How steel’s sick city is making a virtue of its plummeting population

Plagued by decades of decline, Youngstown, Ohio has embraced its shrinking population, offering a vision of hope for other struggling Rust Belt cities

Youngstown, Ohio
Since its biggest mill closed, vacant homes and a shrinking population have plagued Youngstown 
Author: Tom Bailey
September 19, 2016

Youngstown sits in the Mahoning Valley in the US state of Ohio. Founded in 1796, by the early 20th century the city had become an industrial powerhouse; first with the discovery of coal in the early 19th century, and then the start of the steel industry later in the century, Youngstown became a booming industrial city.

Its promise of jobs – and often good pay – saw its population grow rapidly, attracting migrants from Europe as well as African-Americans from the south of the US. Between 1900 and 1930, the city’s population exploded from just 44,000 to 170,000. Yet today, Youngstown’s population sits at just 65,000 – a shadow of its former self – due to its swift deindustrialisation from the 1970s onwards.

The city’s story is familiar: a once-mighty industrial economy goes into decline, and as it does, people leave the city. However, after decades of unsuccessfully fighting this population fall, Youngstown has instead opted to manage it – adapting to the change rather than fighting it. In this, it offers perhaps a blueprint for similar towns across the US.

Steel’s sick city
The decline of Youngstown is often said to have started in 1977, when the Sheet and Tube Campbell works – the largest mill in the Mahoning Valley – closed. The day of the plant’s closure, which resulted in the loss of 5,000 jobs, became known as Black Monday in Youngstown.

Calamitous as that day was, the crisis in Youngstown had been brewing for a number of years – and yet no one seems to have taken any concrete steps to manage the coming steel decline. For years Youngstown had been facing chronic underinvestment: in the post-war era, despite the growing prosperity in Youngtown’s steelmaking industry – and the workers in its employ – the trend was for business to move towards deep-water port cities such as Cleveland, Chicago and Baltimore.

As early as the 1960s, Youngstown was known as ‘steel’s sick city’

As early as the 1960s, Youngstown was known as ‘steel’s sick city’ – dubbed so by The Wall Street Journal. A recession had hit the town hard and there were roughly 20,000 unemployed labourers – many of them steel workers. Production rarely neared full capacity. By this point, Youngstown had already lost 16 percent of its population – much more than other industrial cities at the time.

By the 1970s, profits in the city’s steel mills were gradually dropping, and the mills’ owners had generally declined to further invest. George Packer noted in his 2014 book The Unwinding: Thirty Years of Decline in America: “Instead, they cannibalised machines and parts, moving them from one mill to another.” Furthermore, First World War-era technology was still being used in the city’s steel plants – according to Packer, there had not been the introduction of “a single new blast furnace in Youngstown since 1921”.

All these early warnings of decline were, however, ignored: the city’s steel mills continued to provide well-paid union jobs to many of Youngstown’s residents, and so no sense of a looming crisis was felt. Similarly, no attempts to plan for the inevitable deindustrialisation were taken: on Monday September 19, 1977, when the Lykes Corporation – the owner of the Sheet and Tube Campbell works – announced it would be closing the plant by the end of the week, the announcement came as a shock to everyone.

Decline of US steel
The closure set off a chain reaction. The foreseeable – yet still unforeseen – deindustrialisation hit Youngstown hard, with a wave of other mill closures swiftly following. Every major steel works in the city closed within the next five years.

Packer wrote of the period: “Between 1979 and 1980, bankruptcies in Youngstown doubled, and in 1982 unemployment in the Mahoning Valley reached almost 22 percent – the highest anywhere in the country. Black workers, who had only recently entered the better mill jobs, were hit especially hard.”

Having become nearly completely reliant on the steel industry, the fabric of society in Youngstown also gave way: shops in the downtown region began to shut their doors, while the city’s amusement park fell into disrepair, seeing its rollercoaster sold and relocated to the Brooklyn waterfront; house prices plummeted, and Youngstown became engulfed by a wave of foreclosures; this in turn gave way to a wave of arsons, with residents burning now worthless or vacant property. Between 1970 and 1990, Youngstown’s population plummeted from 140,000 to just 95,000.

