Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Youngstown Urban Frontier

Most people don't understand why I'm so bullish on Rust Belt cities in general and Youngstown specifically. Sean Safford's book "Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown" can help me explain. Dr. Safford investigates why Allentown and Youngstown have had different economic fortunes in dealing with the collapse of manufacturing. Youngstown is likely inclined to tune out Safford's research because it puts the region in a bad light. But before dismissing him out of hand, consider his response to a request for help from his native Buffalo:

My parents have moved, I've been back to Buffalo a few times and would be happy to get involved in trying to revitalize the city. It's why I wrote the book, really. The article quotes me accurately: I don't think there's any escaping from the fact that the health of city's economy depends on having a vibrant, growing set of companies which not only employ people but that are also providing real value in the market. But the real point I make is about the relationship between economic development and the involvement of the leaders of large companies. Buffalo and other places suffer from a critical lack of leadership. Not because politicians and other community leaders aren't trying; but because politicians' and civic leaders' efforts are hampered by the lack of active participation among the leaders of companies. It used to be that the leader of big companies were practically required to be active in civic affairs. Thats not the case anymore and I think its a problem...... That said, I'm always chomping for an excuse to come back to Buffalo and would be very very happy to discuss my ideas with anyone willing to listen.

Safford isn't damning Youngstown so much as he's trying to figure out the best way forward. Since most Rust Belt cities aren't doing so well, I'd expect that at least some criticism is warranted. I hope that Youngstown, and any other shrinking city, would be open to his advice.

Back to his book. I haven't read it. Yet. But I did listen to an interview with Safford about his work and a recent review of the book zeroes in on what has been missing in Youngstown:

The result of these historical differences was that Youngstown was much less prepared to weather the storm of the steel industry collapse. Allentown had the institutional tools to deal with the crisis, which led to further investing in the community by business leaders. Youngstown business leaders, by comparison, became more isolated from the community. The community in Youngstown became a source of dependence for its business leaders rather than a source of identity and pride.

Safford's communication to the good people of Buffalo makes clear that greater involvement of the heads of local businesses is desirable. Another way to look at it is that political power became concentrated in the hands of a dense, tightly-knit network. As the old guard circled the wagons, Youngstown continued to rapidly deteriorate. My theory is that this dramatic collapse creates opportunities you won't find in Allentown, better opening up the political space for bottom-up economic development.

Thus, a person born in Erie, PA living outside of Denver, CO can receive a grant to build a talent network for Greater Youngstown. I see Youngstown as a place where bold ideas can find expression instead of a civic gatekeeper questioning your native credentials. That's very rare in the Rust Belt where parochial attitudes stifle outsider participation.


  1. I want to read this book and haven't yet had the opportunity. I like the focus on civic participation by business leaders. There are surely some who do, but I've heard this complaint echoed by others, including those in local politics. There's not a natural coalition of business and community leaders to help effect change from City Hall.

    In terms of Youngstown's preparedness to weather change, part of that comes from the vise grip the steel industry had on the labor pool. They effectively closed out other industries from coming in and competing for workers, preventing the area from having a diverse industry base. This at least contributed to what it sounds like he's describing.

  2. Jim and Tyler: buy it!


    I'm afraid I think Youngstown is probably in for a second round of pain. Its post-steel economy came to rely heavily on auto-parts supply. Not so good right now.

    - Sean Safford
    Jim, you raise an interesting question in your thoughts about the steel industry soaking up auto supply. I don't really make that argument in the book. In fact, I think there were plenty of non-steel companies that Youngstown could have benefited from: Arbys was founded there, so was Harris which is now a multinational company--headquartered in Florida. Allentown had similar companies, but many of them remain located in its metro area. And that has to do with roping their leaders into local leadership networks...

    I do appreciate that you picked up on the optomistic tone of the book and you get the point loud and clear. Companies in Rust Belt cities can compete.