PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Urban Realist 2009 HONOREE

Jay Williams, Mayor, Youngstown, Ohio

Jay Williams

At 38, Jay Williams is not old enough to remember Youngstown's glory days. His Youngstown is the city that came after the steel industry collapsed: empty mills, abandoned neighborhoods, a place half its former size. Being young, you could say, has made it easier for Williams to accept his hometown as it is, a place that won't be a prosperous community of 170,000 again anytime soon

But youth doesn't make Williams' belief any less courageous. Mayors in other once-great but decimated industrial cities continue to cling to vaporous plans for bringing them back to what they once were. Williams, by contrast, has persuaded Youngstown to embrace a vision for itself as a smaller entity. No one in America has more forcefully articulated the notion that for economically devastated cities, a leaner future still can be a healthy future. Williams started making this case as a community development planner, working on what came to be known as the Youngstown 2010 plan. During the 2005 mayoral campaign, none of the candidates fully embraced his ideas. So he decided to run himself. He won handily.

From City Hall, Williams has been able to implement the plan he helped create. He set up a grant program to encourage the last remaining residents of failed blocks to move, rather than offering to rehab homes in long-gone neighborhoods. Youngstown is reclaiming abandoned blocks and brownfields for parkland, cleaning up blight that had run all along major thoroughfares for decades. Meanwhile, the city is prodding development in areas that can sustain it, as with the construction of a $32 million business school that will help link Youngstown State University to a downtown that lately has been showing some signs of life. "We always have to make sure we remind people," he says, "that the transformation into a smaller community doesn't mean we're going to be an inferior community."

— Alan Greenblatt
Photo by Gilles Mingasson