Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Downtown

Growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s in Youngstown, going downtown was a big deal. You dressed up. I remember going downtown with my grandmother and having to get out of summer play clothes and dressing up in my Sunday clothes. My wife, who also grew up in Youngstown, remembers this as well–in her case, the girls even wore white gloves.  By the mid-1960s, things probably started loosening up, which is also about the time that the bustling downtown of my childhood began dying. More on this later.

Home Savings and Loan

Home Savings and Loan

We lived on the west side of the city, off of Mahoning Ave where there is a bit of a hill. I could look out the back window of my bedroom and see downtown, parts of the mills, and the north side of the city, where St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (now Medical Center) is located. What stood out on the skyline was the Home Savings and Loan bank tower, which was lit at night. It is so iconic that the bank still uses this in their logo.

Strouss' Logo from the 60s

Strouss’ Logo from the 60s

Shopping in downtown Youngstown seemed a bit of a magical experience, whether it was going to get a malted shake at Strouss’, one of the big department stores along West Federal Street, or looking out on all the shoppers from the Mezzanine level. I went through a phase where I collected stamps, and one of the best places in the 60s to get stamps in Youngstown was the Mezzanine level stamp counter, so it was kind of a “twofer” for me. Strouss’ eventually built satellite stores in the shopping strips and malls that sprang up in the late 60s. Later on, they were bought out by the May Company.

McKelvey's logo

McKelvey’s logo

 

The other big department store was G.M. McKelvey’s, which always had incredible Christmas displays, the “Hall of Music” where you could take your kids for music lessons, and a grille on the first floor that my father managed for a time. My first (and only) experience of punching in and out on a time clock came when I worked as a stock clerk through high school and college.  My wages (and some scholarships) paid my way through college, as it did for a number of friends I made there, most of us students at Youngstown State. Eventually, Higbee’s in Cleveland bought them out, and then closed down the store in 1979. The building, which was actually a maze of several building when you explored all the stock rooms in the place, was eventually torn down

Of course, there were a number of smaller businesses and several theatres there at the time. The first movie I ever saw (I think) was “Babes in Toyland” in the State Theatre. The Warner Theatre was eventually turned into Powers Auditorium, the home of the Youngstown Symphony. As rock ‘n roll took off, the Record Rendezvous was the place to get your latest hits. You shopped for shoes at Lustigs. There was a Woolworth’s and Kresges with soda fountains. Many doctors and lawyers had offices in Central Tower on the square. My orthodontist was there-not such a happy memory! Nor was registering for the draft in the Selective Service offices which I believe were in the main post office building.

St. Columba’s Cathedral still presides over downtown Youngstown from a hill just north of the downtown. The Cathedral burnt down in 1954 and was rebuilt on the same site. A number of other church buildings also were located in or near downtown including First Presbyterian Church, St John’s Episcopal, and my own church, then known as Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, at Wood and Walnut Streets. In the 1960s the church relocated to a west suburb.

And that tells the tale of what happened to downtown Youngstown as so many other downtowns. Suburban communities grew up around the city as the more affluent moved out. More retail shopping occurred in strip plazas and the two shopping malls eventually built in the area. As people moved from foot and bus transportation to the automobile, bus service to the downtown dwindled. And when the steel mills closed in 1978, the stores soon followed.

In more recent years, the city has torn down dilapidated buildings. Government offices occupy the old McKelvey building space. Restaurants have opened and cater to the crowds attending events at the Covelli Centre. A “business incubator” occupies the old Strouss’ building. Youngstown hangs on and is trying to reinvent itself.

In working class Youngstown, I think the downtown we grew up with represented the finer things in life one strove for in one’s work. It reminded you that there were times and places that were special–holiday displays and trees on the square, or going to the bank to get a loan to improve your house. You minded your manners, you dressed up, and you anticipated a trip downtown as something special. What was amazing was that things that special could be found not just in a few places like New York or Chicago, but even in working class Youngstown.

11 thoughts on “Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Downtown

  1. Yep, that was the way it was. Youngstown seemed bigger back then-and it was. Malls didn’t exist, but downtown did. Unfortunately malls are also dying now in favor of a more open and urban concept. Closing West Federal Street was a big mistake. Waco Texas did the same thing and later opened it back up.

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    • Vaughn, there has been a certain amount of recovery in downtown Youngstown with the Covelli Centre which I mention, the DeYor center where Powers Auditorium is located and a number of restaurants. My hunch is that more won’t occur until those with money start living near downtown in significant numbers. This has happened in a larger city like Columbus and thus supports restaurants, shops, and better city government and schools. The interesting thing in Columbus is that it has been almost totally private sector driven, although government has intelligently cooperated with these efforts in most cases.

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  2. Would love to see The Oven Italian restaurant on South Marker St. resurrected somewhere. I assume the menus, and recipes must still exist somewhere.

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    • Vaughn, good to hear from you. Actually heard from both of the Baker twins on this one–Daughn via facebook. Can’t remember offhand, but if there is anything from the Oven around, the Recipes of Youngstown cookbook that I feature on an earlier post might have it. Met the woman behind this and what they are doing is really cool. We got the cookbook, which was like a walk down memory lane in itself.

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  3. Oh my gosh, yes–we certainly did get dressed up to go downtown! Strouss’, McKelvey’s, Lustig’s Shoes–with the ever present foot measuring devices, and the Mural Room! It was a pretty big deal to eat there. I bet you could do a whole post on the Mural Room! I used to get Shirley Temples there as a kid–haha! And yes, I have fond memories of The Oven too, Vaughn Baker–hi to you! 🙂 Loved their meatball sandwiches! 🙂 Fond memories!

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    • Great to hear from you Lynne. We used to hang out at the Oven all the time–nearly got kicked out a couple times! Wow–hadn’t thought of the Mural Room! So many memories. One of the fun things of this series has been all the responses (many on Facebook in one of a couple Youngstown groups) and being reminded of stuff I’d forgotten. Great to hear from you!

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  4. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Review Part 1 « Bob on Books

  5. One of my fond memories is getting cheesecake at Woolworth’s. It was almost like Chicago-style stuffed pizza. It had an outer crust of dough that you could literally hold it and eat it like a slice of pizza. My Mom would buy a whole one and we’d take it home to eat. The top of the cheesecake had a lattice of the same crust. And there were raisins in it, though I’m not sure whether they were in the cheesecake or crust.

    I’m not one to say that things were the best back in time, but I have yet to find any cheesecake that stands up to that cheesecake.

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