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The Long Road to "Youngstown 2010"

Despite a canine-friendly household, Jim London isn't going to let his neighborhood go to the dogs
Despite a canine-friendly household, Jim London isn't going to let his neighborhood go to the dogs

Jim London drives through his Youngstown neighborhood on a wet afternoon.

JIM LONDON: They called this the millionaire’s playground…

Steel company presidents, mob bosses, and other members of the city’s moneyed classes used to live on this street. Now, you can pick-up one of these estates for about $40,000. A couple blocks away, the property values drop down to $6,000. One well tended home may sport a neatly manicured lawn while, next door, two-foot-high weeds betray months --- or years --- of abandonment.
As president of the Idora Neighborhood Association, Jim London wonders what happened to the “Youngstown 2010” program that was supposed to rid his streets of empty houses and improve the quality of life.

JIM LONDON: I haven’t seen a lot of money. We’ve had two meetings with the 2010 group, in the three years that we’ve taken this on, and I don’t see it coming forward.

BILL D’AVIGNON: There’s still got a lot of work to do. We never really set out with 2010 being the destination.

Bill D’Avignon is in charge of community development for Youngstown. He notes that the Youngstown 2010 plan has spurred some center city development in the form of an arts and entertainment district. A number of restaurants and night spots populate formerly shuttered downtown stores. While economic realities may have tempered some of the more optimistic projections for a Youngstown turnaround, D’Avignon notes that a number of abandoned buildings have been taken down.

BILL D’AVIGNON: We’re doing as best we can. In the past ten years, we’ve torn down close to 3,000 houses.

But, that hardly keeps up with the number of properties that need to come down. Several aging industrial cities are looking to shrink themselves by weeding abandoned properties --- the most dramatic example is Detroit’s plan to raze some 10,000 buildings. Ian Beniston of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation is spearheading a new effort to --- in his words ---strategically shrink the city.

IAN BENISTON: We’re not just buying any house that’s foreclosed and available. We’re looking to pinpoint blocks that are otherwise stable and stave off further decline by looking at the two or three houses on those blocks that are a problem --- if there’s a house we need to tear down, get it torn down. If there’s one we can salvage, getting that that rehabbed and getting a homeowner back living in it.

Beniston calls it “re-knitting the civic fabric”. He says it’s an art that’s been learned through a lot of trial and error.

IAN BENISTON: I think in all of these places --- Youngstown, Cleveland, Flint, Detroit --- we’re just starting to figure out what to do. We know we’re not going to build our way out if it --- we’re not going to build new housing and people are magically going to show up. So, we’ve got to find some more creative and innovative ways to transform the communities. And a lot of that has to do with readapting land, and in Youngstown we’ve got 23,000-and-growing vacant lots.

The Idora Neighborhood is one of three test cases for the city’s new development strategy. Association president Jim London likes that focus on his community. London is a big guy, whose size comes in handy in his job working security for rock concerts. His determination to stay focused of the future of Idora is equally outsized… and hard to miss.

JIM LONDON: The squeaky wheel gets greased. We use that motto here in the community. We’re not going to get nowhere by asking once, and taking “No” for an answer.

That sounds like the attitude it’s going to take to rebuild Youngstown --- even if it does take a few more years.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.