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Civic Authorities in US Seek to Stem Urban Decay

Millions of tax dollars are being spent to demolish vacant houses and buildings and open up green space in Youngstown in northeast Ohio .

The hope is the tough, blue-collar environment of the gritty city could be redefined that way parks may grow, crime may drop and property values may rise.

If Youngstown becomes more livable, job and population numbers may stabilize or grow. The city estimates that it has lost more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs. The population is about 82,000, about half of what it was some 40 years ago.

Youngstown stands out among the nation's shrinking blue-collar cities in its newfound acceptance that it's going to be smaller than it once was, said Joe Schilling, an urban researcher and professor at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute in Alexandria.

Youngstown spent $1.2 million for demolition last year and may spend about $1.5 million this year on razing mainly single-family houses. The city took down about 400 housing units last year and may exceed that number this year. The plan took effect in 2005.

Hunter Morrison, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University, who helped craft the plan, calls the move a big psychological shift.

''When I got here five years ago everybody just talked about how their fathers made steel,'' he said. ''Now they're talking about looking forward.''

Some other cities and urban planners have taken note.

One is Saginaw, Michigan, which, along with surrounding communities, has lost about 4,900 auto and other manufacturing jobs from 1994 to 2004, said Greg LaMarr, spokesman for the community group Saginaw Future. The area has seen a shift to service sector jobs.

A delegation from the city may soon visit Youngstown, said John Stemple, Saginaw's zoning and development coordinator.

''Being smaller isn't all that bad, if you create a quality environment,'' he said.

Youngstown's plan makes sense to Loretta Bares, 34, who grew up in the house where she still lives and bemoans her joblessness.

''You get rats down here because of these empty houses,'' she said. ''People are leaving.''

Jay Williams, the city's personable, 35-year-old mayor who grew up in Youngstown, said it took a long time for city planners to understand that no longer having several big steel plants along the Mahoning River isn't all that bad.

''This community has been looking in the rearview mirror, still mourning the loss of the industry that sort of defined who we were,'' he said.

Steel mills were the city's lifeblood, part of a flourishing U.S. steel industry after World War II. Youngstown's population swelled to 170,000 in the 1950s. Then, in 1977, steel plants started to close, eliminating thousands of jobs.

The city's economy now is based more on government, public schools, Youngstown State and its two hospitals. Crime continues to be a nasty issue, Williams said, although the number of homicides dropped to 32 last year from more than 60 a few years ago.

Youngstown is wrestling with what to do with the new empty spaces. There has been talk of expanding parks, giving more space to an old cemetery and even agriculture.


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