By Todd Franko
Michael Morley laughed for a second or two as he pondered the other titles commonly used to describe the style of living he’s taken on in downtown Youngstown.
“We call this our home,” said Michael of his three-bedroom residence in Realty Tower in downtown Youngstown. Morley and his wife, Anita Lin, are the first residents of the multimillion-dollar renovation of the century-old downtown high-rise.
While “home” defines perfectly their new address, “home” also can describe their feelings for living downtown.
This is where they want to be. When the project was first proposed, the two can’t recall even having a debate about it, or who mentioned it first.
“We thought this was a great chance to prove to our friends, our neighbors, that you not only have to work downtown or come to eat downtown, but you can live downtown,” said Anita.
Residents since October, they like it so far. And now, they’re getting neighbors.
Bill Sperlazza, project manager for the Frangos Group, said a second unit was leased a few weeks ago to Youngstown State University students. And in the past two weeks, two more leases have been finalized.
Call them new pioneers.
Call them urbanites.
Call them Bohemian, says artist James Pernotto.
“I like downtown people. They have a simpatico of sorts,” James said. “It’s a Bohemian and laid-back crowd vs. a downtown party crowd. We have more respect for the first rule of Bohemian: ‘Do no harm.’”
James moved downtown in 1985 — setting up an art studio/residence above Silver’s Vogue Shop clothing store. He left for 10 years, returning in 2005.
Though he’s glad to see more neighbors, he said downtown is not for everyone.
“A downtown person has to be a pioneer of sorts,” he said. “They have to give up certain amenities. That’s the kind of person who will like it here.”
He says living downtown has kept him in proximity to everything he likes. And he likes what’s coming, too.
He points to the new Lemon Grove restaurant bringing poetry readings and other cultural events to downtown. He also likes making daily visits to neighbor Lisa Reali, who opened a salon, William Leonard’s Extraordinary Gentlemen, that doubles as a downtown hangout of sorts.
“Wouldn’t it be natural to open a place like that in Boardman?” asks James. “No. [Reali] wanted a place downtown.”
Morley, too, touts the amenities — from the restaurants and theaters to Youngstown State University and the Covelli Centre.
He also touts a more holistic impact of a successful downtown.
“I don’t think there’s a community in the United States that is strong, vibrant and healthy that does not have a strong central business and residential community,” Morley said.
“I think of downtown as the heart of the Valley.”
There have been residents downtown for years in the fixed-income places such as International Tower or Amedia Plaza. But fair or not, they’re not the census demographic that leaders cite when talking downtown redevelopment.
The populations that have driven other downtowns have been the artists and the upwardly mobile.
James lists Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., as other downtowns he’s lived in.
Using New York City neighborhoods such as Chelsea and SoHo as examples, he said it’s artists who first come to vacant old buildings seeking big, cheap space.
They live where they work. Eventually, a restaurant or two will open up, and a vibrant culture is born.
“Then,” he concluded in a tone that was both accepting and sarcastic, “the lawyers move in.”
Despite mixed feelings of the mixed populations, James said they do come together, and he saw it firsthand living in New York City one September day.
“During 9/11, just the sheer fact of doing that together gives you an appreciation for each other. In a way, you’re all brothers.”
In Youngstown, the new-age downtowners can be counted on two hands, and they either know each other specifically or by general knowledge.
Michael and Anita went to dinner out their back door two weeks ago to Caf Cimento.
When they walked in, Rich Mills was there, too.
Rich bellowed, “Hello neighbors!” Michael recalled.
Rich smiles at the story. He knew Michael, but that dinner was the first time he met Anita. He moved downtown in the early 1990s.
When you drive along Front Street between the county courthouse and the Covelli Centre, one building jumps out for its stark, length-of-the-building blue mural.
It’s Rich Mills.
An enormous moose head mounted over a pool table from the old Tod Hotel inside serves to complement the exterior.
Mills’ fourth-floor residence in the Rica Building with oversized windows gives him a 270-degree view of downtown, including a view over the other four buildings owned by his company, Ohio One Corporation.
He’s had plenty of requests to develop his buildings for downtown living. But the cost of renovating old buildings deters him. Still, he’s impressed with what the Frangos Group has done with Realty Tower.
“By next year, it will be filled,” he says of the building he sees outside his kitchen window.
Anita is ready for more people to join her downtown and has created for them a newcomers’ guide to downtown — complete with brochures and discounts from nearby businesses.
Michael — a lifelong Youngstowner — says something he appreciates about downtown now that he didn’t before are the waves of life that flow in and out each day and night.
“I like watching the first cars come in in the morning, then the workers flow in. That crowd leaves and a dinner crowd comes in, and after them is a nightlife crowd.”
And as more people move into Realty, they, too, are their own wave of life coming to downtown.