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Youngstown Finds and Identity at The Flea - The Vindicator


Mahoning Valley communities have endured the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the demise of the steel industry 50 years later and many other examples of more recent loss and hardship, a longtime community activist says.

Nevertheless, its residents have always been able to hold to a strong work ethic, rally around one another and maintain an unbreakable sense of community, resilience and true grit — the same characteristics Derrick McDowell tries to spread throughout the city via one of his major business ventures. 

“What I see for Youngstown is the restoration and reclamation of our identity that is rooted in entrepreneurship. It’s the spirit we’ve always had,” said McDowell, a social activist who founded The Youngstown Flea in early 2016. “We went through an identity crisis with the loss of the mills, and since that time, we’ve been searching for ourselves.” 

McDowell is trying to use the monthly outdoor flea market as a major catalyst to help the Valley in that search, he explained during Saturday’s gathering in a parking lot next to the Covelli Centre, downtown. 

McDowell also is Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past’s assistant director, inclusion coordinator for the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre and a community organizer. But he’s much more at home telling the city’s story and the positive direction he believes it can take — and doing the groundwork to make that happen.

“I’m not big on titles,” he said. “I’d rather put down titles and pick up the work that needs to be done.” 

Far from being a single, autonomous organism, The Youngstown Flea has worked closely with entities that have a vested interest in the city and a similar vision that includes establishing greater connectivity among the moving parts. Those entities include the Covelli Centre, Youngstown CityScape, the amphitheater, many area restaurants and Youngstown State University, he explained. 

“We’re just one picture and pixel in the mosaic,” McDowell added. “You add pixels to make the big tapestry.” 

AT THE FLEA

Along those lines, The Youngstown Flea has attempted to build something that resembles a hybrid mini-incubator, eclectic cultural experience, platform for makers and creators, and a space for new and established businesses, he noted. 

As a result, many businesses in their infancy or trying to get off the ground have increased their visibility at the flea market, then branched out to find their own spaces and footings in Southern Park Mall and throughout Youngstown, McDowell said. He added that he’s happy to see new and regular vendors at the gathering “spread their wings,” but eventually find their own ways toward making the city and Valley more viable and sustainable. 

One such business is Dough House Cookies, which makes 25 to 30 types of specialty, signature and deluxe cookies. 

“I started baking at my parents’ home,” recalled owner and operator TaRee J. Avery, who returned to the Valley in 2016 after having run a similar business in the Nashville, Tenn., area. “I partnered two years ago with the YNDC (Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.).”

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