Filmed over the course of three years, The Place That Makes Us is an intimate and inspiring portrait of Youngstown, Ohio, a quintessential post-industrial American city seen through the efforts of a new generation of residents. Choosing not to abandon their hometown as so many have, these residents have stayed to rebuild the city and make a life for themselves.
Unlike their parents, haunted and traumatized by watching their way of life crumble around them, these young leaders and community activists grew up in the remains. Unbeholden to the memory of Youngstown’s heyday, they are able to envision a new future. Interweaving archival footage and home movies of a prosperous but forgone past, this film is a poetic testimony to the profound resilience and dedication it takes to change a community.
Youngstown could easily tell the history of American industry. The nation, ever-expanding in the 19th century, was built on the back of iron; with land rich in iron and ore, Youngstown became valuable. In the late 19th century, location and technology combined into a nascent steel industry. By the early years of the 20th century, Youngstown was booming, attracting an immigrant workforce and eventually Black Americans.
Second only to Pittsburgh in steel production, Youngstown was central to the American steel industry.
After World War I the area’s industry increasingly took center stage. Like other manufacturing industries, it stepped up the number of strikes demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Workers at the mills went on strike on March 26, 1937. Although the “Little Steel” strike, as it became known, was not very successful in the short-term, it led to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, commonly known as the CIO. The CIO was able to force the Little Steel Companies to accept unionization in 1941.
World War II required Youngstown’s products to support the all-out war effort. After 1945, production remained high.
The American dream needed steel, and steel paid wages that enabled their workers to get that house and security promised to the nation.
YOUNGSTOWN PRESIDENTIAL BELLWETHER
Youngstown was a poster-child for the post-war American dream. Ohio was (and is) a bellwether state in US elections. Since 1860, Ohio has voted for the winning candidate with only five exceptions. Ohio is an essential win for Republican candidates — no Republican candidate from Lincoln to George Bush has won the presidency without winning it.
NPR reporter Marilyn Geewax documented how Youngstown became an essential campaign stop — representing the pinnacle of a “can do” America.
The campaigning hasn’t stopped as Youngstown has lost its lustre. Donald Trump gave one of his signature speeches in Youngstown: “We’re going to get those jobs coming back, and we’re going to fill up those factories.”
The 2020 election was no different. Competing groups of Biden and Trump supporters showed up for Biden’s whistle stop in Youngstown.
“Black Monday” is the symbolic start of Youngstown’s rapid decline. Sheet and Tube closed its Campbell works on September 19, 1977 with a loss of 5,000 jobs. Five years later Youngstown was done 50,000 more jobs.
Youngstown became an emblem of Rust Belt decline. Youngstown’s place in the heart of American culture was forever set when Bruce Springsteen wrote his melancholy “Youngstown.” The story of Youngstown’s rise and fall are in the lyrics. In the refrain “My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down, here darling, in Youngstown,” Jenny refers to a blast furnace, not a young love.
Now a simple Google search turns up as the first result: “Is Youngstown dangerous?” The question is referred to in the nightly news headline: “WFMJ reported that Youngstown has been named one of the nation’s most dangerous cities.”
STAY OR GO
In 1930, when its population was 170,002, Youngstown was the 45th largest city in the US; now it has fallen to the 574th largest city in the US. Youngstown is now 61.5% smaller than it was in 1930.
The decision Ian and others in his generation made to stay in Youngstown and dedicate themselves to the city’s revival seems almost quixotic to their families and friends. Who WOULDN’T leave Youngstown?
HOW AND WHY IT’S WORKING
Ian Beniston helped create the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) in 2009. Whole areas of Youngstown were abandoned with no real plan in place to stop Youngstown from disappearing altogether.
YNDC quickly became about much more than renovating houses — it is a player in rebuilding neighborhoods. Now YNDC not only deals with acquiring houses, but with the rehab specs, hiring contractors and providing housing counseling. Now neighborhoods can guide the process themselves with the help of the Neighborhood and Community Planning group. YNDC’s new Mortgage Assistance Program aids victims of the economic devastation caused by COVID.
Premiere Broadcast: March 30, 2021 @ 8/7c
America ReFramed on WORLD Channel
Streaming Starts: 3/30/2021 @ bit.ly/ARF_TPTMakesUs