The Angle of Deconstruction


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by Tyler S. Clark   | 92 entries


Last week it was announced that the City of Youngstown received a grant to pursue a deconstruction program related to the dismantling of vacant structures. Steve Novotny, currently interning with the city while finishing his degree at Youngstown State, wrote the $39,000 grant proposal for management of the project and is being looked at to lead the program.

I'll pause for a moment to define deconstruction:

Deconstruction is the selective dismantlement of building components, specifically for re-use, recycling, and waste management. It differs from demolition where a site is cleared of its building by the most expedient means. Deconstruction has also been defined as “construction in reverse”. The process of dismantling structures is an ancient activity that has been revived by the growing field of sustainable,  green building. Buildings, like everything, have a life-cycle. Deconstruction focuses on giving the materials within a building a new life once the building as a whole can no longer continue. (source: Wikipedia)

In any news story there are a number of angles. One of those is that the City will now have an additional tool to deal with its most pressing problem of dismantling blighted structures. Another is that the person being considered to manage the program is a senior at YSU who has been serving as an intern with the City for ten months, deeply involved in the exploration of deconstruction efforts.

Two different papers in Youngstown took two significantly different approaches to reporting this news, from which I'll quote at length.

From Friday's Business Journal:

City to Explore Deconstruction Program
Nov. 6, 2009 6:01 a.m.
By George Nelson

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- The city will use a $39,000 grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to develop a program to disassemble some homes slated for demolition and retain usable material rather than shipping it to a landfill. 

Under the agreement, Steve Novotny, a sociology major at Youngstown State University who had interned with the city, would be paid to develop policies and procedures to implement the Youngstown Deconstruction Initiative, said Bill D‘Avignon, director of the city’s Community Development Agency. 

An item authorizing CDA to enter into an agreement with Novotny was withdrawn from the Board of Control agenda, pending City Council approval for the expenditure, which will be covered entirely with the EPA funds. D’Avignon said the item would be up before council Nov. 18.

Novotny worked with a nationally recognized deconstruction expert this summer on deconstructing two houses in a pilot program. He wrote the proposal for the year-long grant, which was approved by the state EPA in October, D’Avignon said. 

“We feel there is a market for reusing building materials,” he added. 

From Saturday's Vindicator:

Youngstown council to weigh plan to hire YSU student
Published: Sat, November 7, 2009 @ 12:06 a.m
By David Skolnick

YOUNGSTOWN — City administrators want to pay $39,000 to a college senior, with 10 months’ experience as an intern in Youngstown’s planning department, to develop and implement a plan to “deconstruct” dilapidated houses rather than just demolish them.

The city received a $39,000 grant from the state Environmental Protection Agency for the program. Steve Novotny, the 24-year-old Youngstown State University student to be hired as an independent contractor, wrote the successful grant application.

Rather than using a wrecking ball to demolish a house, deconstruction is a technique to systematically take apart a structure by removing portions of it — such as wooden floors, copper piping or chunks of bricks — that are salvaged and then sold.

Hiring Novotny, a sociology major who’s to graduate in the spring, was on Thursday’s Youngstown Board of Control meeting agenda but was pulled because board members wanted city council to first give the go-ahead to the proposal.

Council is to consider that legislation at its Nov. 18 meeting, said Bill D’Avignon, director of the city’s community development agency that oversees the planning department. D’Avignon submitted the request to the board of control to hire Novotny.

When asked about Novotny’s experience, D’Avignon said the YSU student wrote the grant, has worked for the city through an internship for the past 10 months with a focus on deconstruction and helped to deconstruct a house on Brentwood Avenue, one of two vacant structures taken down this summer using that process. The other house was on Illinois Avenue.

“What [more] experience do you need?” D’Avignon asked. “He wrote the grant.”

Finance Director David Bozanich, a board of control member, also defended the plan to hire Novotny, saying he has experience and deserves a chance to prove himself.

I quoted 50% of each article, and the contrast is stark. Many of the details, of course, are the same: the decision on Novotny's hiring was delayed, deconstruction has relevance to Youngstown's situation, and Novotny is an intern who is studying at YSU.

I think the key paragraph comes in the last part of the quoted Vindicator article: David Bozanich "defended the plan to hire Novotny." Defended against whom? Nowhere is there an assertion that anyone is questioning Novotny's fitness to lead the program. Anyone except The Vindicator, perhaps.

Notice, too, the title of the article: "Youngstown council to weigh plan to hire YSU student." It suggests, "Read me, you may find out about another questionable expenditure of funds at City Hall." Yet, no funds are being spent except those Novotny himself applied for and won. And no one is quoted as objecting to or even hinted at questioning the decision to hire the 24-year-old for the program.

Now, it's possible that the Vindy's report reflects actual questions raised by someone on City Council. Perhaps someone did question Novotny's expertise. But if that's the case, why not say so? And if no one is questioning this, why frame the story in this way? I spoke with a contact at City Hall who has worked closely with Novotny. I asked if there was anyone there making noise about the contract with Novotny and was told, "Not to my knowledge."

So why would the paper start with this title and opening paragraph?

City administrators want to pay $39,000 to a college senior, with 10 months’ experience as an intern in Youngstown’s planning department, to develop and implement a plan to “deconstruct” dilapidated houses rather than just demolish them.

Right away, the implication is that the city is wasting good money by giving it to a young man—not even out of school yet—whose only job experience is as an intern! That's the bait that we're supposed to take.

Unemployed? Well, the City's giving your potential job to an unproven commodity.

City Hall skeptic? Here's more proof that your local government is being irresponsible with its finances.

Am I reading between the lines here? You bet. That's because it's what the paper's readers do. If you've spent any time checking out the comments being handed out here on, you know what I'm talking about. The readers don't need an excuse to tell everyone that Youngstown doesn't have a clue. Its reckless, feckless leadership might as well give up and pave the whole city as a parking lot for the suburbs.

Why would The Vindicator choose this angle, especially when the editors could have predicted from the record what kind of response it might generate? Is drama being inserted into an otherwise mundane story? Or worse, is suspicion of city leaders being created for no real reason?

The paper has a responsibility to its community to report the facts fairly. Especially amid our evident culture of mistrust and suspicion surrounding local government, there should be a compelling case for making assertions about the capabilities of civil servants and the ethical and wise management of the City's governance and finances. I have argued that the paper did not make such a case in this article, instead deliberately stoking doubt and skepticism about what has the potential to be an important program and raising questions about a promising young employee as he's about to forge a career.

I'm not looking to muzzle The Vindicator's reporting, of course. I want it to pursue every lead and expose every corruption and folly that may exist in the City and the region. I don't think it's too much to ask that evidence is presented along with assertions and that, in the absence of such evidence, speculation and innuendo remain on the opinion page.

Let me say finally that I have deep respect for the article's author, David Skolnick, and I like him personally. I also have no personal relationship with Steve Novotny, though we've met once or twice. I merely disagree with how this article was presented and believe it does the community a disservice. When I asked David for comment, he dutifully passed my email up the chain, where I received an official "No comment."

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