thing to change is a person’s attitude. That is the challenge. Every city has a golden mile, or former glory that is ripe to be revitalized.”
Pawlowski says that Youngstown still has enough residents living within its borders to help usher the revitalization.
“We were able to put in a AAA ball field, boost riverfront development, build a $70 million addition to a major hospital … things are happening everywhere,” he said.
Lawson also agrees that local people can’t see the good in the future yet, but he thinks it’s an important fact that needs to be addressed.
“[Negativity] is all they know,” he says. “It’s only the second generation since the demise of the steel industry, and people don’t have the ability to break away from that mentality.”
As it stands, Lawson explains, Youngstown isn’t as bad off as some other places, such as east of the Mississippi River, St. Louis or Camden, N.J.
“We may be lost or dead in some areas,” he says. “But it will change.”