We were heading to my parents' house on the edge of Youngstown early Thanksgiving morning, when we accidentally got on Interstate 680 instead of staying on I-80 toward Hubbard. I cringed, knowing this would take us around downtown Youngstown and spit us out on Oak Street, a road I had traversed many times as a child but now avoided if at all possible.
Oak Street was never what you would have called a picturesque street. It was dotted with simple two-story houses, food marts, an auto body shop here and there and a of course a couple of beer gardens. (The Royal Oaks, a bar that has been around since Lord knows when, is still there and looks exactly the same as it always has.) Oak Street was urban and working class, a little gritty but still approachable--the words you'd use to describe Youngstown in the 1960s and '70s.
But it got uglier and unfriendlier as the steel mills closed and Youngstown struggled to find a new identity. Houses deteriorated; stores shut their doors. Oak Street became a road you simply traveled down--quickly--to get somewhere else.
Imagine the happy surprise that awaited my family and me as we turned off Rte. 422 and onto Oak Street. With the sun peaking just slightly over the horizon, a misty glow cast down on, of all things, green space. Dilapidated houses had been torn down, and in their stead was nothing more than grass and trees.
Gone were the run-down buildings, the ugly chain-link fences and the litter. The houses that were still standing looked neat. Oak Street looked like a city thoroughfare with pride.
I've been reading about Youngstown's efforts to become a great small town, in part by tearing down unsightly buildings and replacing them with green space. My brief time on Oak Street showed me that this initiative is underway. The street still looks and feels urban and working class, but, hey, that's what Youngstown always was, and that's nothing to be ashamed of.
Kudos to Youngstown for this effort. Keep up the good work.