Dream Small

The cure for urban decay is taking shape in . . . Youngstown?!

"Citywide plans just aren't sexy," says  Mayor Jay Williams.   But Youngstown's shrinkage has "become  a movement and  a brand."
"Citywide plans just aren't sexy," says Mayor Jay Williams. But Youngstown's shrinkage has "become a movement and a brand."
As Anthony Kobak steers his city-owned Jeep down a potholed road in eastern Youngstown, he notices some workers near what used to be an abandoned house. Today it's a pile of rubble.

This makes Kobak very happy.

"That's a city demolition crew," he says, pointing like a proud father.

Kobak is Youngstown's chief planner -- a job light on the perks and heavy on the headaches. After all, there hasn't been much to cheer in Youngstown since the 1970s, when Big Steel pulled out and yanked the city's character with it. Home to just under 150,000 people at the time, Youngstown shrank dangerously fast when the Mahoning Valley met globalization -- the TrimSpa of the Rust Belt. Today, there are 80,000 people and mile after mile of abandoned lots and boarded-up houses.

But Kobak, with his spiky hair and an outfit lifted from the Gap's fall catalog, streaks the city with color as he cruises its gloomy landscape. The more time you spend in his dusty Jeep, listening to his vision for one of America's forgotten cities, the more Kobak feels like a peppy cheerleader trapped in a Charlie Chaplin movie.

Recently, people have started asking for tours of Youngstown's future. So Kobak piles them in the Jeep and hands them a copy of his planning bible, "Youngstown 2010." The plan has been honored by the American Planning Association and hailed in The New York Times. The buzz has left others wishing aloud that Cleveland would follow the lead of, yes, Youngstown.

"Citywide plans just aren't sexy and exciting things," says Mayor Jay Williams. But Youngstown may be changing that with "a movement and a brand that people can wrap themselves around."

The plan calls for accepting the population decline and becoming, as Williams puts it, a "smaller, more nimble city -- a better place to live based on the assets that we have." It seems an obvious strategy for a post-industrial town. But cities' futures are typically shaped by politicians who can't think past their next campaign; to them, growth -- New houses! New arenas! New shopping! -- wins elections.

"A growing city is seen as a successful city," says Terry Schwarz of Kent State's Shrinking Cities Institute. "A shrinking city is seen as a failing city. There is the sort of stigmatization that comes with decline."

For its plan, Youngstown reached past government and into academia, partnering with Youngstown State's urban studies school as well as a Toronto consulting firm.

It also benefited from having young voices roaming City Hall. Kobak, who grew up in Parma, was just 29 when he took over as chief planner in 2000. Williams, the community-development director at the time, was the same age. Planning Director Bill D'Avignon was in his mid-thirties.

"We're not stuck in those old paradigms," says Williams, now 36, the youngest mayor ever elected in Youngstown when he won in 2005. "I'm looking at what the city can be versus what it was 50 years ago."

So is Kobak, which is why he perks up when he sees demolition crews. Last year, Youngstown quadrupled its 2005 demolition budget. But unlike Cleveland, Youngstown doesn't pine for new homes to fill the empty space. There's a moratorium on new, government-subsidized housing. And the city has become stingier in handing out money to help low-income families spruce up their homes. Instead, that money is being earmarked for families living in unrecoverable neighborhoods to move into stronger enclaves.

Kobak hopes the empty spaces will be turned into parks or wetlands. "Don't develop it," he says. "Don't put housing on it."

Kobak's vision unfolds as he navigates the ruined streets of an area called Sharon Line. Some roads are completely overgrown, but still dotted with fire hydrants; water lines and other services still run to blocks that no longer exist. Many of the remaining houses, separated by swatches of abandoned property, are falling apart.

"What should this neighborhood become?" Kobak asks. "Could these be big residential lots?" In some places, the city wants to sell the abandoned lots to adjacent property owners for cheap, letting them build gardens or mini-farms. In other places, it wants to bulldoze entire blocks. "Can we establish a city park here?" He doesn't yet know. What he does know is that his stomach turns at the sight of a new house.

"People! Come on!" he says, spotting one. "We've gotta think collectively."

Nearby, another neighborhood is slightly healthier, certainly salvageable. It's anchored by a large park, an auditorium, and a mansion once owned by a steel baron. Its enormous houses and eclectic architecture -- log cabin next to brick fortress next to Spanish-style villa -- pay homage to Youngstown's more prosperous past.

But even this neighborhood is dotted with boarded-up apartments and empty lots. In those spaces, Kobak envisions pocket parks or community gardens. Here, the idea of new homes isn't so irksome -- as long as they're done right.

"We're not going to say that we're not going to build more houses," he says. "We just have to be smarter about it."

There are ideas for most corners of the city, and most include knocking down gray in favor of green, as Kobak likes to say. In "Wick Six" -- a ghost town where six big car dealerships used to be -- the city wants to build an environmentally friendly industrial park. At Oak Hill, houses would be cleared and a lush cemetery expanded, and the neighborhood would be connected to a 2,600-acre park similar to Cleveland's Rocky River Reservation. "Accepting that we're smaller makes Oak Hill an exciting neighborhood," Kobak says.

It's an odd concept -- excitement over a city getting smaller. And executing it will be more difficult than envisioning it, especially when it comes to moving families. "Relocating people is expensive," says Schwarz. "It seems very sensible. But at a political and emotional and ethical level, it's really much more complicated than that."

Others, meanwhile, have joined in Kobak's enthusiasm. At two community meetings for the plan, more than 1,200 people packed an auditorium to hear the city's new vision for itself. People appreciated that it wasn't "pie in the sky," Kobak says. They are finally accepting life as a smaller city.

"Declining," as he likes to say, "doesn't mean we're dying."

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