YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Why the South Side?
That question has bewitched several different city administrations, police chiefs and activists over the years.
Why does the South Side have the highest rate of violence of any side of town?
To try and answer this question, WKBN has talked to people in law enforcement, social services, academia and folks who either have lived or live now on the South Side in addition to studying data on unemployment, poverty, population and housing.
The crime statistics paint a bleak picture; in the 1990s, when the city experienced a meteoric rise in crime that saw an average of over 49 homicides a year, the South Side recorded 206 homicides, far more than the area of town that had the second most homicides, the North Side, which had 140.
In recent years, the numbers are even more sobering. Of 58 total shootings this year, the South Side has seen 37 of them — including nine of the city’s 18 homicides.
In 2021, when Youngstown saw 139 people shot, the South Side had 71 shootings, including 20 of the city’s 31 homicides. In 2020, 57 people were shot on the South Side, including 15 of the city’s 28 homicide victims. Youngstown saw 98 total people shot in 2020.
Since 2000, the South Side has 269 homicides, far more than the East Side, which has the second highest number of homicides at 145.
Criminologists say there is a link between poverty and violence, although in recent years there has been a theory that says violence drives poverty, rather than vice versa, that has gained headway in some circles.
But whatever theory you choose to believe, there is no question that poverty and violence are intertwined, and the South Side has plenty of both.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, 33.6 percent of the residents there live at or below the federal poverty level, and 11,000 of the 21,699 residents have an income below the poverty level. The unemployment rate is 13.7 percent.
Only the East Side, with a population of 10,556, has a lower poverty rate, which is 43.2 percent, according to census statistics.
The poverty rate for the city as a whole is 34.9 percent. The rate for the entire country is 11.4 percent. The South Side also has the census tract with the highest poverty rate in the city, 8016, which is bounded by East Indianola Avenue and East Midlothian Boulevard and Market Street and South Avenue. The poverty rate for the tract’s 2,336 residents is 53.6 percent.
The vacancy rate is 14.6 percent, far above the national average of 5.6 percent.
The vast majority of violence on the South Side — and in the city — takes place in the area between Glenwood Avenue to Zedaker Street, bounded by downtown and East Midlothian Boulevard. Made up of roughly eight census tracts, they have a total population of 12,847 people of whom 59.57 percent are Black.
Since 2000, 206 of the South Side’s 269 homicides have taken place in those eight census tracts.
There are 13 census tracts overall on the South Side.
So how did it get to be this way? To find out, we have to go back to the beginning, to one of the most important events in the city’s history that opened up the South Side.
THE SOUTH SIDE OPENS UP
In 1899, the South Side and the city were changed forever with the opening of the Market Street Bridge over the Mahoning River.
Although there were two smaller bridges over the river that led to the South Side at the time, Bill Lawson, head of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, said the new bridge opened up the Oak Hill and South Avenue areas for development.
“Once that bridge opened, it really set the stage for massive development,” Lawson said.
That development stalled during the Great Depression and World War II but took off following the war years, Lawson said. He said the evolution of the modern South Side — from Mill Creek Park to Shirley Road — came to fruition in the postwar years.
Also coming to fruition was the makeup of the neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods in that part of town were middle and working class, Lawson said, with Blacks largely occupying the lower South Side areas in the Oak Hill neighborhood near Marshall Street.
Neighborhoods were often ethnically mixed but not racially mixed, Lawson said. Redlining laws and other restrictions kept Blacks from leaving their neighborhoods and moving somewhere else if they wanted to.
The period after the war also saw the Second Great Migration, or the movement of Blacks to Youngstown from the South to work in the steel mills. Michael Beverly, of Youngstown State University, who did a Master’s thesis on the African American population trends on the South Side, said moving to Youngtown was better than staying in the South, even if a lot of the jobs being offered to Blacks moving here were low paying or not very desirous.
“A lot of those jobs were unskilled and they did not pay a lot of money,” Beverly said.
Because those were not as high paying as others, it restricted where Blacks could move, Beverly said. That, along with redlining, kept them largely on the lower South Side near downtown, Beverly said. And because Blacks who worked unskilled labor jobs at the mill made less money than their counterparts, it was also harder for them to improve their homes.
Also, a lot of them lived with relatives until they could afford a place of their own, and they often bought homes in the same neighborhoods, so they could be close to family, Beverly said.
The city was very segregated in the period after the war, especially in public pools and theaters, Beverly said.
Today, the South Side has a population of 21,699 people, of whom 10,591 residents are Black.
After the war, Market Street became the main hub of the South Side, Lawson said. There were lots of high-end restaurants and nightclubs, especially in the Uptown area, and restaurants like The Mansion, Antone’s and The Colonial House were packing people in.
“They were very popular spots in their time,” Lawson said.
There were also places to shop. Sears had a large store at the juncture of Southern Boulevard and Market Street that later became the Mahoning County Board of Elections. The building is vacant today.
The working-class neighborhoods between Glenwood and South avenues also began to see change as people began to move out to other parts of the city or the suburbs. Blacks were still hemmed into their neighborhoods in the lower Oak Hill Avenue area thanks to redlining policies, and the neighborhoods they lived in were some of the most densely populated in the city.
