Forging Ahead 5: Youngstown

An abandoned home in Youngstown shows the area is still recovering from steel’s collapse.
John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

An abandoned home in Youngstown shows the area is still recovering from steel's collapse.  John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

Abandoned home shows the area is still recovering. John Rennison, The Spectator

“We still have our challenges, but we are used to the challenges.”

Youngstown: A work in progress

[I]n the 1990s, after decades as Steeltown, U.S.A., Youngstown, Ohio, had a new nickname:  Murdertown.

It came after the collapse of steel. The FBI was digging into the region’s organized crime and four new detention centres were built in the region. Some worried about the optics of jail being the “new economy,” or about the fact six prisoners escaped in the middle of a summer day. Others were happy for the jobs.

“Steel bars are still part of big business in the region,” read a snarky headline in the local paper. But that business employed 1, 600 people. It paid $720,000 in taxes. Then-mayor Patrick Ungaro was pleased.

“There’s only one thing that makes a difference and that’s jobs,” Ungaro says of that time.

If Youngstown is currently the least revitalized of the rust belt towns — and you’ll find plenty of people who will tell you it is — it might be because its was the least diversified.

When more than 10, 000 steel jobs were cut between 1979 and 1981, the region’s income tax base evaporated. Hamilton never suffered layoffs that rapid or substantial.

BACKGROUND: A Century of Steel in Hamilton

In a 2008 Spectator story, Neil Everson, director of the city’s economic development department, noted Hamilton’s success in moving away from heavy manufacturing as the bedrock of economy when jobs in the services sector grew by 21, 000.

Youngstown residents still remember September 19, 1977, as Black Monday. That’s the day Youngstown Sheet and Tube (YS&T) shut down most operations. By the mid-80s, U.S. Steel and Republic Steel had followed suit.

Altogether, 40,000 manufacturing jobs left the Mahoning Valley.

By 1983, unemployment had reached 24.9 per cent. The term “regional depression” was invented to refer to Youngstown.

“The city is still scarred and beaten up from that time,” says current mayor John McNally.

“We still have our challenges, but we are used to the challenges.”

Like former mayor Tom Murphy in Pittsburgh, Youngstown’s former CEO is remembered for his push to remediate brownfield sites in Youngstown.

From 1984 to 1997,  former mayor Ungaro  developed 97 of 607 abandoned hectares, creating a total of 3,500 jobs. Many of the miles of mills along the Mahoning River corridor were remediated with the help of state and federal grants. Ungaro then offered tax abatements, sold land for $1, and gave out low-interest loans and grants.

Performance Place is a small industrial park where Exal employs 460 people making aluminum containers.

The non-profit CASTLO Community Improvement Corporation bought 49 of 405 at the former Struthers Works, a finishing mill eight kilometers downriver from Youngstown. Because Struthers Works was mostly buildings rather than blast furnaces and coke plants, the land was cheaper and easier to develop.

[N]ow local cities, villages and townships rent storage space there for road salt and equipment. There’s a wastewater management company. A training centre offers a weight room and batting and pitching cages to Youngstown’s class “B” baseball league.

Altogether, it employs 85 people.

The Ohio Works Industrial Park is home to a few small specialty steel companies and a manufacturer of swimming pool products. Right next door is Vallourec Star, which makes pipe for the oil and gas industry.

Since 2010, Vallourec has invested $1, 000, 000, 000 in the region, creating 350 direct and 1, 800 indirect jobs.” And just cut the info about seamless pipe mill.

At the Ohio Commerce Center, Halcon Resources is planning an oil storage and rail-transloading terminal. The $70-million investment will bring 30 new jobs to the region.

It’s located on part of the site of YS&T’s former Brier Hill Works.

Brier Hill might be the most famous of steel sites in the U.S., not because of any particular strike or claim to having manufactured the steel for anything significant, but because of Bruce Springsteen.

The Brier Hill Works was home to the Jeanette blast furnace, better known as the “Jenny” in Springsteen’s tune “Youngstown.”

[T]his is the neighbourhood where, in 1844, a rich vein of black coal was discovered. By 1872, 11 furnaces had been built in Youngstown. In 1900, the population was 44,000. Thirty years later, Mahoning was known as the Ruhr Valley of America.

On the hill overlooking the valley is St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. A frieze on an exterior wall shows St. Joseph, patron saint of workers, laying his hand on the shoulder of a shirtless steel worker who pours a ladle of molten steel.

Today Vallourec is the biggest mill there. The mill is made, in part, of pieces cannibalized from Brier Hill Works.

Not Jenny though. She was taken down in 1997 despite demand from community groups to repurpose the furnace as a museum honouring Youngstown’s history.

Early heat gear for a steel worker at the museum. John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

Early heat gear for a steel worker at the museum. John Rennison, Hamilton Spectator

If you want that, you go to the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor. There, you’ll find uniforms from the company ball team. Slip-on wooden overshoes to protect feet. Recreated locker rooms, complete with the hanging baskets the workers used to keep thieves and rats out of their belongings. Safety glasses with cobalt-coloured lenses because looking into a blast furnace is like staring into an eclipse.

SEE: Youngstowm Museum Photo Gallery here.

