Reclaiming Youngstown’s Story

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.

John Russo

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3 Responses to Reclaiming Youngstown’s Story

  1. The history of any city is an important part of economic structure, in that it provides a considerable draw for specific types of business, development, and residency. The history of a city establishes character and helps to guide the perception of the city in general.

    In this particular city, with circumstances such as the gap referred to by Rev. Johnson above, it seems that the general tendency is to mourn our history, instead of celebrating it. Rather than reinvention or rebirthing, a shift in paradigm would be beneficial, not only by focusing on the positive aspects of Youngstown’s history, but also by allowing long-term residents to move forward from this self-deprecating mindset that seems to have been hanging stagnant in the air here for decades.

    I believe what Mr. Russo was trying to get at here, is that Youngstown’s history and the public perception of it plays a vital role in the city’s future, for residents new AND old. Who wants to locate a business or a home in a city where it seems that the majority of residents aren’t happy and don’t want to be there themselves?

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  2. Cathy says:

    I spent the majority of my youth growing up between Youngstown’s “eastside” and Austintown. I remember the idea being conveyed that I should get out of the community and move on to greater opportunity. I was pointed in the direction of Columbus and towards Ohio State (where I started my education) but quickly found that being a number at a large university was not for me.

    Eventually, I returned to YSU and earned my BA in Psychology. I’ve lived in seven states, have worked as a “Behavioral Data Specialist” at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and have recently been accepted to 3 PhD programs while continuing my graduate education. I feel my success is greatly due to my experiences growing up in Youngstown.

    As a kid there were hard times associated with socioeconomic regression, but the sense of community and many people who were positive influences in my life helped me transcend an identity stigmatized by class and poverty. Classism is a problem in every community I’ve lived in, but I do not know if I would have been able to have had the sort of success I experience now if I didn’t have access to “the world view” Youngstown offered me. Cultivated by the ethnic retention found within the communities around / and in/ Youngstown, I always felt close to my ethnic roots and had the privilege of enjoying those customs with my friends and family.

    I view Youngstown as a complex and unique place and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to experience it. I no longer live in the area but come back to visit family and friends. There is progress that can be seen since my childhood days in the early 80’s and 90’s. I still feel invested in Youngstown’s identity and share the community’s desire to see Y-town as a place of prosperity. I feel the community’s success can only be developed with the inclusion of its past which will offer unique ideas for the future.

    On a side note, it would be great if YSU invested in a PhD program focused on working-class studies. The Center for Working-Class Studies is as unique as Youngstown.

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  3. Rev. Robert Johnson says:

    When I hear “you have to take back your town”, I am afraid it rings fairly hollow to me. My family and I have lived here only 5 years – we arrived well past the closing of the mills and the time that the mills made Youngstown an Eden of steel. Youngstown’s steel history simply is not my or my family’s history. Our family must shape the future of Youngstown, not resurrect, revive, or reconstruct the past.
    At the intersection of memory and empowerment, “reconstruction” of Youngstown’s identity may not be possible given the sizeable gap of experience between the generation that lived through the steel mill closings and the new generation that must settle in from outside the area. It may not be so much reconstruction as “reinvention” or “rebirthing”.

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