Fighting to save a troubled city
A feature film on Youngstown, Ohio, a city that exemplifies industrial decline, won the Grand Prize Best Feature Film award in 2021 from the Better Cities Film Festival. The Place That Makes Us, honored in Detroit this week, tells the story of people who stayed in Youngstown and worked to rebuild the city.
The documentary film focuses on the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC), a nonprofit that revitalizes abandoned properties, led by an idealistic urban planner, Ian Beniston, who grew up in the city and is the son of a laid-off steelworker. His business partner Tiffany Sokol is supervising crews, acquiring houses, and, in her off hours, taking care of foster children.
The film tells related stories, like that of Julius Oliver, who started a car-cleaning business after escaping gang violence—and then became a Youngstown city councilman. He is working with the city and YNDC to rehab a building as a youth center. Bernie—whole full name I don’t know—is a single mother who works two jobs and raises a family while buying a home from YNDC.
A better backdrop for urban decline is hard to imagine. Youngstown lost nearly two-thirds of its population since its peak in the 1950s. Footage of that era, with a booming downtown, parades, civic institutions, and jobs, is juxtaposed sadly against the vacant mills and houses. Beniston never knew a thriving Youngstown—the city was already on life support when he was growing up.
“I didn't know the Youngstown that my father did, with the steel mill flooded with people. I grew up when Youngstown had one of the highest murder rates in the country, when crack came on the scene,” he says. Yet he returned with a master’s degree. “The ones that will change these places will be the ones that stay and fight,” he says. At another point he is discouraged, asking, “Is it ever going to be enough and is it all for naught?”
Youngstown lacks the cool vibe of larger rust belt cities—Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, for example—and yet the city’s downtown has revitalized in recent years. Youngstown continues to lose population overall, and has hundreds of vacant, deteriorating properties. The city lacks resources to save many houses, and is knocking many down.
Against that backdrop, YNDC acquires properties and coordinates volunteers to clean them up, preparing for contractors to rebuild. Many are solid houses from the city’s heyday. The organization, founded in 2009, started by rehabbing a few houses a year, and built that number up to 30. “I want to get through more houses,” says Tiffany. “There is a greater cause here—it’s more than just hitting a number.”
Youngstown may see a renewal in the coming decades. It has tremendous capacity for development. The city has “good bones,” infrastructure built for a much larger population, and low property values—perfect for incremental development. It was once a walkable, mixed-use place and retains that quality to a degree. Youngstown is a good candidate to be a “receiver city,” a place where people move if other parts of the country become unlivable due to changes in climate or the economy.
If and when that turnaround comes, it will be thanks in large part to the people who stayed and kept the city alive. The title of the film brings to mind the quote by Churchill: “We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us.” The city is making the people in this film; they are making it in return. The 70-minute film is directed by Karla Murthy.
The Rural Studio, a short documentary by Jeff Durkin, makes a good companion to the top feature. Only a three and a half minutes, it tells the story of an architecture studio of Auburn University that is helping Newbern, Alabama, population 186. The west-central Alabama town had no firehouse, and so by the time firefighters arrived 50 minutes later, homes would burn down. The town also had no library. The studio helped residents design and build both a firehouse and library. The simple and attractive fire house is the first public building in 110 years.
Although Newbern is as poor as Youngstown, the problems seem in proportion to the place. The Rural Studio is a hopeful story, because it shows the difference architecture and construction help can provide a little community like Newbern.
The Better Cities Film Festival began in 2013 as the New Urbanism Film Festival. The festival director is Josh Paget, co-founder with Chris Eilsara of First+Main Films.