I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio as it was coming to the end of its heyday. It was a wonderful place to be a child then --- Mill Creek Park, Idora Park --- and other than a lot of Mafia killings, it was very safe. It was truly THE PLACE THAT MAKES US, which is such a marvelous title.
But I, like many mentioned in this documentary by Karla Murthy, couldn’t wait to leave. After the steel mills closed down in the early 70s, so much changed. For those of you who don’t know, Youngstown was number three in the country in steel production when it was at its strongest in the 1950/1960s. Once jobs were plentiful, but after the demise of the steel industry in the U.S., Youngstown suffered greatly.
There was a reprieve of sorts when General Motors opened a very large production plant in Lordstown, just outside the city, creating a lot of new, quality job opportunities. But in 2019, that, too, came to a screeching halt.
Murthy was sent to Youngstown in 2016 to do reporting for PBS Newshour Weekend on the revitalization efforts going on there, specifically because it was an election year. For that project and this documentary, she worked and filmed with Ian Beniston, who runs the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, a non-profit dedicated to renovating blighted vacant homes throughout the city.
But, for these kind of stories time spent in a city is short-lived and Murthy wanted the opportunity to stay and witness some of the changes. So, she and her Director of Photography --- and producer --- Alexandra Nikolchev spent three years beginning in January 2017 going back and forth from New York City to Youngstown to film.
We meet Tiffany Sokol, the Housing Director for the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, who also fosters four young Black brothers two days a week, Bernie Elliott, a Black mother with a darling toddler who works two jobs and wants to buy a home and Julius T. Oliver, a Black city councilman and business owner --- among others. Each of these individuals is working hard to make a difference.
Utilizing archival footage, home movies of a more prosperous time and current photography of the blight --- and beauty --- which makes up this post-industrial city, Murthy has created an homage to this once vibrant Midwestern destination --- and the possibilities which still remain. I watched with my heart breaking, but in the end, she has left us with hope. And that is the goal of all the participants.
A few final notes:
--- During THE PLACE THAT MAKES US we see men planting trees. Much of the fundraiser and ticket sales proceeds went to planting trees in Youngstown.
--- Mill Creek Park ranks among the largest metropolitan-owned parks within the city limits in the United States --- and it is SPECTACULAR!
---And lastly, there is very brief footage of Idora Park, featuring the stunning carousel --- which can now be seen and ridden in Brooklyn, New York after it was moved --- then restored as “Jane’s Carousel” --- completed in 2011.
Premiering on March 30 on WORLD Channel and worldchannel.org, the film will also stream on amdoc.org, LinkTV.org , PBS.org and the PBS app and air later in the week on Link TV (DirecTV 375 and Dish Network 9410).
Opinion: See It Now!
When people hear of Youngstown, Ohio they may think about the demise of the steel industry in the 1970s or perhaps the town’s nickname of “Little Chicago” because of the Mafia’s one-time presence. When I hear of Youngstown I think of my wife and writing partner because that’s where she grew up. So, watching this documentary about her hometown --- with her --- was a unique experience.
You don’t need a personal connection to appreciate the fine work of director Karla Murthy in her debut film THE PLACE THAT MAKES US. Jeanne, as she is wont to do, made more than a few comments as old memories came flooding back. Seeing brief shots of her childhood in the film --- which was made over a three-year period --- she reminisced about the Uptown Theater where she developed her love of movies. And the South Field House where she watched high school basketball games. And most of all, her cherished Idora Park, the amusement complex that burned down in 1984 except for the carousel that survived the fire and was relocated to the end of the Brooklyn Bridge --- but that’s another story.
THE PLACE THAT MAKES US features some selfless individuals who believe in the revitalization of their hometown that lost more than half of its population when the steel mills closed down over 40 years ago. Ian Beniston operates the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, a non-profit body that identifies abandoned homes that still have the potential for an urban renewal. Assisting Ian most prominently is Tiffany Sokol, the organization’s Housing Director who can be seen in the film busting into old, deserted properties and assessing their revitalization value. Tiffany also volunteers her time fostering and entertaining four young Black brothers. Ian’s sister Abby has an essential role working for the city to help in the demolishing of blighted houses.
Although it’s disheartening to see bulldozers tear apart what was likely a valuable piece of real estate, it’s far more rewarding to see the results of the group’s efforts. This is exemplified by the side story of Bernadette “Bernie” Elliott who hopes to purchase her first home after its renovation.
Bernie tells a lender that she was caught up in the vicious credit card cycle of using plastic to pay for ordinary expenses, but she has worked hard to revive her credit score. Bernie is up against another potential purchaser in the film, but one thing is sure. You have to see the finished product of her “maybe” dream home to truly appreciate what the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation is capable of accomplishing.
What seems at first like a hopeless task --- as Tiffany and her crew remove the dirt and debris of past residents and
squatters --- evolves into a labor of love. Speaking of that, another prominent participant in this doc is Julius T. Oliver, a Black councilman and the proprietor of a car detailing business. A friend once told him that his car was always spotless so why not do the same for other car owners.
Julius is one example of someone who could have abandoned Youngstown but is now a thriving resident. He even surprises his girlfriend Julia with a public proposal that Murthy and her crew capture nicely on camera. Julius dreams of remaking the South Field House into a sports haven for young people who have nowhere to go that would positively impact an entire community.
We also meet the parents of Ian, Abby and Josh, Ian’s older brother who left Youngstown and moved to the Bay area in California. Bill Beniston deeply regrets not leaving when he and his wife had the chance. But they represent a past generation.
What I find especially satisfying about this documentary is how well we come to know the primary participants. This current group of devoted people who grew up in Youngstown and are emphatic about its recovery are inspirational to anyone watching THE PLACE THAT MAKES US. It is remarkable when Ian addresses the locals and the press in front of his group’s 100th refurbished home --- yet it also emphasizes the huge challenge ahead of them.
And as director Murthy so eloquently says, “We don’t have to move mountains right away. We can all start just by shoveling some dirt.”