By LIZ HILL
I’ve only lived in Youngstown two months. In a place where the question, “Where’d you go to school?” translates as, “Which Mahoning Valley high school did you attend?” two months is a speck, a shaving, a tiny sliver of nothing. So forgive me if this suggestion to the natives is way off base, but when somebody tells you they just moved to Youngstown it probably isn’t helping the town’s image to blurt out, “Why?”
I understand the town has a reputation. That was obvious from the reaction of well-meaning family and friends when we first announced our intention to move here. Certain keywords always crept into the conversation. Rust Belt, Corruption, Poverty. “The mob.” Everyone felt obligated to remind us of the realities, like it was their job to keep us from riding into town wearing rose-colored glasses.
But I didn’t expect that from the locals, this unspoken attitude that coming here was a mistake, an accident we somehow failed to prevent. At the grocery store, at water aerobics, even at a professional conference, the wonderful, friendly folks of Youngstown couldn’t seem to hide that faint flicker of surprise, the gentle probing questions. No one was more direct than the man my husband met at the BMV. Upon learning that my husband was getting a driver’s license because he’d just moved to town, the man shook his head.
“Man,” he said, looking my husband up and down like he was out on a day pass from the asylum, “nobody moves to Youngstown.”
Well, we did, and I happen to find The Valley has a lot going for it. And not just “it’s close to Cleveland and Pittsburgh” which seems to be the one attribute everyone can agree on. The area has a rich history that includes far more than shuttered steel mills. It has a strong legacy of philanthropy, which we enjoy everywhere from the Covelli Center to the DeYor, from the YMCA to the gardens of Mill Creek Park. All over town there are glorious trees in almost any direction you look. YSU, the record enrollment, is home to a world-class art collection, a world-class conservatory and state-of-the-art technical research. And do we need to discuss ethnic food? In my first weeks here I could have nibbled my way through the Greek, Italian, Hungarian and Polish Festivals before passing out in a gorge stupor amid the food booths at the Canfield Fair.
In his speeches on the green economy, Barack Obama calls Youngstown and cities like it “the backbone of America,” the place where the “battle for American’s future will be fought and won.” There’s a reason Entrepreneur magazine considers Youngstown one of the top 10 places to start a new business. Despite the realities of the problems we face today, it has a future filled with possibility.
Work to be done
Don’t get me wrong, I see how much there is to do. I might be wearing pink glasses, but I’m not blind. As a newcomer I am just beginning to grasp the magnitude of the city’s problems with housing, the economy, schools and other issues. Far too many of our cities and towns are in the same shape these days, with commerce reduced to a Walmart on the outskirts of what used to be downtown, and young people fleeing in droves because good jobs have dried up like Texas rivers.
But Youngstown is not on the way down; it’s headed up. I recently met a woman who began her career as a teacher in Youngstown many years ago. She hadn’t been here in six or eight years, and when she saw downtown she was shocked — pleasantly — at the changes. It may not seem like much to have a few businesses and restaurants open, but the progress is undeniable.
Progress and change begin with vision. I lived in Denver for many years. When I first moved there, the city was in decline, reeling from the loss of its oil industry. Foreclosures were rampant and downtown was overbuilt and under-occupied. Federico Pena ran for mayor with the slogan, “Imagine a Great City.” Was that just campaign hype? Maybe. But from that glimmer of hope a thriving and livable downtown sprang from abandoned warehouses and stores.
So when Youngstown’s Mayor Jay Williams urges us look around and imagine the future, to stop being victims and start being visionaries, don’t underestimate his power of suggestion. He and his young political cohort, Congressman Tim Ryan, like to remind us of the long, productive history behind these recent years of economic crisis. They are inspiring a growing cadre of people who believe it’s possible to build on our heritage and become a model city, a shining example of how to revive a post-industrial community in a way that’s sustainable.
Maybe if I’d been hearing this rhetoric for 20 or 30 years, I’d be skeptical too. It’s hard to find the faith to look ahead. But think about it: there’s a reason you’re still here. Cookie tables and wedding soup and home games on a crisp fall day are in your blood. You love this place. If our young leaders and the folks at Entrepreneur are on track, there may soon be lots of people choosing to move to your beautiful Valley. When you meet them, try not to act surprised. Just slip on my rose-colored Ray-bans, smile and say, “Welcome.”
X The writer moved to Youngstown in August with her husband, Matt Alspaugh, who is minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown.