There’s a movement afoot to reinvent the city of Wheeling, West Virginia, a once vibrant factory town that has since settled into decades of industrial decay. Like most movements for change, it’s beautiful, messy, inspiring, and complicated. And the young people leading the way say: it’s worth it.
Over the past few years, a group of ambitious, active, community-minded young people has settled in the Friendly City. Some came from afar, some returned home, and some never left. They have been coming together over time to talk about what's next for their city. Now they are rehabbing abandoned mansions, making art, farming, opening businesses, and starting organizations that they hope will lead the way to a new economy.
The transformation isn’t quite on the scale of Rust Belt resurgence towns like Buffalo or Pittsburgh. Not yet, anyway. But it appears this group is just getting started. Producer Catherine Moore went to Wheeling to meet some of them and brought back these snapshots of some of the faces of Young Wheeling.
Patricia Croft, 31, is an artist who moved to the Friendly City from Rhode Island to volunteer for Americorps. She now directs the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley. She and her husband are restoring an old home in East Wheeling.
When I moved here in 2009, there were very few people in the 30-ish age range, so when we did find someone in our age group and who even had the same interests as us we kind of lassoed them in and said, “You can't leave me! I need you!” And after a while they doubled and multiplied and tripled and now we go lots of places and see lots of young people that I don't even know. So that feels awesome when I don't recognize anyone in a room and they're in my age range.
Jake Dougherty, 24, was born in Wheeling. He left and returned after college to accept an Americorps position working on downtown redevelopment with the Wheeling Heritage Area. Now he’s the director of Reinvent Wheeling, a cross-sector partnership that creates and supports an array of activities in downtown.
I think that what's happening generationally right now is really fascinating. There’s a clear difference in the idea of what is opportunity. Opportunity to the younger generations I don't think is a job. It's about having the platform in which you can create your own way. That is what is really special about Wheeling right now is that there might not be a collection of jobs that you and just come in and have, but there's definitely the potential and the assets to build upon to create your own life.
Danny Swan, 27, came to Wheeling for college and never left. He’s one of the founders of the city’s urban agriculture movement, which turns vacant city lots into fertile gardens. Today he’s working with Grow Ohio Valley to build a greenhouse in East Wheeling.
I think what attracts me is what repels a lot of other people. I like the opportunity that is there as a result of other things having left, steel and coal and other things on the downhill. There's lots of properties available, lots of vacant space, places where dreams can grow.
Brian Wilson and Stephanie Wright
Brian Wilson and Stephanie Wright are part of Wheeling’s Young Preservationist movement. He’s from Wheeling, and she came from Philadelphia. Together, they are restoring an abandoned home in East Wheeling. Early on, Brian took Stephanie on dates in the city to explore their common passion: old buildings.
STEPHANIE: One of the first things he asked me to do is meet him in Wheeling one night. He was going to show me around this town that he was so proud of. And some of his favorite spots to go and explore.
BRIAN: And by favorite spots you mean abandoned, condemned buildings and caves...
Glenn Elliott, 43, left a job at a high-powered law firm in Washington, DC, to return home to Wheeling, where he met and fell in love with The Professional Building, a six-story Victorian masterpiece of carved granite sitting vacant in the heart of downtown. Glenn’s now restoring it one floor at a time.
Ever since buying this building, I’ve done a lot of research in the old Wheeling newspapers. The building was built in 1891 and I scoured all sorts of newspaper entries from that time. And the one thing you notice when you read those stories is the boundless optimism. It almost jumps off the page. Buildings were going up it seemed like every month in the city. New houses were being built and railway stations were being built and bridges. And what you get off the page when you read those stories is a sense that anything can happen here. I want to see newspaper stories today expressing that same optimism. I don't want to see any more cynicism, and I don't want to hear that we can't do anything.
Ron Scott, Jr.
Ron Scott Jr., 40, was born and raised in East Wheeling and works as a counselor for at-risk youth in the neighborhood. Over the years, he saw East Wheeling's vibrant African American community fractured by drugs, incarceration, and tear-down projects that dislocated residents to make way for new development. He founded the Ohio Valley African American Students Association, an academic club that raises money for scholarships for black youth, and The Movement, a local hip hop collective.
I think right now in Wheeling there is a sense of hope that's going along with all the changes and improvements that folks are making around here. But unfortunately, I think it's a lot tougher to see all that hope that everybody else is feeling, and momentum, when you're poor in the area. Especially young and poor. Hope is a luxury that a lot of them aren’t afforded. And so as much hope as there is in the city, when you're a young poor person in this area, it just isn't for you. It's almost like watching a TV show.
Angela Zambito Hill
Angela Zambito Hill’s family came to Wheeling from Sicily in the early 1900’s. Many generations of Zambitos have owned businesses in the city, and Angela now carries on that tradition. She recently opened Wheeling Brewing Company in the Centre Market district of Wheeling.
I think the future of downtown Wheeling is a mecca of arts, culture, small business, entrepreneurism. And I think we're starting to see it in where we are today in Center Market. It's truly a testimony of small businesses coming together and creating an atmosphere that tourists are attracted to, that young professionals certainly want to hang out in. And I think that's the future movement of downtown as a whole.
But Why Wheeling?
During their interviews, these young movers and shakers offered a number of theories about why people their age are beginning to move to Wheeling. And a lot of the reasons made great sense. It's close to the hip city of Pittsburgh, but comparatively cheaper. Vacant mansions and commercial spaces of historical and architectural note can be bought for a song. It has several universities and affords the opportunity to live in a walkable urban downtown. Thanks in large part to social media, community calendars, and the grassroots journalism at Weelunk, people can stay pretty connected to what's going on. The art scene is vibrant. There are good schools, and a lot of family-friendly things to do for those raising kids of their own. Some even stated paradoxically that Wheeling is attractive for the very fact that its old economy has bottomed out: its empty spaces are a blank canvas on which young people can experiment with new forms of economy, community, and culture. All of these things are in place, and help attract young artists, entrepreneurs, and professionals.
But what’s more interesting is that these young people are staying in Wheeling because of what’s not already in place for them. More specifically, the very act of putting those things in
place accounts for their strong bond with the city. There was no urban agriculture movement in Wheeling before people like Danny Swan started it. And the very process of building that movement from the ground up has brought new value and meaning to Swan’s life there. There was no renovated Victorian mansion already set up for Stephanie Wright and Brian Wilson to buy in East Wheeling—not one they could afford anyway. But the very act of restoring one has forged a deep devotion and investment in this place. Similar examples can be found in the movement to revitalize downtown by people like Jeremy Morris, Glenn Elliott, and Jake Dougherty; in entrepreneurs like Angela Hill who are opening businesses; and in social workers like Ron Scott who want to help heal that which has been broken.
In other words, they are just as committed to the means of creating a livable and youth-friendly city, as to the end result of living in that city. In the end, Wheeling isn’t attractive to just any kind of young people. Those it attracts and retains have a gift for recognizing potential. They tend toward the visionary and thrive in conditions that necessitate doing, building, and growing something new. They are willing to put the work in. Overall, they are more comfortable as active participants in the making of a place than they are as passive consumers of its products.
Jake Dougherty nails it in this clip, in which he plays with the idea of “placemaking” to capture some of what is so special about Wheeling right now. “Placemaking” is a buzz word you hear a lot in community development circles these days. Wikipedia defines it as an “approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces (…) with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.” A report by MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning called “Places in the Making” inspired Dougherty's thinking on this issue.