Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Diaspora

We went out to breakfast this morning at a local diner. We often do this on Saturdays before grocery shopping. We were served by a woman, who along with her mother who also works at the restaurant, are Youngstown natives. The woman mentioned her other job, on the wait staff at a nearby Italian restaurant, and so our typical Youngstown question was, “do they have good red sauce?” Somewhere in the conversation she also mentioned that her manager grew up in Struthers, and then called him over. A relative of his was the kitchen manager at the Elmton, a restaurant in Struthers and we talked about the old ladies who made pierogies at the Catholic church and other great places to eat.

This happens frequently to us. I know there are a lot of Youngstown people in Columbus. A local newscaster, a county commissioner, and judge have Youngstown connections. Via Facebook, I’ve discovered several high school classmates live here. And through previous posts in this series, I learned of others as well–along with the fact that there is a Wedgewood Pizza in the area, along with other Youngstown connected places like Handels, Belleria and Quaker Steak n Lube [Update: since this post was first written Wedgewood and Belleria have closed their shops leaving many Youngstowners in Columbus in search of good pizza one more].

The idea of “diaspora” is that of dispersion or scattering. It has been used most in history in reference to the Jewish diaspora. Often diasporas are forced, as was the exile of the Jews in 587 BC, and their dispersion after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some dispersions are for trade and economic reasons. This is a significant reason for the diaspora of urban industrial cities like Youngstown. Generation after generation thought they could grow up, get jobs in the community, and raise a family and stay close to parents and grandparents. And then it all changed.

Actually, a mini-diaspora began in the 1950s and 1960s as people started moving to the suburban communities around Youngstown for more spacious homes and better schools. Cars allowed us to commute into the city but the ethnic and economic mix of the city of Youngstown began to change. The fabric of neighborhoods started shredding. Downtown began to die as retail followed the area population.

Then 1978 came and with it the shutting down of the steel industry that had been Youngstown’s lifeblood and led to the collapse of many other businesses. And while there have been entrepreneurial people and other survivors who stayed, many of us either because of jobs we had or economic necessity moved elsewhere. Through this blog, I’ve come in contact with the “Youngstown Diaspora” extending from Columbus all the way to New Zealand.

One of the responses to my last Youngstown post, from someone in Oklahoma included this thought-provoking question: “I live in a beautiful city, clean and progressive much like Columbus. . . . So why are these memories so etched deep in my heart[?].” This haunting question seems to be part of the diaspora experience. Even though we may live in other places, we continue to feel a deep connection to our homes–the foods, the places, the personalities, the politics, the culture of this place we grew up. It is so odd, we’ve met people that we’ve felt a special connection with, only to find out that they are also from Youngstown, and off we go in talking about all these things. Through this series, I’ve discovered several Facebook groups of Youngstown natives and it is incredible the number of people and posts sharing both memories and current concerns! Youngstown is indeed etched deeply in our lives.

I think much of this is about identity. So much of who we are is formed in our early years, before we are 20. It seems true of me that you can take me out of Youngstown but you can’t take Youngstown out of me. I also think it is because we knew we had something very special in those years that had to do with home and a way of living, that we want to recapture. And some of it seems to be place, somewhere we had roots. It is a collage of visual memories of a good place that consisted of the glow of blast furnaces, the Home Savings tower, Christmas displays at Strouss’ and McKelveys, cookie tables at weddings, Handel’s, Lanterman Falls, Idora Park, and more.

I’ve discovered we Youngstowners are not alone in this sense of “diaspora”. I caught this TED talk on the Detroit Diaspora. I found a good deal I connected with. One thing that I’m wondering about because I haven’t heard this said by many from Youngstown is the idea of return. The longing for return is a big part of many diasporas. Jews will say “next year in Jerusalem.” And I wonder, and would love to hear from those in the “Youngstown Diaspora”, do you ever think about returning? And what would those of you who stayed think if at least part of this “diaspora” returned and brought the resources and experience gathered in other places back to Youngstown? Or is your form of return connecting with others in the Youngstown Diaspora, to return in memory to all that was good about that place we grew up?

11 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Diaspora

  1. Thanks for your blog. I was born on Youngstown’s East Side. We moved to Girard, when I was ten. But when Mom hung out the wash in Girard, the clothes would often reek of blast furnaces smells of the Mahoning Valley. Great wealth was created in Youngstown’s heavy metal and related industries. The steel produced there made the US the leading power for decades. Detroit had an equally productive industry, auto making. And wages were high in both places, even for the least schooled. I firmly believe that the nostalgia we feel for these former US industrial cities is really a homesickness for an incredibly productive past. We made things then that the whole world wanted. We were vitally needed.

    • Ben, thanks for your comment. I think this is a great insight. There are still places where we build things, including in Youngstown–but the scale and the number of people doing that work was incredible.

