“So when are you going to fix that gutter?” A question like that would not be unusual from a neighbor in my neighborhood of working class Youngstown. During the time I was growing up, homes mattered to most of the people who lived in my neighborhood and other neighborhoods in working class Youngstown. For many, the simple reason was that for most of our parents, these were the first homes and property they and their family had ever owned. Before she married, my mother-in-law lived in apartments where residents shared a single bathroom. When she and her husband married, they scraped together the resources to buy a bungalow in Brownlee Woods. Things were tight at first and so furniture and carpet came later. My wife says they cared so much about the home that they used scissors to trim the edges of the lawn until they could afford shears!
There was such pride in ownership and a sense of a home being an asset that men would often come home from long days of work and take on a remodeling project–finishing a basement, adding a bathroom, updating a kitchen. My wife’s father designed, and with the help of his brothers, built a garage. Afterward, he and at least one of the brothers used the same design and built a similar one on that brother’s property. The women provided dinners.
It was the same way with my parents. They married just before the war and my dad enlisted to avoid the draft. For most of the early years of their marriage he was away. My mom, with the help of her father bought the house we grew up in. It was in walking distance of the elementary school, and close to where her parents were living at the time. When my dad came home, him and grandpa Scott took the existing garage which was at the bottom of a hill, and jacked it up onto supports, built a foundation under it, and added fill so that it was more easily accessible. I can’t imagine how much work that would have been!
There was a kind of social pressure to keep your place up. Neighborhoods were pretty stable in the 50s and 60s and people expected to live with each other a long time. So you kept your house painted, your grass cut, your leaves raked and the snow shoveled off your walk. One neighbor on my street had a front lawn that could have been a putting green, it was manicured so carefully! Mom always made sure we had plenty of flowers and that all the bushes were carefully trimmed. Once, when my folks were in their 80s and I was helping out, I trimmed some of the bushes. At this time my mom had macular degeneration and was nearly blind. She still notice a branch I missed!
Lots of things have been said about how the city has changed, and the deterioration of some neighborhoods. Part of it is that Youngstown had a housing stock that supported 170,000 people and now only a bit over 60,000 live in the city. Homes (including the one I grew up in) sit vacant, are vandalized, and if this continues long enough, are torn down. The cohesiveness of neighborhoods falls apart.
I don’t want to dwell on that. A different future is possible. Part of what I like about the work of Habitat for Humanity is that they not only build or renovate homes, but that they build neighborhoods of home owners, people who had in most cases never owned a home or dreamed they could. Their pride of ownership and their desire to sustain the value of the financial and sweat equity they’ve put into their homes means they encourage each other with the same kind of (mostly) constructive social pressure that the families in our neighborhood applied.
Neighborhoods of well-kept homes reflected a working-class value of pride in home ownership. Beautiful neighborhoods of well-kept homes were a street by street matter. It seems like this may be the case once again. Some areas have civic associations working to renew those areas. Some areas of Youngstown are being abandoned as the city attempts to downsize to fit its current population. PBS ran this story in 2011 that shows some of the neighborhoods and then-Mayor Jay Williams efforts to lead this effort in urban renewal. Youngstown still has its working class toughness and it is my hope that the new life of its city center and university can spread outward into neighborhoods of home owners who carry on the tradition of pride of ownership that was such an integral part of growing up in working class Youngstown.