May 4, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 11:00 AM EST
Springsteen sings "Youngstown" in Youngstown. A song inspired by "Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass," a book byDale Maharidge.
Hartford might be able to learn a lesson from the Heartland. The industrial revolution built Youngstown, and when capitalism realized that it could get the steel cheaper overseas, Youngstown crumbled.
In the past several decades, Youngstown has lost 60 percent of its population, according to a piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday (h/t to scoop). Faced by the devastation of emigration from this steel hub, city planners today are seeking answers.
One solution they have hit upon: "an economic development plan that boils down to controlled shrinkage," wrote Timothy Aeppel of the Journal.
Let neighborhoods empty out, then when they become desolate and unpopulated, the city has an almost rural place where pavement, abandoned house and streetlights can be torn up and turned into gardens and parks.
The city - which has gone from 168,000 people to 80,000 poeple in a little less than a half a century - has divided Youngstown's 35 square miles into 127 tiny little neighborhoods, with the aim of taking on blight with a bulldozer, the article said.
The plan isn't without controversy, as the poorest neighborhoods, those targeted for this type of renovation, are inhabited by mostly minorities.
But could this work in a place like Hartford. At half the square mileage, and a bigger population, the density here is a little more intense. But we have our share of brownfields, blight and parking lots that aren't used at all.
For example, at the intersection of Laurel and Niles Streets, a hundred car lot sits, empty. In my six years on this street, the only car I've ever seen close to using it is a cop car that sat in the driveway.
No cars can enter it, because there are chains blocking the driveway. My guess is that at one time, the lot was a series of houses or an apartment building.
With the loss of Hartford's population, the buildings were blighted, demolished and turned into pavement. A standard scenario across this city's 18 square miles.
The other day, I saw some kids trespassing in the lot (oh, the horror), they threw a football and played baseball and jumped rope in there.
I've always imagined it as a community garden, or a grassy playground or field for kids, because it is directly adjacent to the West Middle School. The two-thirds of an acre lot was purchsed by BostonHartford, LLC, June 29, 2001 for $1,050,000.
Can the school system afford to purchase that and turn it into a playground and then maintain that grassy lot? Perhaps, perhaps not.
But I swear that there has to be a better use for that chunk of earth than a pavement investment for a Boylston Street (in Massachusetts) based real estate company.
It adds nothing to our neighborhood, and whether or not the risks that Youngstown is taking in its process of de-urbanization are successful, the idea of tearing up the pavement and making a lively, grassy lot out of a desolate urban space is something we should consider.