Commentary: Metamorphosis in Downtown Youngstown

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It was 10 years ago when a 310-foot mural spanned multiple building facades in downtown Youngstown. “Metamorphosis,” as it was called, was designed by six graphic design students from Youngstown State University to showcase the transformation taking place in the city. The idea was to bring more culture and people to the downtown.

At the time, V2 Wine Bar Trattoria had been in business two years, demonstrating that Youngstown could sustain a modern, upscale bar and restaurant in the heart of the city. The Lemon Grove had been open since 2009 – a coffee house and restaurant featuring the work of local artists.

V2 is still a fixture on the corner of Federal and Phelps. The Lemon Grove is no more. After it moved to the Knox Building, The Federal replaced The Lemon Grove. O’Donold’s Irish Pub moved into the Lemon Grove’s original location. 

Why the history lesson? You see, I got this pit in my stomach when just six days before its biggest celebration of the year – St Paddy’s Day – a note appeared on the door of O’Donold’s in Youngstown stating the restaurant had been retaken by the landlord.

Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts on Phelps had closed earlier and was supposed to be reopening in the same building as O’Donold’s, but upstairs. It seemed a strange move, as Suzie’s current location had big garage doors that could open to the new pedestrian walkway on Phelps. The Rhine Haus Bier Hall next to Suzie’s on Phelps had closed earlier. It was where, pre-pandemic, I had spent an evening axe-throwing at a company Christmas party.

There hasn’t been much reporting, as of this writing, as to what the owner of all three establishments, Christian Rinehart, plans to do. In fact, when I recently asked, “What’s the deal with O’Donold’s?” to a friend involved with the city, her nonverbal reaction did not make me feel hopeful.

Uh oh, I thought. Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts and O’Donold’s were two of the businesses that brought young people downtown on a weekend night (and some of us older kids too!). They had followed The Lemon Grove and V2 in taking a chance to help spark the revitalization of nightlife in downtown Youngstown.

Then in the same week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day came the news that the DoubleTree by Hilton (the only hotel in downtown Youngstown) hadn’t paid back any of its loan from the city and, in fact, is asking to delay the payback until 2048.

While there’s no doubt the pandemic has wreaked havoc on businesses everywhere, unfortunately it was the city itself that evicted and forced out the businesses at 20 Federal Place to make way for a potential grand renovation of that building.

For many, O’Donold’s was THE destination downtown for celebrating the Irish. With the unexpected closing, many celebrators looked to Penguin City – and it was ready.

Sitting at my desk at work on that Friday, I began to see social media posts of huge crowds of people wearing green Youngstown T-shirts, green hats, and drinking Irish Red Beer, and green Dope Cider.  It was only 1 o’clock in the afternoon!

By the time I arrived, County Mayo was filling the brewery with Irish jigs, kilts were among the attire on the dance floor, beer was flowing, and everyone was feeling the luck of the Irish! It felt like a community of friends.

And while the weather was bitterly cold, that didn’t stop the Shamrock the Block event from drawing in patrons, who filled the tent on Federal Street, hoisting a stout, or two (or three) while enjoying live bands into the night.

Penguin City has proved to be a “melting pot” as it recently described itself on Instagram – welcoming people from all walks of life and introducing them to new shared experiences.  For me, it has included my first Fight Night, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the Drag Queen Brunch and now St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. I have a feeling that, like me, many will now make St. Paddy’s Day at Penguin City a tradition. 

Of course, many other businesses have added to downtown’s continued growth such as West 34, Whistle and Keg, Prima Cucina, Gringo’s, Bistro 1907, Noble Creature, The Avalon, and more.

As the renewal of the city continues, it is still concerning to see venues where memories have been made close their doors. That brings me back to metamorphosis.

Just as the coverings of the facades have changed over the last 10 years, so has the city. It continues to evolve into a new form, making way for new concepts – new restaurants, bars and businesses, attracting the next generation of those who call Youngstown home.