“Sweet Jenny I’m Sinking Down . . . Here Darlin’ in Youngstown”

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Youngstown Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two
Now the yard's just scrap and rubble
He said "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do."
                                            -Youngstown, Bruce Springsteen

 

In the song "Youngstown," Bruce Springsteen sings about the downward spiral of Youngstown, Ohio, from its heights as a thriving factory town in the middle of the 20th Century.  While Springsteen uses Youngstown both literally and as a symbol of the general demise of blue-collar towns across middle America, the truth is that Youngstown is shrinking, and a recent profile on NPR suggests that it has decided to embrace this reality instead of fighting it.

 


    In the profile, "A Shrinking City Knocks Down Neighborhoods," officials from Youngstown indicate that the city's bold plan to redeem itself was to stop trying to redeem itself and accept that it would never again be the city it once was:

In 2006, the city abandoned all that. And Youngstown walked away from the most fundamental assumption of economic development and city planning: The idea that a city needs to grow.

 "We needed as a city to recognize that we're a smaller city," says Bill D'Avignon, head of Youngstown city planning. "We're not going to grow; we're never going to be the Youngstown we thought we were going to be."

 As individuals and families left Youngstown, never to return, the city started to demolish the homes they left behind.  As the profile notes: "The problem with shrinking cities is that they don't shrink in a smart, organized way. It's chaotic. Thousands of people will leave one neighborhood, and maybe a dozen people will stay behind."  Youngstown sought to combat this by offering people incentives to leave certain neighborhoods for others, with the idea being that they would eliminate the chaos seen in other cities and essentially consolidate those people who wanted to remain in Youngstown in a more organized and planned city. 

Not surprisingly, this plan has met with strong opposition from residents who have grown up in the very homes that the city is now encouraging them to leave.  Nonetheless, the plan is the type of bold, albeit controversial, thinking that towns and cities across America will have to engage in as demographics change, and cities like Youngstown, Detroit, and others deal with their new reality. 

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