In 2004, the City of Youngstown asked voters whether they should review and renew a comprehensive plan every 10 years. Seventy four percent of voters said yes, and Youngstown 2010 was born to cope with the city’s four decades of plummeting population.
One component of the strategy involves the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. Executive Director Presley Gillespie wants the agency to return vacant land to productive use.
"We look at what impact that dilapidated property has on that street. So we try to help the city with some of the planning to help identify the properties that need to come down. Several other properties are going to be coming down in the next 30 to 45 days."
Lots of cities tear down buildings. It’s what Youngstown does with the resulting vacant lots that the city hopes will makes a difference. Once the buildings come down, the neighborhood group’s “Lots of Green” project takes over. Resident Marice Hardy explains.
"Because of all the blight in Youngstown, all the nuisance properties, and all the complaints, they decided to do something about it. Which is, put these community gardens in place of old abandoned houses."
Old, abandoned houses have outnumbered inhabited ones in this west side neighborhood for decades. Of Idora’s roughly 120 properties, 30 are vacant buildings, with half marked for demolition. The city has already torn down about 45 buildings, creating plots that are, in turn, creating gardens or other green space. Shirley Brumfield is glad to see improvements in the neighborhood.
"You can identify the lots that they’re working on because they’ve put up, I call ‘em cowboy fences. And that’s how you can identify the different properties that they’ve done. They’ve done a good job, cause I’ve been staying up here for a long time, and it’s good to see all this stuff gone. [It was an] eye sore really. People hanging out, kids, people sleeping in abandoned houses and stuff. That ain’t good."
The split rail “cowboy fences” dot the neighborhood, even though ground wasn’t broken on the seven gardens until last month. That means there are few usable crops at this point, but Liberty Merrill has a plan to extend the growing season into winter.
"I think we’re definitely interested in having some hoop houses out here and that’ll extend the growing season so we can still get some greens and things into the winter, and also much earlier into the spring."
Youngstown 2010 is an attempt to embrace the region’s shrinking size. But at the same time, the city hopes programs like “Lots of Green” improve the city enough to stem the population decline. Ms. Merrill is a new arrival in the neighborhood, though she doesn't plan to stay long. That's because the Northeast Oregon native is a summer intern with the neighborhood’s urban gardens. The program hopes to partner with local universities to test the soil and find out what, if anything, needs to be done to guard against lead or oil contamination of crops.
"Even though we have done soil tests, you never know what was on this part of the lot or that part of the lot, things like that. In each of these raised beds, there’s a really good mixture of composted horse manure and top soil. We put down a pretty thick layer of cardboard underneath, and then we put down the wood chips. And that’s basically like a carbon filter, that’s supposed to be the best way to keep the contamination down in the soil."
The beds are devoted almost entirely to produce, so ensuring the plants are chemical-free is a high priority. Residents are even asked not to add Miracle Gro or other fertilizers to the soil. Given the types of foods available in the neighborhood for decades, fresh, healthy produce is even more important. Crime drove away the nearest grocery store years ago. A bunker mentality engulfed Idora, evidenced by the bomb-proof, canned cuisine available at the corner store. Marice Hardy, like most Idora gardeners, has devoted her tract to produce.
"We really don’t have what you would call a decent grocery store in the neighborhood. It’s all those corner stores, and they don’t do many fruits and vegetables. So this way we get to grow our own. We get to talk with our neighbors and socialize. If I need a green pepper for dinner, I can just come and get a green pepper. I’m only a half a block from the corner store. But the thing is, I’m just scared to go to the corner store because of all the activity that goes on there that I really don’t care for."
Carol Hughes, tending the garden next to Hardy’s, agrees.
"I don’t eat healthy so this is a beginning for me. To start planting my own vegetables and eat more vegetables. I grew them myself and that kind of makes me proud."
The neighborhood coalition’s Merrill notes that if all goes well, a farmer's market may even be in the neighborhood's future.
"People selling rib dinners out here on the corner, I’d love to see some of the youth out there with a vegetable stand later in the year."
Youth are already involved, as 3 teenagers have been hired to help with seeding and watering. Others, like Tamicka, have plots of their own.
"I got a plant over there. Mine’s in the middle right there. Some tomatoes, and some onions and some string beans."
Her friend, Mark, sounds as happy as a teenager is likely to sound to have a summer diversion.
"Yea, it’s fun. Gives you something to do. Making the neighborhood look nice and doing a good job."
Kevin Handel’s family delivered newspapers for nearly 20 years in Idora, and he notes that people are responding in ways he didn’t expect.
"We are already starting to see the beneficial effects from the neighborhood. People who I’ve heard say to each other ‘I’ve seen you but I never knew your name before.’ I’d say there’s been a little more grass cutting, a little more shrubbery trimming in the last few weeks, yea. It can’t get worse than it was, it can definitely get better."
It definitely seems to be getting better, and as Gillespie walks down the street, Vernon Mitchell drives by to say thanks.
"This is a nice thing you’re doing for these people in this neighborhood."
According to Merrill, response can also be measured by the scarcity of available vegetable beds.
"We have so many people involved and so many people excited about it that we’re already running out of space."
That’s just the lots slated for gardens. Gillespie is also working with homeowners to acquire vacant side lots adjoining their properties.
"Typically what we’re doing is trying to acquire that land through tax lien foreclosures. Takes about 12 months. Once we are the owner of record of that lot, then we will either give the lot via no charge or some nominal amount of consideration to the homeowner."
As the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation transforms vacancies into veggies a half acre at a time, a bigger prize rests on the neighborhood’s southwest side. Idora Park was one of the country’s premier amusement parks until fire destroyed it in 1984. A quarter century of decay erased all traces of “America’s Million Dollar Playground,” as it was once known. For years, the property has been owned by a local church intent on creating a “City of God,” but no progress has been made. A chain link fence now corrals the property, and the only hint of life is the rusty shell of the former entry way.
The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation has set its sights on liberating Idora Park from legal limbo and allowing Mother Nature to merge it into the Mill Creek MetroParks.
"In some of the lots, we will plant native plantings, and they will basically take over and expand the MetroParks."
The Idora neighborhood gardens should yield produce later this year. But Youngstown 2010 has already produced imitators. Both Detroit and Cleveland are considering ways to redefine themselves as smaller, greener cities.