First Friday revelers remain upbeat on downtown Youngstown

Correspondent photo / Sean Barron Sarah Schuler, a Youngstown State University graduate, paints on a block of wood during the city’s First Friday event Friday in downtown Youngstown. The family-oriented gathering brought musicians, artists and others together for a day of connectedness more than a week after the May 28 explosion at the nearby Realty Tower.

YOUNGSTOWN — Whether it was bands, bees, brews, boards on which to paint, or any combination, the downtown corridor was buzzing with a strong sense of revelry and connectivity.

“I have a variety of flowers, plants and leaves on a wooden block; a lot of what I like to do is nature-based,” Sarah Schuler, who graduated in fall 2023 from Youngstown State University with a degree in graphic design, said.

Schuler, of Boardman, was among the artists, musicians, food vendors and other exhibitors who set up shop along a two-block section of Phelps Street downtown for the first First Friday event of the summer.

The main sponsors of the six-hour, family-oriented gathering, themed “Summer Buzz,” were the Downtown Youngstown Partnership, Youngstown CityScape and the city of Youngstown.

Schuler’s artistic talents aren’t restricted to mere blocks of wood, however. She also had her hands in the creation of two murals at Trek Coffee House on the West Side — one she helped make as part of a YSU class and the other inside the business that she designed solely.

Schuler also was happy to see a flurry of activity and an increase in foot traffic downtown less than two weeks after the deadly May 28 natural gas explosion in the 12-story Realty Tower building’s basement a few blocks away.

Echoing that feeling was Nicole Italiano of Youngstown, who, along with her daughter, Nicolina Italiano, 8, was designing bracelets from colorful beads at an outdoor table the Butler Institute of American Art had set up.

“It’s good to see the people come together and support the city,” she said about the explosion’s aftermath. “Youngstown is a tough city and somehow, some way, we will come out stronger because of this.”

Also working on the bead project with mother and daughter was Grace Starmes, 10, of Champion.

In addition, the Butler Art Institute’s table had the theme, “The Eras Tour,” to call attention to this summer’s visual-arts day camp the last two weeks of July at the Butler, Joyce Mistovich, the museum’s education director, said.

A short walk from the artistic endeavors was a bee farm, accompanied by a posterboard game that challenged passers-by to correctly match six types of bees with their proper nests or gathering places.

Manning the table was Julie Bartolone, a naturalist who founded a nonprofit organization in 2018 called Wild You.

The organization’s main drive is to inspire people to reconnect with nature via exploration and recreation, Bartolone said, adding that she often sells jars of honey as a fundraiser for Wild You.

The 6-year-old organization provides an array of family-friendly, water- and land-based programs to enhance people’s appreciation for nature, with an emphasis on environmental education, science and conservation, its website shows.

The First Friday event also featured plenty of live music on stage.

Despite the tragedy at Realty Tower that killed Akil Drake, 27, and injured several others, the decision was made to move forward with First Friday largely to encourage people to patronize downtown restaurants and other businesses — especially in light of the difficult times the business community has faced, Adam Lee, event coordinator, said.

He added that First Friday was another way to give people reasons to visit the corridor and enjoy the experience.

“We’re trying our best to keep moving on and supporting our businesses,” said Lee, who has been in the restaurant industry for about 15 years.

In addition, events such as First Friday are opportunities to erase negative views some people maintain about downtown Youngstown and highlight that, despite the explosion, life continues there.

“Downtown is still open,” Lee said.

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