Wednesday, September 19, 2007

youngstown’s opportunity to become a more interconnected community

Over the weekend I drove to Chicago to see some good friends. En route, I intentionally passed through some neighborhoods in Gary and East Chicago (Indiana) for the first time.

Gary is similar to Youngstown, in that steel was the king of the local economy. Gary’s downtown and city streets are much more downtrodden than Youngstown in my opinion, but as the case in many cities, they both have their good spots and their spots in need of investment.

But the Gary of today still has miles and miles of operating steel mills and heavy industry, unlike today’s Mahoning Valley. As I made my way along the shore, I thought: is this what Youngstown could look like at the present if there never was a Black Monday?

Saturday night, I ate dinner with a girl from Gary. Over some Moroccan food, she told me how every time she visits her family there, she gets a headache from the pollution. Even though the steel mills remain, 33 percent of Gary residents live below the poverty line, compared to Youngstown’s 30 percent. One might expect that fear, racism, crime, and disinvestment has severely impacted the status of the city, in addition to the pollution.

Let’s imagine that the steel mills were still functioning in Youngstown. Like the remaining factories in Gary, and most other industries across the nation, technology and productivity has reduced the number of workers needed to manufacture the same amount of a given product. Sure, other factors like international competition and corporate decision-making also make a difference, but waves of technological advancement drastically impact the number of workers needed in a plant. Look at Delphi, look at GM Lordstown, look at WCI Steel.

And these gains in productivity ripple out across the workforce. Suppliers need fewer workers, distributors need fewer workers, and producers need fewer workers. My main point is this: even if the steel industry were still around, from a combination of factors, it would look dramatically different.

The key reason why the Mahoning Valley has not recovered from its economic malaise is the fact it has struggled to re-orient its economy towards the emerging information-based economy. Plants have unfortunately been closing in other parts on the country as well: in suburban Atlanta, in urban New Mexico, and in rural North Carolina. But the difference is that many of these same economies that experience this loss are also diverse enough in other industries to move forward with more ease. With so many of our eggs in the manufacturing basket in our past and present history, when manufacturing gets hit, we feel the pain a lot more than other communities.

But why hasn’t the Mahoning Valley been able to make that transition? Why is it that this region is so dramatically lagging the state and the nation in terms of its educational attainment and other economic indicators? Why is it that other steel producing regions have rebounded better than we have?

Some interesting recent research in the field of social network theory has considered these questions, and if you believe the premise of the research, then its application may have a lasting impact on the possible future path of the Mahoning Valley.

Over a year and a half ago, this blog covered the PhD thesis of MIT student Sean Safford. Based on his work, Dr. Safford, now a member of the faculty of The University of Chicago, will soon be publishing a book titled: Why The Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown. His thesis has the same name, as well as this blog’s three-part review of his work that you can access here, here, and here.

Safford’s research looks at the social structure of communities, and evaluates their interconnectedness. In his thesis, he did this by looking at corporate and community boards of directors from around the region, and numerically evaluated the diversity and strength of these social networks. Looking at the social arrangement from different times in Youngstown’s history, Safford concluded Youngstown’s social structure was less diverse and confined to distinct social circles.

Here are two images provided by the Institute of Open Economic Networks (at the Indiana Leadership Forums) that may illustrate these differences. The first shows a community separated in distinct groups, with a few connections here and there. The second illustrates a different community, with more social connections all over the place.

Safford wonders if this distinct social structure of the Mahoning Valley possibly led to the failure for the community to work together during times of crises - across socioeconomic lines. So while 30 years ago, Youngstown’s strategy was to build canals to Lake Erie, other steel communities like Allentown, Pennsylvania invested in human capital and research parks. The communities that made these investments 30 years ago are more economically robust today. And these types of investments take time, decades even.

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So here is a question for all the readers: If Dr. Safford analyzed the community and corporate boards of 2007 (instead of 1950 and 1975 like in his thesis), would this area’s social network maps look any different? Are we still a divided community, or a community that is interconnected, making decisions based upon the diverse opinions that exist throughout it?

Every person reading this blog should do the following:

Think of all the boards you know of, or are a part of. Are they filled with a dynamic set of knowledgeable people representing different age and income levels, or are they filled with people that contribute very little except for their presence? Are there a few individuals or a single person who act as dead wood - adding little value to your organization except they are building their own resume?

Maybe now is the time for us to clear our brush of its dead branches, and graft new life to its base.

The demographics of the region are changing. The Mahoning Valley, when compared to other regions of the country, is still a pretty big place. Looking at 2005 census information, Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana counties have together 563,000 residents. Add Mercer County in Pennsylvania and that number jumps to 676,000. Add one more county, Lawrence, and the entire 5 county region is 765,885 people.

That’s about the size of a small state, or a European country.

Across this five county region, 240,000 of them are under the age of 25, which is 31.4% of the population.

Furthermore, 326,000 are less than 35 years of age, which is 42.5% of the population.

Thirty years ago, on the original Black Monday, the oldest of these people were 5 years old. Effectively then, one can argue that 42.5% of the region’s population don’t really remember the date from 1977 that it etched in so many minds. So etched, that the memory of that date is still somewhat significant to the people of my generation. A generation with their own eyes have never seen a Youngstown with miles of steel mills.

What if Safford were to perform this exercise in 2015? Would our boards and social networks still look the same, or would we look (and behave) different? How do we come more interconnected?

A new generation is out there friends, and engaging them in the proper way may be the opportunity of a lifetime.


Tyler said...

Excellent work, thanks! The other item I think is worth noting is why our economy wasn't diversified. There were other industries wanting to come into Youngstown and the Valley, to benefit from our strong workforce. However, the steel companies ruled with an iron fist and shut out any competition for workers. Two lessons from this: 1) residents don't need to feel inferior because we failed somehow to prepare for the steel industry's collapse and 2) we need to continue to press for transparent governance, so that today's politicians are acting on behalf of the people and not wealthy special interests.

scott bakalar said...

Hey Janko.
We're back in Lorain now, but just got done spending our "24 hours in Youngstown".

We (first timers to Youngstown) really had a wonderful time, driving all over East, West, North and South. We saw the great, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Upon our return to our home town, we couldn't help but make some obvious comparisons to yours. (more in a much detailed article on WoM as soon as we can get to it) - for whatever problems Youngstown may still be enduring, you guys are light years ahead of Lorain in the strides you have already made - and continue to make.

I'm sure there's a laundry list that you and your fellow residents would like to see take place - but off the cuff, we were very impressed by everything we encountered in your City - especially the people and the their attitudes.

We had no tour guides, we had no itineraries - we just drove and walked, walked and drove. There was no one to explain or interpret for us what we were experiencing - we simply experienced it.

As luck would have it, during our two days "in the Valley", we ended up in Youngstown on the 30th Anniversary of Black Monday.

We brought back with us, plenty of ideas, thoughts and motivation (not that anyone will listen) - but I just wanted to say - "thank you to Youngstown for your hospitality and your lessons".

More to come, I'm sure - once we process all of this.

Sean Safford said...

I wanted to point out that the book is out and I actually do perform the analysis you suggest in this post (looking at what the current networks look like).

The main conclusion from that is that major business leaders were fairly absent. There is a dense core of leaders--for sure--but for the most part, they are civic leaders sitting on each other's boards. The days when the presidents of major local companies (other than banks and real estate companies which have a vested interest in the success of the community) automatically participated in local civic life are over.

I love the question about what will they look like by 2015 though. There are many opportunities to rebuild the fabric of civic participation in Youngstown. I really hope it looks more robust by then.