America's Fastest Shrinking City: The Story of Youngstown, Ohio

Sean Posey I Urban Issues I Analysis I June 18th, 2013

Only a few weeks ago, the U.S. Census Bureau released its findings on cities that have lost the most population since the 2010 decennial census. At the top of the list, the beleaguered City of Youngstown, Ohio, the only city to lose more than two percent of its population in two years. Less than two years before that, the Brookings Institute revealed that out of the top 100 metropolitan areas in the country, Youngstown registered the highest percentage of its citizens living in concentrated poverty. Youngstown, along with cities like Camden, New Jersey and Gary, Indiana, is often the poster child for the horrible ravages of deindustrialization. When traveling to the poorest areas in the country as part of book project, radical journalist Chris Hedges described the city he saw in 2010: "Youngstown, like many postindustrial pockets in America, is a deserted wreck plagued by crime and the attendant psychological and criminal problems that come when communities physically break down." [1]

This was not always the story. The fall of Youngstown, Ohio is among the most important devolutions in American urban history. And what ultimately happens to Youngstown, and to other post-industrial cities like it, portends either promise or peril for this country's future.

Nearly one hundred years ago, the steel city of Youngstown, Ohio was on the rise. Like many cities and towns in what was the "Industrial Heartland of North America," Youngstown steadily boomed with the rise of manufacturing. The population of the city rose from 33,000 in 1890 to 170,000 in 1930. Youngstown became the center of Mahoning Valley, better known as the "Steel Valley." Steel mills lined the Mahoning River for miles. Enormous industrial concerns like Republic Steel (founded in Youngstown) the U.S. Steel Ohio Works and Youngstown Sheet and Tube's Brier Hill Works operated day and night, dominating the city's skyline and encasing the heavens around Youngstown in a leaden haze. Few seemed to mind though, for as one steelworker put it, "Everybody breathing dirt, eating dirt-they call it 'pay dirt,' for Youngstown clean would be Youngstown out of work." [2] Youngstown grew as an economic monoculture. Steel dominated every aspect of life.

By the 1930s, Youngstown ranked fifth in the nation in terms of home ownership; the city became known as "The city of homes." [3] Amazingly enough, the city even suffered from a housing shortage during the 1930s. This led to the building of Westlake Terrace-the first housing project in the nation authorized by the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. [4] As early as 1940 though, the city faced a declining population. Between 1930 and 1940, the city experienced a slight population loss, making it the only city west of the Appalachian Mountains with a population over 100,000 to lose residents. [5]

The 1940s and 1950s represented another boom era for the city. Youngstown's mills proved so important to the war effort in Korea that when a steel strike loomed in 1952, Truman ordered the Sheet and Tube mills in Chicago and Youngstown seized. This led to the famous Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer case, which dealt with executive overreach. The 1950s ended however with what was to be the beginning of a long decline.

In 1959, the media dubbed Youngstown "Steel's Sick City," as the economy slowed and a national steel strike paralyzed the industry. By 1960, after several decades of African American migration into the city, Youngstown had become more segregated than ever. The west side of the city, which was almost entirely white due to redlining, became known as "west side white." Meanwhile, disastrous urban renewal and highway programs bulldozed black neighborhoods and created ghettoes. At no time during the urban renewal campaign did African Americans make up more than a quarter of the city's population; yet, 75 percent of those forcibly relocated were black.[6] The growth of ghettoes and neighborhood racial turnover accelerated after the urban riots on Youngstown's South Side during 1968, and on the south and east sides in 1969.

Fear of a "Black Youngstown" also accompanied the rise of Black Power in the city, largely led by Dr. Ron Daniels. Days before the Martin Luther King riots in 1968, Daniels led hundreds of African Americans across the Market Street Bridge to downtown and proclaimed, "If we need a burger, we will build our own. If we need a country club, we will build our own. If we unite we can get anything we want." [7] After the riots and the increase in black economic power, more whites fled. Youngstown lost 16 percent of its population during the 1960s, a much larger percentage than most other industrial cities. Years before the first steel mill closed, the stage for the city's downward spiral was set.