The city’s decline became the subject of national media attention. Although this was soon eclipsed by a series of other large factory closures across what, in 1983, became known as the Rust Belt region, Youngstown was, in the words of Packer, affected “first, hardest, and most completely”. The city’s policymakers had made the fateful mistake of becoming nearly entirely reliant upon a single industry, and refusing to confront the brewing crisis before it struck cost them dearly.

Downtown Youngstown
Youngstown, Ohio was once one of the busiest steel mill towns in the American Rust Belt

Smart shrinkage
However, while Youngstown clearly suffered from such poor policy-making and planning in the mid-20th century, it has now set a blueprint for other cities suffering the same decline through the renewed policy decisions it has taken in the years since. Youngstown has accepted the boom days of the 20th century are behind it: its population will continue to decline as residents head to the new areas of economic dynamism in the US, and to try and fight that would be futile. Rather, the city has decided to embrace its shrinkage and work to ensure shrinking does not equal decay – ‘smart shrinkage’, it has been dubbed.

By 2005, the city’s population had fallen to 80,000 – nearly half of what it once was. Decades of attempting to stem the flow of people out of Youngstown had clearly failed, so the city authorities changed course, drawing up a plan entitled ‘Youngstown 2010’. The idea, according to then-mayor Jay Williams, was to direct funding towards ensuring the city became a “smaller, more nimble city – a better place to live based on the assets we have”.

Youngstown infrastructure was built for a city of 200,000. It was accepted a population of this size was never going to return; Youngstown had to adapt. According to a 2009 report by the Urban Affairs Centre, it was recognised “they needed a plan to take this fact into account and address the excess of infrastructure and vacant lots plaguing the city, and so they developed the Youngstown 2010 plan”.

The city’s haemorrhaging of people had resulted in certain streets being nearly vacant, with other areas seeing homeowners surrounded by vacant homes repurposed by criminals. As part of the Youngstown 2010 plan, the city has identified the healthier remaining neighbourhoods and those that seem to be beyond saving due to the high rates of vacancy. Residents left in areas deemed unsafe or unattractive are encouraged through financial incentives to move into the healthier, more viable neighbourhoods, consolidating people once again into well-populated areas. The abandoned neighbourhoods are then intended to be demolished.

As cities across the US are confronted with deindustrialisation, Youngstown offers an example

Speaking to The Atlantic in 2016, Ian Beniston, Director of Youngstown Neighbourhood Development Corporation, outlined the basic strategy behind this. He said if a neighbourhood “is already 70 percent vacant, the strategy is probably demolition and reusing the land for another purpose”. The healthier neighbourhoods, with new residents, then become the focus for home improvements and various other policies to increase the quality of life and environment for both their new and old residents. The city is fixing and improving those homes already occupied, but also attempting to fill up those left vacant.

Those neighbourhoods with too high vacancy rates, if able to be completely cleared, are then repurposed. Beniston explained: “Recently we started working with a company that grows hybrid poplar trees on these acres of vacant land, which are then harvested. Those are the types of things – in areas with high vacancy – we need to be thinking of.”

This repurposing serves two vital roles: “They are strategies that generate some employment, plus also take property off the city’s maintenance rolls and put it back to some sort of productive use that has some sort of benefit to the ecosystem.”

As cities across the US – and, indeed, many of the mature economies of the world – are confronted with deindustrialisation, Youngstown, Ohio offers an example. While Youngstown is still afflicted by poverty, unemployment and a declining population, its smart shrinkage policy has started to offer a vision for the future.

Some cities in the US have been able to stave off deindustrialisation and return themselves to the forefront of economic dynamism and growth, yet for some former industrial cities, this is not viable. For these towns, the challenge is ensuring they can shrink without encouraging further decay, as well as showing one need not necessarily lead to the other. Youngstown, having learned the hard way, can provide a lesson in this.