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A Rust Belt city tries to shrink its way to success

Youngstown, Ohio’s groundbreaking plan for revival collides with recession and hard choices about neighborhood survival.

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Former mill: An old steel mill on the outskirts of Youngs­town. The city’s population has fallen from 170,000 30 years ago to 80,000 today.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Mark Peyko has spent his whole life in the Rust Belt – a childhood in Youngstown, Ohio, and six years as a newspaperman outside Detroit. He had seen firsthand what census after census had suggested: Residents were fleeing by the thousands. Slowly, the region’s cities were dying.

Yet nothing had prepared him for the announcement that city leaders in his hometown made seven years ago: Youngstown would no longer dream of a return to its heyday, when steel mills thronged the banks of the Mahoning River and 170,000 residents crowded its city limits.

Instead, it dreamed only of survival, and to do this, Youngstown would not grow, but shrink – shuttering swaths of the city through demolition and consolidation on a massive scale.

The announcement was the beginning of Youngstown 2010, a bold plan for a new mode of urban sustainability. With only 80,000 residents left in the city, Youngstown leaders hoped to redirect limited resources to parts of town that they felt had viable futures. Residents would be offered incentives to move into parts of town not yet overrun by vacant properties, reorganizing the city around the university and a long-neglected urban core. A new Youngstown, smaller but more vibrant, would grow amid the shell of the old, which would either be demolished or ignored.

But Youngstown 2010 is faltering. Recession is challenging its plan. The city has little money to demolish vacant buildings; no one has taken the $50,000 incentive to move.

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