The unfulfilled promise of Youngstown
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BOB MOON: Well, let's hope Amy Scott has done her taxes because she's back on the road this week. Last fall Amy and Marketplace Money host Tess Vigeland hit the interstate. They set out from opposite coasts to ask Americans whether the financial crisis had set this country on the Road to Ruin. Six months later, they're re-visiting some of the places they stopped along the way. Today we find Amy in Youngstown, Ohio.
AMY SCOTT: When I passed through here last October, people were excited about the Chevy Cruze. General Motors planned to start building the fuel-efficient car in nearby Lordstown next year. The plant had just added a third shift. Now GM is on the brink of bankruptcy. Jim Graham is president of the United Auto Workers Local 1112.
JIM GRAHAM: We went from three shifts, in three months, we went down to one shift.
Graham says 2,000 people lost their jobs. Still he says the Cruze is on track for next year, even as GM closes plants around the country.
GRAHAM: There's no doubt in my mind, because gas prices are not going to stay down. They're going to go up. It's at least a light at the end of the tunnel for here in Lordstown.
Last October, the area's unemployment rate was 7.5 percent. Now it's nearing 14 percent. It's the highest in Ohio. John Russo co-directs the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University.
As the rest of the country struggles with a relatively new recession, he says Youngstown never recovered from the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s.
JOHN RUSSO: Youngstown's been in a type of regional depression. You don't lose 50,000 jobs, you don't lose 1.3 billion in lost annual manufacturing wages and recover. It takes a long period of time, and maybe it will never be the same city it once was.
Leaders are trying to figure out what kind of city it will be. One of them is Phil Kidd. He's a community organizer and founder of a group called Defend Youngstown.
Kidd is pushing a plan to tear down vacant buildings throughout Youngstown. He says the city needs to downsize and spend federal stimulus money on development. He says the thing about a place so downtrodden is that it's ripe for innovation. A business incubator downtown has helped develop one of the country's fastest growing software companies.
PHIL KIDD: That's who's being attracted to Youngstown. People who want to search for that answer, and people who want to engage in that process of figuring this out. It's like an urban laboratory of sorts.
The laboratory has drawn people like Tyler and Jaci Clark to town.
He's 33. She's 40. That's their son Boston on the piano. Jaci grew up here.
The couple met at Youngstown State University and then promptly left.
JACI CLARK: That's what you did. You went to school, when you graduated, the first thing you did was you left Youngstown.
After 10 years living in more expensive cities like Tucson and Washington DC, they moved back a few years ago with their two children. Both started their own businesses. Jaci's a photographer. Tyler runs a Web company. He likens Youngstown to a fixer-upper house.
TYLER CLARK: You're filled with the promise of what it could be, rather than the reality of what it is. And I think that's how many of us now are looking at Youngstown. Not as a shadow of its former self, but something with incredible potential.
They bought a five-bedroom house on a historic street for less than $200,000 dollars. It's just one opportunity they might never have dreamed of in a thriving city.
In Youngstown, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.