On Friday morning, when Youngstown, Ohio, awakes from its Independence Day fireworks, the city will witness a different kind of detonation. July 5 is Youngstown mayor Jamael Tito Brown’s deadline to start demolition of one of the city’s most iconic buildings, Realty Tower.

The building’s destruction will leave a gash in Youngstown’s skyline. The tottering tower, still unsteady from a recent explosion in its basement, looms over the city’s core. The ineptitude that necessitated the demolition illustrates the erosion of the economic and social fabric that once made towns like Youngstown the backbone of the nation.

The Realty Tower, constructed in 1924, was a testament to Youngstown’s industrial might and economic prosperity. Designed by architect Morris W. Scheibel, the building was a symbol of progress, housing offices that catered to the then-booming steel industry. For decades, Youngstown thrived, with steel mills providing stable, well-paying jobs that attracted a growing population and fostered a vibrant community.

The city declined, however, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Global competition, shifts in consumer preferences, and technological changes ravaged local industries. Youngstown’s steel mills shuttered, its jobs vanished, and its population dwindled. By the early twenty-first century, Realty Tower had been repurposed for residential use.

Youngstown had recently made some strides at shoring up its downtown. The city brought a major hotel in the area, hosts large-scale outdoor events, and attracts residents looking for a faster pace of life than that offered in Northeast Ohio’s sprawling suburbs. The ground floor of Realty Tower even secured a blue-chip tenant, Chase Bank.

But on May 28, that progress came crashing down. Workers in the Realty Tower’s basement cut through a disused gas line. For reasons that remain under investigation, the gas line was still pressurized. Minutes later, a massive explosion ripped through the building, killing a Chase employee and injuring several others. The incident raised several questions. Were the workers undertrained? Did the utility company neglect a live line? Those answers are pending, but in the meantime, the city has decided that the damaged tower should be razed.

Now, Downtown’s biggest summer event, the Italian Fest, is cancelled. The new hotel is closed indefinitely. Residents don’t know when, if ever, they can return home.

The devastating Realty Towers explosion echoes another massive blast in the region. On February 3, 2023, a crash caused 38 Norfolk Southern railcars to derail in nearby East Palestine, Ohio, which was followed by fires, chemical releases, and a “controlled detonation” that many fear poisoned the area’s ground and water.

Like Youngstown, East Palestine, though always a smaller town, was once a thriving industrial hub, supported by a robust pottery sector. That industry is gone, and the town had already been struggling to find its footing when the train derailed. In the year since the derailment, property prices have cratered; many residents are still uncertain whether their homes are safe. Most report apathetic responses from Norfolk Southern and government agencies tasked with offering support.

The tragedies in Youngstown and East Palestine serve as warnings for all Americans—not just those in the Rust Belt. Northeast Ohio is not the only region suffering population declines, eroding economic foundations, and workforce-competence problems. These communities and their residents still need effective governments and responsible private entities to ensure that utilities, trains, bridges, and planes remain functional—and to avoid tragedies like those in Youngstown and East Palestine.

Residents of prosperous coastal cities shouldn’t regard these midwestern disasters as remote concerns. The incompetence and neglect that produced them is not confined to Northeast Ohio.

Photo: Ronflaviano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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