Scott Sowers is a freelance writer and independent producer based in Washington, D.C. He writes and creates content about architecture, design, real estate, energy, technology, and the automotive industry.
Three years ago, a city councilman wanted to see how far he could drive off the beaten path. That adventure now helps local leaders and advocates survey the remains of the city’s heyday, and find potential for the future.
As he steered his Jeep off the road, Youngstown City Councilman Mike Ray checked to make sure his machete was still in the back seat. Pausing for a moment, he plucked the loose Parodi cigar off the dashboard, stuck it between his teeth, and punched the accelerator. I grabbed for the handrail in front of me as we bounced through ruts, with trees and bushes scraping the fenders.
The path ahead was gradually being overtaken by weeds and tree branches—hence, the machete. It follows what’s left of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, which used to haul coal and steel between Youngstown and Pittsburgh, before the mills closed in the late 1970s. The city has since bought the land, ripped up the tracks, knocked down bridges, and turned most of it into an industrial park. This five-mile stretch, though, was left to nature—and now, the safaris.
Ray’s adventures on this path began in the spring of 2015 as something of a lark. He was participating in a neighborhood cleanup day with a city planner and two employees of the local economic development council. The sun was shining and the doors were off the Jeep as they ventured beyond the cleanup site. The original goal was to see how far into the wilderness he could drive while still staying within city limits.
Sara Wenger, a community planner with the Eastgate Council of Governments, was along for the ride that day. “It’s a great tool for storytelling,” says Wenger, whose group works with the city to identify infrastructure projects and revitalization strategies. “The safaris help planners experience the city differently. You see different angles and how geographic places interact. It helps with idea generation, not only with what could be, but how one experiences what a city is.”
Youngstown was built for a different economy, one fed by trains and trucks rolling through town. Many of the major roadways were overbuilt to handle the heavy loads. Now, they’re out of scale as the population has shrunk from a high of 165,000 in 1950, to its current level of 65,000.
The city recognizes changing times. It recently finished a $5 million renovation of Wick Avenue, a main thoroughfare that runs by Youngstown State University, the Butler Institute of American Art, and the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. The stretch was repaved, relit, and reconfigured to include bike lanes.
Word of mouth about Ray’s off-road adventures spurred dozens more safaris, with passengers including city leaders, real estate developers, and members of the media. His jaunts attracted more city planners curious to see what was hidden from maps or the confines of a normal car. In city council meetings, Ray had proposed that members travel to the best and worst areas of each ward to get to know every corner in town. The safaris played off that theme, showcasing the city’s ruins as well as its natural beauty. “Everybody had a blast, but it was also kind of educational,” Ray says. “There were a lot of questions about what used to be there.”
Youngstown’s past and present is tied to water access. The safari paths have been cut along both banks of the Mahoning River, which functioned as a cooling source and slop sink for mills in the city’s manufacturing days. Active and defunct rail lines that used to serve the steel industry still run alongside the river, and planners visualize activating the riverfront while working around the trains.
In fact, this railroad infrastructure sparked one of the first ideas to arise from the safaris: a plan to turn the old railroad line into an elevated park modeled after New York City’s High Line. In 2017, the city won a $100,000 NEA grant for public art projects that included lighting an arched railway bridge over a main thoroughfare—a taste of what could be. Design charrettes have explored the possibilities, but so far the “Y-Line” remains a dream.
A bit farther down the abandoned rail line, Ray’s Jeep bounces past a cab driver cleaning his car on a patch of gravel. A concealed path nearby leads to a small boat dock built by the Boy Scouts and used by “Friends of the Mahoning River,” a grassroots coalition of kayakers who tout the “72 species of fish” now living in the newer, cleaner, version of the river. The dock sits in a rustic setting, except for the power lines stretching across the glistening water.
The group has plotted maps of put-ins and portages, and it’s advocating for the removal of four dams to improve river navigation and fish migration. “We’ve put forward legislation to remove the dams, but there’s concern about releasing sediment from when all the industrial stuff was being dumped in it,” Ray says.
In 2016, the group notched a victory by winning a $2.4 million EPA grant to remove a dam and deal with the sediment in nearby Lowellville. The demolition and construction of a boat livery is expected to start this year. According to Ray, as safari-going city officials have become more familiar with the area, they’re imagining new uses for the waterfront, including possible locations for festivals.
