Ian Beniston (in orange cap) of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation speaks to volunteers who are helping to clear out a vacant house in The Place That Makes Us. (Green Fort Productions)

We know what kind of changes can kill a city, particularly in the so-called Rust Belt. But what does it take to bring that city back to life?


According to The Place That Makes Us, it takes activists who are passionately devoted to their hometown, even if they’re too young to know what it was like in its heyday. Karla Murthy’s 70-minute documentary focuses on a small group of such people who are working to revive Youngstown, Ohio.


When the industrial burg’s steel mills started closing down in the 1970s, thousands of residents were left without work. Many left in search of employment, while others stayed but were unable to find jobs that could support them and their families. The result is a city filled with abandoned and neglected homes, including many that are beyond repair.


“It kind of overwhelms me…all the work we have to do,” says Ian Beniston, one of the doc’s featured activists. As executive director of the nonprofit Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, Ian focuses on restoring areas of town marked by boarded-up windows and other signs of blight.


Also involved in improving the city is Ian’s sister, Abby, who visits vacant houses to determine which are worth saving and which should be pegged for demolition. The siblings’ father, William, is a former steel worker who rues his decision to remain in Youngstown after the mills closed, but Ian and Abby are glad they stayed.


“I don’t want to leave,” Ian says. “This is the place that shaped me.”


A different approach to community work is represented by Julius Oliver, the film’s only Black activist. After getting involved with drugs as a teen, Julius started his own business detailing cars. Now, as an established entrepreneur and a city councilman, he pushes to support local youths by turning an old South Side fieldhouse into a recreation center.  


Besides showing what Julius and others are doing to rebuild the city, Murthy occasionally delves into their personal desires and struggles. For example, we learn that Tiffany Sokol, a co-worker of Ian, would like to start a family but can’t find the right mate. Meanwhile, she immerses herself in her church and often acts as a surrogate mother to three young boys from the neighborhood.


Maybe if the film were a little longer, Murthy could have done a better job of integrating these personal segments into the rest of the doc. As it is, they sometimes feel superfluous.


Murthy is on firmer ground when she sticks to her main topic, which is the desperate and multipronged effort to revive a former mill town. The film reveals occasional reasons for optimism, such as a single mom’s success in finding a restored home, but it generally leaves the impression that Youngstown has a long, long way to go.


Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)


The Place That Makes Us premieres March 30 on WORLD Channel and and will also stream on,, and the PBS app. It will air later in the week on Link TV.


More reviews by Richard Ades can be found on his blog,