Documentary Shows a Youngstown that Wants to Improve

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Youngstown regularly resurfaces in film and on TV newsmagazines as the poster child for post-industrial decay and economic decline. But the latest example turns that model on its ear by taking the message a step further.

“The Place That Makes Us,” a documentary by Karla Murthy, shows the crumbling factories and decrepit housing in the city. But it does so to set the stage for its real purpose: spotlighting the people who want to stay and improve the city. It puts a face to the story by focusing on residents who are trying to improve Youngstown neighborhoods, especially Ian Beniston and Julius Oliver.

“The Place That Makes Us” was shot over the past three years, but mostly in late 2017 and early 2018.

Accepted by a handful of film festivals, the film will make its public premiere Nov. 11 through Nov. 19 at  DOCNYC.net. Tickets for the 70-minute film are $12.

“The Place That Makes Us” is the first film by Murthy, who was inspired to make it during a 2016 visit to Youngstown to do a segment for PBS NewsHour Weekend.

It wasn’t her first visit. In her director’s statement, Murthy said that happened years before, and was by accident.

“I was helping my boyfriend move his stuff from our college in Ohio to his home in New York,” she said. “After a hard turn, our U-Haul tipped over and we went careening down Interstate 80. We ended up spending the night at a run-down motel [near Youngstown]. All night long, people partied or got into fights, banging on our door. This was also when Youngstown had the highest murder rate in the country. I never thought I would return.”

Murthy did return with an assignment of checking on how the city was faring during the 2016 presidential campaigns. It was then that she noticed that the younger generation was choosing to stay – not to flee – so that they could revitalize their hometown.

Filming the documentary gave Murthy a chance to spread her creative wings.

“My reporting work often requires me to parachute to a town for a couple of days, reducing people to an issue and a couple of sound bites,” she said. “But filming this documentary gave me the chance to witness gradual change, experience the seasons and watch people’s lives and the impact of their work unfold over time.”

The documentary delivers its message with subtlety. It is not heavy-handed; there isn’t even a narrator.

Instead, Murthy takes a measured and respectful pace, allowing the camera to linger on scenes and people, so  viewers can gain understanding and draw their own conclusions.

As a subject of the film, Ian Beniston, executive director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., had to open his life to the film crew.

While Beniston frequently gives media interviews, this level of scrutiny took some getting used to, he said.

“I don’t often share my personal life beyond a circle of people I am close to, and having someone follow you around at work, at home, having dinner with the family is not something I would typically do,” Beniston said. 

“The reason I did is because it’s important for people to learn about places like Youngstown and what’s happening here. There is a disconnect toward this part of the country.”

The documentary, he said, “shows the challenges, but also the positive things happening here, and the incremental progress.”

Beniston has been in charge of YNDC since 2014. The agency’s goal is revitalize city neighborhoods, which it does by razing some houses and rehabilitating others, and then finding residents who will move into them.

“The Place That Makes Us” follows YNDC staffers as they acquire and improve houses, and also focuses on a few residents who become the beneficiaries.

The film also zooms in on First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver, who grew up in Youngstown, started his own car-wash business at a young age and became a city leader.

“It makes a very good parallel between my life and Youngstown,” Oliver said. “It shows the ups and downs and how you can overcome the downs if you have the right tools and the right information.”

Oliver said the documentary shows Youngstown for what it is and what it can be when people get involved.

“It shows that to the best extent I’ve ever seen [in a film or TV segment about the city],” he said. “It’s all real-life situations, real-life dreams coming true. It depicts Youngstown in a better way than I’ve ever seen a film do it.”

Oliver said he hopes the documentary makes an impact in several ways.

“I hope it opens the eyes of our policy-makers on Capitol Hill, and lets them see the plight of the people,” he said. “They can’t afford higher water bills or other [effects of] mandates handed down to cities only to be borne by the people of that city.”

Oliver also hopes the movie encourages out-of-towners to view Youngstown as a place to which they should relocate.

“I hope it grabs the attention of people who might say, ‘This is a place where I can go to make my dream come true, or to make a difference,’ ” Oliver said.

Pictured: Ian Beniston, director of Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., strolls through an abandoned and crumbling Youngstown factory in a scene from “The Place That Makes Us.”

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.