Other than this, you can find Youngstown history in “the plats.”

Beginning in 1917, YS&T built four neighbourhoods to house workers. Prefab concrete row houses were advertised as vermin-proof and soundproof. They also offered indoor plumbing, heating and electricity. This was at a time when some steelworkers had never even seen a working light bulb.

The Blackburn Plat is in Campbell, where YS&T had its home plant.

When the mill shut down in the ’70s, Blackburn emptied out.

By the late ’90s, the grass had grown tall enough to cover the sign marking it a national historic site. Families had been replaced by drug dealers, murderers and arsonists. In 2006, three of the units on Delmar Avenue went up in flames, or at least their roofs did. The concrete buildings are virtually impossible to tear down.

Shortly after, a group of volunteers moved in and started trying to fix things up.

Tim Sokoloff heads a group of volunteers trying to reclaim the homes and fix them up.  John Rennison Hamilton Spectator

Tim Sokoloff heads a group of volunteers trying to reclaim the homes and fix them up.
John Rennison Hamilton Spectator

Tim Sokoloff was one of them.

Sokoloff grew up in the Mahoning Valley. As a kid, he lived on the south side but spent a lot of his time in Campbell, where his father worked as a plant guard at the stop 14 gate.

When he started renovating the units in 2006, one of the first things he did was call AT&T to ask if it wanted its pay phones back. Half a dozen had been stolen, emptied of change and discarded in the units.

The cleanup effort was formalized with the 2010 founding of Iron Soup Historical Preservation. It’s a volunteer organization that operates with the help of a Home Depot partnership that has net them $60,000 a year in building materials.

They need it.

Some units are owner-occupied. They’re freshly painted, or covered with faux stone siding that’s dated, but clean. The lawns are maintained, planted with American flags and satellite dishes.

[M]ostly though, the row houses are windowless or doorless. Stray cats come and go. Porch roofs sag like sad smiles. Paint curls on exterior walls. Graffiti includes your standard vulgarities, but also spray-painted headstones with names and dates. RIP Nick. M. 2002.

SEE: Concrete Homes Photo Gallery here.

The Iron Soup museum, located in one of the units on Chambers Street shows the interior of one of the units before and after.

In the front room, the doors and trim are polished full-grain wood. The concrete walls have been painted a caramel colour. The inset ceiling is white and the brass fixtures polished.

In what used to be the kitchen, cracked mint-green paint litters the hardwood like pastel snow.

Upstairs the windows are boarded over. A miniature cast-iron tub is crammed into the bathroom alongside a toilet and sink.

So far Iron Soup has renovated seven units. Sokoloff lives in one. Iron Soup’s executive director lives in another. Their goal is to turn the site into housing for war veterans.

The effort has driven out what Sokoloff calls “the bad element.” No one wants to deal drugs where news crews are filming the mayor and interviewing muralists.

The initiative has earned Youngstown some positive responses.

So too has the city’s downtown.

When Guy Coviello attended Youngstown State University in the ’80s, he never went downtown. It was a wasteland, with anywhere from 24 to 200 residents.

Now, as vice-president of government affairs and media with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, Coviello is downtown every day. He figures there are 6,000 jobs in the core and 1,000 residents, many of them young professionals.

McNally, the mayor, still bristles when people ask him about population growth. After all, the tide of people leaving has only recently been stemmed. But there are tall glass office towers being renovated in cautiously optimistic expectation that there will be demand for downtown residential.

Youngstown is still the poster child for industrial decline, but it’s making an effort to diversify.

Marcellus and Utica shale formations are in the area. Valley Electrical Consolidated services the shale industry. The General Motors factory in Lordstown employs 4,500. Youngstown State University (YSU) brings 13,000 students into the city. There are two major hospitals.

Food, warehousing and distribution are growing sectors. To that end, Youngstown has partnered with several county farm bureaus to further boost that growth.

A longer-term plan is the export initiative spearheaded by YSU’s International Trade Assistance Center and the Youngstown Chamber. Now that Obama has restored relations with Cuba, they want the Mahoning Valley to export there.

It might not be Murdertown anymore, but there’s still a weekly publication that prints full-colour mug shots of locals alongside their names and charges.

People in Youngstown remain guarded about the suggestion they’re bouncing back. They sound tired when they talk about it. They sigh a lot.

But, as McNally says, maybe that’s a result of coming up against challenge after challenge for the past 40 years. The Corrections Corporation laid off nearly 200 employees this May after losing a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Another facility, though, has a contract through the end of 2018 so McNally chooses to look at the bright side.

He’s also excited about the Youngstown Business Incubator. Since its foundation 15 years ago, it has expanded into a five-building campus. Like Life Sciences Greenhouse in Pittsburgh and the Forge in Hamilton (The Forge is a business and innovation incubator project between McMaster University and the Innovation Factory), the YBI has a relationship with the local university. Its focus is on developing small business startups in the technology sector. Its website refers to Youngstown as the tech belt.

It may be premature. As McNally says, Youngstown is a work in progress. It has been for 30 years.

Ask around though and you’ll hear that if there’s one thing Youngstown knows, it’s work.

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905-526-2487 | @Amyatthespec