REV. EDWARD P. NOGA Old Youngstown has new hope for future

A child released a yellow helium-filled balloon as her mom and dad pushed her sister's stroller closer to the stage.
The smell of confections and grilled food permeated the air. Teenagers hand-in-hand milled about as the lights and sound system were tested. People of all ages began to sit, focusing on the stage. Children rushed to the ice cream vendors, money in hand. Wind-driven streamers and flags added to the colorful setting.
As the music and dancing began, people pressed forward to see and hear. It was Sunday evening, the temperature pleasant and the breeze slight -- a relaxing atmosphere in every way.
Old and new
It was a recent evening in the central plaza of downtown Cancun, Mexico -- "old" Cancun. Like other cities, Cancun, has grown well beyond its city limits. Commercial development and hotels extend farther and farther from the center of town. Yet, the new and pleasing developments have a sameness about them.
Close to the center of town, there is more of a feel of a city's personality. The feeling seems more real, tangible and human.
Having just finished, "Steeltown, U.S.A.," by Youngstown State University professors Dr. Sherry Lee Linkon and Dr. John Russo, I felt a jog in my memory.
I was born and raised in Youngstown, and grew up when a ride downtown guaranteed a good time, wonderful food and great shopping.
Jobs were plentiful, neighborhoods full, and families were very proud of their heritage. My family attended a church that added new families every week, and our parish school had students learning in classrooms, and hallways and even closets. Faith was a very important element in my family and I know that part of my vocation as a Roman Catholic priest came from living faith daily.
Black Monday
I was present on Sept. 19, 1977, Black Monday, when Youngstown took a devastating turn into unemployment and decay.
I agreed with the authors' research and conclusions about flight from the city, racial discord and political corruption. Their picture of a citizenry on the brink of hopelessness was devastating.
Thankfully, the dark story was punctuated with light and hope. There is little doubt that a city's future can be creatively crafted by committed citizens, institutions and businesses, guided by true leaders and enhanced by a new sense of pride.
Youngstown 2010, refreshing initiatives at Youngstown State University and newly elected leadership all point to new hope if -- I repeat -- if we are willing to think outside the box.
Encouraging sights
As a Youngstown resident, I am encouraged to see a new neighborhood beginning in Smoky Hollow, a new neighborhood beginning near the medical complex on the city's near north side, the expansion of the arts and entertainment in the downtown district, and neighbors engaging in meaningful discussions about where they live and what they want their neighborhoods to look like in years to come. I am encouraged by calls for more demolition in ravaged neighborhoods and demands for more attention to major city thoroughfares.
Maybe we need to redefine our assets so visitors know our rich heritage and to resurrect our "Man on the Monument" as a symbol of commitment to the city and the Mahoning Valley.
Maybe we need to look at the land that could become available in neighborhoods if we eliminated blight and reduced the number of streets that were planned and built for three times the current population.
Maybe we need to clean the Mahoning River for a site for rest and relaxation. If we create a livable atmosphere instead of wishing for what we had, we might craft city government, neighborhoods and pride that reflect our ever-growing racial mix.
As a pastor in the city for eighteen years, I am most encouraged by the many different faith communities who bring the pride and strength of their religious backgrounds to the challenges that are before us.
I was drawn to the historical center of Cancun because it was where the real citizens of Cancun lived, worked, prayed and played together. Youngstowners can also draw more people to a city which has contributed much in our nation's history.
Area's attributes
Around 1985, Dr. Terry Buss of YSU's Center for Urban and Regional Studies listed the area's attributes that remained from steel's heyday: the interstate highway system, three national network television affiliates, a downtown university, and the arts community, along with other benefits, such as a low cost of living, a lack of congestion and Mill Creek Park.
Dr. Buss said, "Truthfully, this city can become whatever it wants to be."
Cancun, on the Yucatan peninsula, has been blessed with wonderful attributes and is using them to near-full capacity. Youngstown, on the Mahoning River, has been blessed with wonderful attributes. How will we use them?
By believing in a God who uses this planet as a vehicle for Godly plans and power, we have a tremendous opportunity to transform this place we call home.
I'm a pastor in one of the most depressed, crime-ridden neighborhoods near downtown. Every day I say "Hi" to, and converse with neighbors who have lived near St. Patrick Church for longer than my 18 years there.
I see in their faces a wish, I hear from their mouths a hope. Wishing and hoping must never die -- they are the beginning of, and a catalyst for, our future.
XThe Rev. Edward P. Noga is pastor at St. Patrick Church on Youngstown's South Side.