Today, nearly one hundred years after the city's quick rise, the grime and soot from the mills are long gone; indeed, the mills themselves are long gone. Only a few rusty remnants still cling to the riverside. The once seemingly permanent mini-cities of men and machines are now fields. Industrial disinvestment, foreign competition, and globalization eliminated Youngstown's steel industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s-and with it the city's place in the world. The mafia, long a cancer on the local community, took over many aspects of the city and county government. Only an aggressive campaign by the FBI ended the mob's reign in the late 1990s.

Even with the mafia gone, Youngstown is known nationally for its violent crime rate, which remained among the very worst in the nation at the turn of the century. Much of the crime could be connected to the drug trade, the lack of inner-city employment opportunities, and the fact that Youngstown's African American community had become the poorest concentrated black population in the nation by the mid-1990s.[8] More people fled in the wake of increased crime in the 90s and Youngstown's population stood at only 82,000 at the beginning of the century.

In 2002, the city unveiled the Youngstown 2010 Plan. The 2010 plan was a unique attempt at "smart shrinkage," that is targeting investment, and even seeking to relocate people from areas of the city with high numbers of vacancies, to more viable neighborhoods. The national media focused on the 2010 plan as a blueprint for rebuilding post-industrial cities. Mayor Jay Williams, elected in 2005, even toured the country, touting the plan in places like Gary, Indiana. Yet, the 2010 plan proved to be illusory. The city did not follow through with the outreach needed for relocating citizens in low occupancy areas. Youngstown failed to even properly carry out a targeted demolition plan.

The spread of blight accelerates three years after 2010. According to GIS mapping by urban planner Tom Hetrick, there are now 6,000 vacant buildings in a city with an area of 34 square miles. The poorest and most blighted parts of the city are still predominately black; the most prosperous and stable areas are still white. The city planner's position is still vacant after five years. The downtown is actually growing, after spending nearly thirty years as a ghost town, due in large part to grants and suburban dollars. Block watches and neighborhood groups are filling the gap left by an absentee local government. Urban farms are popping up among the vast tracts of vacant land in the city. And despite the utterly bleak situation, community and cultural groups still struggle to effect change.

In his seminal 1992 book on the former steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, William Serrin wrote, "America uses things-people, resources, cities-then discards them." [9] Like many of its steel cities, America discarded Youngstown. The middle class and the surrounding suburban townships discarded Youngstown as well. Now, fittingly, as the American Dream deserts wide swaths of the country, we can look to Youngstown for answers, or at least for questions. What does the existence of a place like Youngstown, nestled in the most prosperous society the world has ever seen, say about America? What kind of country creates a place like Youngstown, while also creating the largest number of millionaires and billionaires in the world? What does America owe, if anything, to the forgotten and hollowed out places that-quite literally-built what it is today?

Pictures courtesy of Sean Posey Photography


[1] Chris Hedges, "Heroes for the Beaten, Foreclosed on, Imprisoned Masses,", October 18, 2010, " (accessed June 1, 2013).

[2] Dan O'Brien, "Seeing Decades of Life Through Lens of Youngstown." Business Journal, July 11, 2005, (accessed June 1, 2013).

[3] Youngstown: The City of Homes , brochure, ca. 1931

[4] Sean T. Posey, "Crossing to Westlake Terrace: Public Housing in Youngstown, Ohio" (seminar paper, Youngstown State University, 2010)

[5] Pace and Associates, Comprehensive City Plan-Report Number Two: "The Economy of Youngstown" (Chicago, Illinois: June, 1951), 10.

[6] Charles Etlinger, "Population Shifts Burden Horse and Buggy Governments," Youngstown Vindicator, December 26, 1971, A-5.

[7] 200 Youths Stage Quiet March Here," Youngstown Vindicator, April 4, 1968, A-1.

[8] Segregation Spells Disaster, Expert Says," Vindicator, December 1, 1995, A-1

[9] William Serrin, Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of a an American Steel Town

(New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 25.