A fascinating experiment in urban renewal is under way in the northeastern Ohio city of Youngstown, a municipality most often identified in recent years as a Rust Belt casualty undone by the decline of the U.S. steel industry.

Rather than resigning itself to a sad and inevitable fate, however, Youngstown leadership has embarked on a novel approach toward a noble destination. For lack of a better term, one might call it “shrinking toward prosperity.”

In the past year alone, city planners estimate they have demolished more than 500 buildings as part of a plan to raze all of Youngstown’s slums and allow green space or new development to connect neighborhoods and commercial districts that survived the collapse of the local steel economy.

A bit of history: founded in 1797 near the point where the Mahoning River meets Mill Creek, Youngstown was, for most of the 20th century, a thriving industrial city populated largely by families whose parents or grandparents had emigrated from Europe, many of them from Italy, Poland, Greece, and Slovakia, and by African-Americans from the South, all looking for work in the steel furnaces and foundries and related industries.

Most found jobs in the mills of U.S. Steel, Republic Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and Youngstown Sheet & Tube, all of which had major operations in or around Youngstown.

A short list of luminaries who were born and/or raised in this mini-metropolis include President William F. McKinley; movie mogul Jack Warner; boxers Ernie Shavers and Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini; shopping mall magnate and San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo; football quarterbacks Ron Jaworski and Bernie Kosar; TV stars Catherine Bach and Ed O’Neill; movie director Chris Columbus; actor Austin Pendleton; economist Arthur Laffer; American Communist Party President Gus Hall; and imprisoned Ohio congressman James Traficant.

At its zenith in the 1950s and early 1960s, Youngstown was a city of more than 160,000 people with a bustling downtown, good schools, upscale department stores, thriving parishes, well-maintained roads, parks and golf courses, and a legendary amusement park, Idora, whose two roller-coasters – the Wildcat and the Jackrabbit – rivaled the finest to be found at Disneyland or Coney Island.

Unfortunately, however, Youngstown’s economy relied almost exclusively on the steel industry, and never became as diversified as larger Midwestern industrial cities such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

There were some harbingers of decline by the late 1960s, especially the 1969 acquisition of Youngstown Sheet & Tube by New Orleans-based Lykes Corporation, which placed control of the company outside of the Mahoning Valley and, in short order, burdened the community’s primary steel producer with mountains of debt.

As foreign competition began to decimate the U.S. steel industry in the 1970s, employment began to shrink. The unkindest cut of all came on September 19, 1977 – an event still remembered by many Youngstowners as “Black Monday” – when Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed its doors, sounding a death knell for the local steel industry. U.S. Steel withdrew two years later, and Republic went bankrupt in the 1980s.

Unemployment in Youngstown rose to 21 percent by late 1982, and by the 2000 census, the city’s population had declined by half to about 82,000. Square miles of the city were simply abandoned and, had it not been for Youngstown State University and General Motors’ nearby Lordstown plant, the city’s two remaining large employers, Youngstown may very well have become a 21st century urban ghost town.

The city’s decline was even elegized in a song entitled “Youngstown” by working class bard Bruce Springsteen on his 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” an apropos comparison of modern smokestack America to the Depression-era “dust bowl.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, organized crime in Youngstown, which always had a foothold in the city, took advantage of the city’s plight and entrenched itself to the point where ABC’s “Nightline” did a show on Youngstown corruption, and pundits joked that anyone who wanted to see the real “Sopranos” ought to visit Youngstown.

With the beginning of the new millennium, however, local leaders began to create and, more importantly, act upon their vision of a new “post-steel economy.”

The blueprint for change is “Youngstown 2010,” developed by a team lead by Jay Williams, who spent five years as the city’s Director of Community Development before becoming Mayor in 2005.

Only 34 at the time of his election, Williams was the youngest, the first African-American, and the first independent candidate to be voted mayor in Youngstown history. His electoral upset was both historic and stunning, and viewed by many political observers as a watershed event in the changing political landscape of the community.

What is so unique about “Youngstown 2010” is that it plans not for growth but for a smaller albeit more prosperous city. Bulldozers are leveling block after block of abandoned buildings and empty lots and replacing them with green fields and parkland or leaving room for development that would connect residential neighborhoods and/or commercial districts that remain viable.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the plan is what its authors foresee as a multi-year effort to create a corridor through what is now a slum that would connect those downtown areas that are still well-populated with the southward expansion of Youngstown State University.

The college and city are working together and in apparent harmony and cohesion (which historically has not always been the case) to realize this long-term vision. In fact, city’s planning and development efforts have been recognized by the American Planning Association and featured in articles by the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, USA Today, and Governing Magazine.

The Youngstown experiment is regarded as being so unique that a TV station from as far away as The Netherlands recently sent a crew to the city to tape a feature on the progress made to date. After looking around and interviewing city officials, the producer of the segment remarked in a thick Dutch accent: “Maybe Bruce Springsteen will have to write some new lyrics to his song.”

Robert McEwen