Two weeks ago, the Center for Working-Class Studies sponsored a panel discussion on reporting on Youngstown and the working class as part of our annual lecture series. The panel featured journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Plain Dealer, and National Public Radio who had written on community and its working people. Their message to a local audience wondering why Youngstown is so often portrayed in negative terms: the community must understand and reclaim its identity and must show journalists, business leaders, and legislators the strengths of the Mahoning Valley. Otherwise, others will continue define who and what we are. Over time, the narratives developed by outsiders have become the conventional wisdom in explaining Youngstown’s culture, history, and economic plight. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom about Youngstown isn’t always accurate, and it has even contributed to the community’s difficulties.
A culture is the accumulated experiences of people. For most of the 20th century, the experiences of the Mahoning Valley were powerful and largely positive. The community grew prosperous both economically and culturally, building on working class values of hard work, family, community, and generational advancement through education. But the memory of that economic and cultural history was disrupted by deindustrialization and, over time, replaced by a negative image constructed, to a great extent, by commentators from the outside the community. These negative visions of Youngstown described us as the poster child for deindustrialization, a place known more for loss and failure than for productivity and hard work. Over time, this community became known for its economic desperation, high crime rates, and political corruption. Many in the local area internalized these images and people have forgotten the cultural strengths that made this community great.
In our book, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Sherry Linkon and I argue that the Mahoning Valley has been shaped by conflict, first over work and culture, and more recently over memory itself. As Robert Bellah has suggested, a healthy “community of memory” involves shared understanding of its past, good and bad, is deeply rooted in associations (family, food, religion, place etc), and contributes to the common good, empowers struggle, and is source of enlightenment and understanding. This community and its working people must remember that a community is not just a conglomeration of buildings and/ or deindustrialized spaces on the landscape.
As Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Plain Dealer, told local residents at the panel, you have to “take back your town.” That is, local residents need to reconstruct the community’s identity. They can do this by recovering their cultural and civic values, renewing the relationships among the people who live here, and restoring the spaces, public and private, that offer the possibility of coming together. This doesn’t meaning hiding the negative features of past behind the term “community.” Rather, Youngstown must embrace both the good and bad in order to move forward and build on its history and memories.