Although a portrait of the troubled Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, “The Place That Makes Us” offers a gratifyingly hopeful look at efforts to restore a town ravaged by the prolonged economic distress caused by the closure of its iconic steel mills and related industries. Like St. Louis, Youngstown has a huge number of decaying, abandoned houses that blight its neighborhoods and serve as attractive nuisances for squatting and drug use. The film provides historical perspective on the city’s decline, making deft use of archival footage, but primarily focuses on the present though a quintet of related figures who are attempting to infuse fresh blood into the city’s sickened body. Two are siblings: a sister who works for the mayor identifying structures that can’t be salvaged and require demolition — with the hope of improving the neighborhood environment — and a brother whose nonprofit restores salvageable houses that can be saved from the wrecking ball. Another of the nonprofit’s employees is also featured, and in her non-work hours she contributes to the community in a more personal way by hanging with and helping a trio of young Black brothers with a difficult family situation. In addition to its cohort of White subjects, “The Place That Makes Us” gives equal attention to the city’s Black population through a committed city councilman — a former drug dealer who now runs a small business detailing automobiles — and a health-care worker attempting to leave her distressed rental property and purchase her first home.
The economic engine of Janesville, Wis., was its massive General Motors Assembly Plant, but when the factory shut down, the townspeople refused to succumb to depression, helping create a vibrant civic renaissance.