Backtracking a bit, we returned to paved city streets. We navigated downtown, passing by Art Deco buildings and the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor, a museum designed by architect Michael Graves. Heading back toward the water, the Jeep stopped on a wide section of bare earth.
The river and the railroad tracks define the far border of the site; the center of town is two blocks away. The land will eventually hold the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheater, a 4,500-person entertainment venue that will rest in a park-like setting behind the Covelli Centre, a 5,900-person multi-purpose arena that opened in 2005.
The amphitheater’s financial backer, the Youngstown Foundation, was started in 1918 by a group of the steel barons whose names now adorn streets, museums, and other public buildings in town. The new amphitheater was built on a reclaimed brownfield site once occupied by a steel foundry.
“We needed additional recreation for the city residents as we continue to make it more residential,” Ray says. The downtown core is showing signs of life. The boundaries of Youngstown State University stretch toward apartments, condos, and a new hotel, all of which have been carved out of abandoned office buildings.
Cutting across town, the Jeep entered the Republic Rubber site—a favorite of urban explorers and “scrappers” looking for copper in what’s left of the millworks. The site offers plenty of hardcore decay porn on land that’s still too hot to plow. “It’s a huge environmental issue that needs remediation,” Ray says, “and funding has been cut, so that site remains a challenge.”
Still, the site was put to use recently. A California-based film production company, Mad Media, used it to shoot a video about high-performance all-terrain vehicles exploring the Rust Belt by zooming around abandoned buildings and crashing through windows. Ray keeps the link to the video on his phone.
“The ATV video opened our eyes to the possibility of bringing film productions into the area,” he says. In 2015, Ray was sent on a mission to Santa Monica to chat up producers. That trip eventually led to a feature film shoot—the upcoming thriller “Them That Follow”—with the city providing the location and financial support. “They used our float loan program for $1.2 million in financing and the local spend within city limits was probably around $200,000,” Ray says.
On the west side of town, the Jeep followed the river and was quickly dwarfed by the million-square-foot French-owned Vallourec plant, built in 2010 at a cost of $650 million. The firm specializes in seamless tubing that’s used in the fracking industry and employs about 400 people.
Any kind of business moving into the Mahoning Valley—especially a steel manufacturer or fabricator—sparks hope for the good old days. The plant looks like a postcard of a clean, modern, industrial park with the river and the tracks defining the western boundary.
According to Wenger, jobs that are currently available in the area don’t always help the city’s blue-collar residents. “Although there are over 15,000 jobs available at this moment in the metro area, if you do not have a bachelor’s degree, only 1 in 5 openings provides a wage that merits going off of public assistance for a family of four,” she says. She also cites that openings for bachelor’s degree holders are weaker than nearby markets like Cleveland, Akron, and Pittsburgh—other Midwestern cities looking to attract talent and residents.
Youngstown has been bleeding population for years and wrestling with smart downsizing. “We did a solid job of acquiring the land, rehabilitating it, and returning it to new productive use,” Ray says. “Unfortunately instead of employing thousands, these new places employ hundreds.”
Going street legal
Grassroots economic development groups have been eyeing Ray’s safaris with ideas about monetizing them. The notion of providing Jeeps sponsored by local businesses has been floated, but obstacles remain.
“There are plans currently in the works to adapt the Urban Safari concept as an education tool, but funding and organizational capacity to implement a program of this scale are a big challenge,” says Nicholas Chretien, a member of the Economic Action Group. “Particularly those associated with insurance and operations management.”
Wenger believes nostalgia may be holding back general progress. “The biggest challenge is that the past is so present, and even those like myself, who didn’t live during the heyday, are reminded all the time of what was, rather than what could be,” she says. “We’ve dealt with so much loss and suffering that we fear taking risks.”
Risk is always along for the ride inside the Jeep. Ray likens his town to a comic book metaphor. “We are our own little Gotham,” he says. “We have the art, we have the industry, the local millionaires, the benefactors, the university. We have all those things from our past that’s very special. My fondest wish is that people don’t have to leave for opportunity.”