Youngstown Sitting down with most of the organizing staff of MVOC, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, the first surprise was when they went around the room and all seem to have been raised and returned to this chunk of northeastern Ohio within about 60 miles of each other. For an organizing staff the odds of that are infinitesimally high, but here I was in a county where the footprint of the steel industry is still everywhere in deindustrialized ghost plants and depopulated shrunken cities and towns, but in each case the trail always leads away from Mahoning Valley, never back.
This young organization and its young, clean cut staff were serious and focused as we talked for hours. This was serious business not a barrel of laughs, but they were fun and good spirited with solid camaraderie, and the intensity that comes from being part of a winning program and now being hungrier and hungrier to play in bigger games in bigger leagues. I enjoyed every minute of it!
The signature campaign they have been engaging goes right to the heart of the crises affecting so many urban areas in old industrial Midwest. The cities are slimmed down and the neighborhoods that were built for many are not holding onto the few, so abandoned houses and vacant lots can seem to outnumber occupied homes. The sharp point of the campaign seems to have come in Warren, where to hear the organizer, Nate Brown, describe it, they are making headway in uniting very different and diverse neighborhoods in Warren whether by the golf course or near the old plants, to come together and understand it is in the whole town’s interest to make – and fund – a plan that demolishes abandoned structures and then figures out what to do with what remains. The new director of the staff, Heather McMahon, chipped in with the story of leveraging the state players on the attorneys general big bank settlement (so controversial and inadequate by most consensus) for $75 million of the Ohio share of that pot earmarked for vacant house demolition programs around the state, which could be a huge boost to this program in Warren and Youngstown at the core of the MVOC operations.
Asking Nate what would then happen with the lots after they were cleared took us down an interesting path in the discussion. His answer was vague and a little bit like the Adopt-a-Lot program in New Orleans where neighbors have first dibs on adjoining properties at cut rate prices to create larger estates out of their homesteads, but more interestingly ( at least to me) we got into a conversation about land banking and whether or not MVOC should more aggressively seek to become the steward for these properties and hold the lots as an asset for future development, whether it be residential, commercial, or, intriguingly (OK, to me, as I’ve already said), agricultural. There are hints of a growing small but fascinating urban farming program in cities like Detroit and New Orleans. Obviously farming is not my critical expertise, but if you look at land cost and labor supply in classic farming area and then add transportation and supply costs, I got excited about the prospects for community organizations assembling and holding large parcels of land and enabling farming and agricultural production that also fits closely to the values of “local-vores” and the “buy local” movement, job creation, healthy food movement, and the like. It was a great group of organizers so they were very tolerant of this tangent, and although they weren’t exactly ready to sign up for the program, clearly it had them thinking about some of the potential and pitfalls of community development in the perverse institutional sense still so common in conversation, as opposed to the self-sustaining, asset-building program that I argue every community organization with an enduring mission is going to have to embrace to operate in the future.
Later I spent some hours at a roughhewn local watering hole called Royal Oak with MVOC’s lead organizer, Adam Keck, Ty Beatty (who told a great story of spending time in a school in Georgia on a Heritage Foundation program, but, hey, look at him now!), and Nate, talking more generally about the work and enjoying a bit of the local culture. This was a good solid working class bar with wings and burgers on the side and cycles parked outside with smokers hulking in front of the door to screen novices and tourists out at the parking lot. Here in the middle of March madness with two, big hulking screens at each end of the bar, the TV sets were cooking. A more detailed report on the television selections over the almost 4 hours of our immersion experience in local Youngstown culture has to be given. On one end of the bar the channel was fixed on the History Channel, a new blue collar favorite with stories of Swamp People, Antique Pickers, and all manner of hardworking hustlers. On the other end of the bar, was the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)!
Those very different choices say it all for me. If Youngstown’s survivors can hunker down and make choices as different as the History Channel and OWN, they may be just the leaders and organizers to find some new and different ways to hunker down, develop, and sustain the more enduring strains of hybrid community organizations like MVOC shows signs of becoming.