  2. Thank you, Bob. This was great.
    You made me homesick for Handels Ice Cream, and ribs and spinning bowl salad at the 20th Century Restaurant; and performances at Stambaugh Auditorium; and the barber, Mr. Speedy, and chocolate malts in the basement of McKelvey’s Department Store. Mrs. McKelvey walked her poodle past our house every day. I have wonderful memories of sled riding and ice skating at Crandall Park every winter; and Lanterman’s Falls and dances at the Old Mill in Mill Creek Park. I took art classes at the Butler Art Institute and was a volunteer Candy Stripper at Northside Hospital on Gypsy Lane. There was a golf course near there where we played “Knights of the Round Table” once until the adults chased us away (we needed a big open space☺. )

    For me it was kind of a “Leave it to Beaver” life; playing outside all summer long- we didn’t come in until Mom blew the whistle for dinner. Maturation (notice I refrain from saying old age) makes me remember all the good things and skip over the rest.
    I wouldn’t go back, though. My brother and I have no family in Ohio anymore and even our parents, now deceased, joined the “diaspora” and retired to Pasadena, CA.
    I love where I live and raised my family in Washington, and 44 years here has made it truly my home. Yet, I totally agree, you can’t take the Youngstown out of me.
    I keep connected via Facebook and email with a few school friends but sadly I have missed every reunion. I have great respect for friends who have stayed in the Youngstown area and contributed so much to the community.
    Thank you, Bob, for reminding me of “all that was good in the place we grew up.”

    • Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your memories. I’ve heard so many interesting stories as I’ve done this series. I’ve heard it said that life is lived forward but understood backwards.

      We also do not see ourselves returning except for visits. We no longer have family in Youngstown, our son and his wife are here in Columbus. But so much of who we are was shaped by this time and to remember, to celebrate the good, and to consider how it has formed us seems important.

  3. My family has lived in Northern VA for twenty years now, due to job opportunities. The Youngstown area is still home to my heart. When we visit friends and relatives inYoungstown, I feel warmth and coziness. Although the opportunities in the area are not what they are in other places, there is much that we miss there .

    We miss the Churches and their ethnic foods….mainly for me, pieroghies:-) We miss the feeling of community and loyalty. We miss that when we visit, we are reminded of all the places and people that helped to grow us into the people we are. We miss the beauty and splendor of Mill Creek Park and the cultural events in the area.

    I believe Youngstown is building itself up again, and will grow more when they realize what they can truly offer.

  4. Great writing and comments. Am actually connected to numerous fellow Y-towners. Born and raised in Struthers..my family were from the East Side and near Smokey hollow. Long time members of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. My wife and I moved to Nashville TN to pursue a better life(as so we were raised to believe.) Hard to leave both of our families. Mine extended all over the community. Following graduation from YSU, we moved to Nashville in 1979 to pursue musical opportunities & higher education. Like many of our generation, we watched the community reel from the mill closings. My father was fortunate to retire with full benefits from Republic Steel after 42 yrs of hard service. Though we moved to a much different community, we were always rooted from where we came from. Even today, 34 years later, we proudly claim Y-Town as our hometown. We miss the same things as others post. What amazing foods, cultural experiences, and basic values. All amidst a tough place to grow up in. I continue to be amazed at the Y-town connections. Recently I met a new Nashville TV reporter at a store. Being naturally Y-Town friendly, I said hello and asked where she worked before Nashville. She said, West V. Detecting no real accent, I thought there was something I recognized. I then asked if she was from West V. She replied, NO..I am from Youngstown, OH. I stood there with my mouth opened. She looked startled. I said..I grew up in Struthers. She hugged me and laughed. Turns out she grew up on the Southside, and even attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Her name is Jessica Ralston Johnson. Small world it is indeed. All we could talk about was the great food and friends and family that is Y-Town. Tom O.

    • Tom, thanks for your comment. It seems so many Youngstowners say the same things. And nearly all of still call it ‘home”. Great to hear your story! –Bob

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

  6. Bob, I have been reading your blog or post since I seen it was about Youngstown, I am in Decatur, In and I try to always put your work on my FB page for other Youngstown’s. I still and always said to friends here, that I be going home next week or ? They say what do you mean home, I tell them Youngstown, and well you live here now. But we don’t in our souls and food and so much. I loved what you said about “you can take me out of Youngstown, but you can’t take Youngstown out of me. So true, like you said I keep in touch with a lot of my school friends from Fitch and I tended bar in a few places for years before I moved here, so, I also have them as FB friends. We are having our 45 yr reunion and I am hoping to go. They are of course going to the football game, which is a big part of Y-town too, and the Golden Gloves. Then Sat. is our party and Sunday the fair. I loved the Canfield Fair, and Mill Creek park is really something I think I miss the most. There is a man who I don’t know but had put some pictures of Mill Creek Park on FB and some how I seen it. It was in March or April, so I have asked him to post more when he can and he has. I brag about our Mill Creek, and of course we have NO real pizza and they don’t even know what pierogies are? I had to pester the local store and they finally got Ms T’s but I know I should just make them. I still can’t believe no one here that I know still have no idea what pierogies are. So funny ok, one more thing, I was in Seattle, WA. years ago and at a bar, like you said we talk to everyone. So, I started just saying hello to the person next to me waiting for a drink, we started talking and he was from Youngstown. Unbelievable, but it happen again in Calif. too???? Coming here to Indiana, or other states they say we have a accent? Well better end this. Thank You Susanne.
    Now who writing a book. lol

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