That area and the area around Hillman Street were flashpoints in 1968 and 1969 due to two separate riots. In 1968, there was rioting and property damage after the shooting death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rioting the next year broke out after a dispute between a Black patron and a white store owner on the East Side.
Helping to fuel those riots were the racial inequities, poverty and financial unrest that still grips the area today, Lawson said.
When that fateful September 1977 day known as Black Monday came around, it hit harder on the South Side than other areas because of the conditions that were already in place, Lawson said.
“Fewer people had good paying jobs,” Lawson said. “Fifty years later, we still have generational poverty.”
People began leaving more stable neighborhoods and that led to blight, Lawson said.
As people moved out, it opened up other areas of the South Side for Blacks to move to. But as they did, the city and that part of town were caught in a massive wave of violence in the 1990s that saw 492 people killed, an average of over 49 per year. These were numbers Youngstown had never seen before.
Malik Mostella, a Youngstown police officer for 25 years, grew up at West Warren and Ridge avenues on the South Side. Mostella, a 1989 graduate of South High School who was a defensive back and receiver for the Warriors of Coach Ron Demesko, said the neighborhood was a good one growing up.
“We had fun,” Mostella said. “If you wanted to find your friends, you looked where their bikes were.”
The majority of people on his street worked in the mill, Mostella said, and when they worked, their wives watched not just their children, but everyone else’s.
Mostella started to notice a change in the neighborhood after the mills closed.
“It started to become more violent,” Mostella said. “Instead of fights, you had shootings. It wasn’t bad yet, but it was getting there.”
Former Youngstown police Chief Robin Lees, who started his career in 1978 as a patrol officer on the South Side, said you could track the rise of violence by the types of weapons used.
When he first began his career, shootings were not uncommon, but they were typically the results of domestic arguments or spillovers from fights at bars and small, cheap weapons, like .25-caliber or .22-caliber pistols were used.
However, as economic conditions got worse and crack cocaine made its way into the city and the South Side, more and more people were using semiautomatic handguns, magazine-fed weapons that fired a lot of bullets. Especially prevalent were 9mm handguns, Lees said.
“That was the kind of the beginning of the escalation of violence,” Lees said.
From there, it led to the occasional use of semiautomatic, or in some cases, fully automatic rifles, Lees said. Drug houses were common. Sometimes, police would raid the same house three or four times within a couple of months.
“It got to where we knew the floor plans,” Lees said with a laugh.
Darla Ballinger has been on the South Side for 40 years and says she got a rude awakening when she moved there from the East Side.
She said the house she was to move into was vandalized because the neighbors at the time in her neighborhood at West Boston and Firnley avenues did not want a Black person moving into the neighborhood.
Ballinger was undeterred, however. She said having her own home was her dream and she would let nothing deter her.
“I stood my ground,” she said.
Today, she has taken three lots near her home and turned them into a sanctuary. The woman known by one and all in the neighborhood as Ms. Cookie can often be seen tidying them up. Her efforts won her a Beautification Award from Youngstown CityScape last year. She’s dubbed the lots “The Happy Place Sanctuary.”
Ballinger stuck around when the homicide rate spiked in the 1990s and stayed. She was on the ground floor when the Ready Rock Boys, a gang based on the South Side with Detroit connections, introduced crack cocaine to Youngstown and the violence that followed. She said the neighborhood began to change when long-time residents moved out and their properties were taken over by landlords who rented them out to people who either didn’t have the means or didn’t care to keep their properties up.
“That is how the decline went down,” Ballinger said.
Mostella went away to college but came back at the beginning of the surge of violence in the 90s and things were very different, he said. He said if he went out with his friends, the question wasn’t whether there would be gunfire but who would get hit because there was violence everywhere.
“Who you hung out with and where you hung out at determined what you saw,” Mostella said.
The blight held off for a few years longer, but Mostella said there are parts of his old neighborhood that are unrecognizable now.
“The South Side as I know it doesn’t exist anymore,” Mostella said.
Ballinger can also attest to that. She said while there are occasional shootings and gunfire around her home, it is not as bad as it once was. In fact, she is beginning to see wildlife encroach on her properties and there is a group of younger people moving in who she says are good people and good for the neighborhood.
“I’ve got more deer in my backyard than I have problems,” Ballinger said. “The younger people coming in, they’re trying to do better.”
Joy Dixon grew up on Cohasset Drive and lived on the South Side for the first 25 years of her life. Now 66 and living on the North Side, she was on St. Louis Avenue recently on a sunny, late summer morning helping to look for a friend who was missing.
“Everybody knew everybody,” Dixon said of her time on the South Side. “It was more like family.”
Dixon lamented the empty lots and vacant homes. When she lived on the South Side, it was packed with people.
“There were houses up and down the street,” she said. “Now, it’s empty. “You could stand on Hillman and you couldn’t see nothing because there were buildings all down the street. Now, you can see everything.”
It also appeared her friend’s house would soon be joining the list of homes to be demolished. A police supervisor said there were “rats as big as cats” inside and the roof has been leaking for years.
A few days later, a notice was placed on the front door warning people to stay away because the house is uninhabitable. The woman who lived there has been found but can not go back because of the condition of the home.