A while back I wrote a post titled “What’s Missing in the Diversity Discussion” and I observed that what we often don’t explore, although good work on this has been done, is the area of class differences. I mentioned growing up in working class Youngstown and being in a seminar where as a “get to know you” exercise, we could propose a question we’d like others to ask us about ourselves. Mine was, “I’d like to be asked what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown.”
In response to that blog, “Steve” actually asked that question. I don’t think I can answer that in a single post but I’d love to give it a start with this post.
The first thing I can say is that, far from being conscious of this being a struggle, my memory of growing up in my neighborhood is generally quite positive. Our home was located on the inner west side of Youngstown, roughly a mile or so from the Briar Hill steel mills. The men who worked in these mills could walk to and from work, and the community was laid out so that almost everything you really needed was within walking distance.
So one thing growing up was that this idea of being driven everywhere was foreign. I walked to school, to the post office, the “Pops” grocery for baseball trading cards, to the Dairy Queen, and Isaly’s for ice cream, to the bank to deposit my paper route earnings, to the library for books, and to Borts Field to go swimming, or meet up with friends for pick up games of baseball, basketball, and football.
What strikes me is that from a fairly early age (say by 8 or 10) I got used to doing much of this on my own, without parents hovering about. There were no parents arbitrating game quarrels. We worked things out, often with the “do over” rule. Yet they were still a significant part of our lives. All of us ate at home nearly every night at a certain time, and often that was between 4 and 6 pm, timed to the end of labor shifts.
I think what made this independence at an early age possible was the combination of this neighborhood web where if you really got out of line your parents heard about it, and those evening meals. It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes there were dinner table fights. But this sense of early independence combined with a community and family that really was in your life prepared us at an early age to assume our place in that community.
We didn’t know anything about extended adolescence. When you graduated from high school, you either started working (often in the mills or the Lordstown GM plant) or went to college — and often worked in the mills or elsewhere during the summer to pay for it. Many of our families wanted us to go to college, because work in many factories was hard, dangerous and wore you down physically. They were aware that education afforded the “opportunity for a better life”. Yet there was an ambiguity about this. Education meant becoming part of “management” which was always suspect, or one of those “pointy-headed intellectuals”.
Steve, that’s part one of an answer. Stay tuned for more.