By Edward P. Noga
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It happened at David Copperfield’s magic show in the 1990s in downtown Youngstown.
Actually, there were two shows the same day because the response was so tremendous. My niece Rachel and I went to see the popular magician and she became part of the act along with some other children.
The master of magic said he needed some volunteers at the end of his show and my niece bolted out of her seat and ran to the stage. As I watched her get up on stage, I remember thinking what I would tell her mother (my sister) if she didn’t reappear after vanishing with the others?
Then, all of a sudden, David Copperfield was standing on a seat in the row in front of me. I was flabbergasted.
Almost immediately, with a spotlight shining on his smiling face, he pointed to the back of the auditorium and there was my niece and the others waving behind the last row.
Wait a minute. Just a few short seconds ago, they were all standing on stage and the magic man made them all disappear. Walking back to our car, I asked her what happened and she simply said, “It was magic.”
As we left the theater, the buzz of excitement was quite something.
The next day, the article in the Youngstown Vindicator proclaimed, “The real magic was that 5,000 people came downtown.”
That story said it all because we were in a period of the history of our city when downtown was continuing to empty out faster than anyone cared to admit.
We were in a difficult period following the massive loss of jobs throughout the Valley as, one by one, the steel mills closed. And it wasn’t just the mills. It filtered down to the companies that supplied the mills. And it filtered down to the lunch counters where millworkers ate, the bars that offered them a cold brew after they worked long shifts in 100-plus degree surroundings, the service stations where workers filled their tanks. The list goes on.
Week after week, it was easier and easier to find an open parking space downtown and it almost got to the point where if you needed to go downtown for whatever, you were pretty much guaranteed a spot near the front door of your destination.
Much of what I’m sharing Bill Lawson mentioned recently in an hour-long presentation Lawson is the director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. He was the first of four presenters to mark the 30th anniversary of the “Steel Museum.” (Its real name is the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor.)
Lawson and his staff have dedicated their lives and building space in two wonderfully maintained museum properties to promoting and preserving the history of our Valley,
His slide show was a sober reminder of what many of us lived through and are still living through. He said there is no magic cure for the cities, towns and villages in our region. Dedicated and consistent work to rebound, however, has had some success and needs our continued energy. Possibly we can stretch the meaning of the word “magic” to include the hard work of dedicated citizens.
As is happening in Warren, East Liverpool, Ashtabula and Sharon, Pa., people are once again making their way to downtown Youngstown.
And people are living downtown.
And shops are opening downtown.
And you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner downtown.
And you can visit art museums downtown.
And you can catch a play or symphony or rock band downtown.
And you can see sporting events downtown.
AND it often is not easy to find a parking spot downtown!
Yes, there are many challenges to re-imagining and re-creating our downtowns after decades and decades of disinvestment or no investment.
But the reality is that America’s downtowns, large and small, help to create the local personality of an area that goes far beyond the cookie-cutter mentality that is part of Americana.
We vacation, do business and explore a town, village or city and glean much of what makes it special because of what goes on in the very heart of a population center. Travel out of the country heightens our appreciation for what makes a locale special. And, to use a biology analogy, what benefits the heart benefits the body and vice versa.
Success does spread.
Early on in Youngstown’s slow and laborious turn-around, the ethnic, community and university gatherings focused on the very center, the square and its environs. Now the amphitheater, Wean Park and the East Federal Street area are helping events to stretch out a bit more and put their footprint near the city center. One great benefit is that the YSU campus and downtown are rather compact for easy walking and accessibility. Down the road, these sites will expand the possibilities of what can happen on any given weeknight or weekend.
Similar stories are popping up around the region and news reports of this resurgence encourages us to keep the magic going. Make no mistake, the magic will continue only with hard work, attention to roads and neighborhoods leading into community centers, and a spirit of “let’s try it.”
Thank you, David Copperfield, and many like you who remind us that the real magic is in the resilience and creativity of people. May it never disappear.