Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — What We Still Have

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Stone Bridge on Lake Glacier (c)2015, Robert C Trube

How good it was. How much we’ve lost. These two phrases seem to capture the gist of so many of the online conversations I’ve had with present and former Youngstowners since starting this series of posts.

On the one hand, so many of us, especially those of us who grew up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, share these incredibly rich memories of working class Youngstown ranging from good jobs to healthy neighborhoods to close extended families to a surprisingly rich cultural life ranging from ethnic festivals to classical concerts, from baseball and bowling leagues to art shows at the Butler.

On the other hand, even with all the efforts to create a “new” Youngstown, we live with a communal grief for what has been lost–from the skies aglow with steel-making, to summers at Idora Park, to the sadness when we visit the neighborhoods of our youth to find an abandoned house or vacant lot where we once lived. It is not a simple thing to occupy, let alone maintain all that housing stock when you’ve lost 100,000 of your people.

I could go on but what I would rather focus on is what we still have, whether we are living in Youngstown or are part of the “Youngstown Diaspora.” What I’ve discovered as I’ve written and interacted and reflected is that having grown up in Youngstown, there are things we carry with us. You may take us out of Youngstown. You can’t take Youngstown out of us.

  • For one thing, we know good food. If nothing else, our mission to the world ought to be one of educating people about what makes a good pizza! It has been a delight to meet Bobbi Ennett Allen and see the great work she and her friends have done in Recipes of Youngstown to preserve so many of those family recipes and good ethnic dishes we grew up with. [2/8/15 update: There is now a second Recipes of Youngstown that will be coming out soon to benefit the Mahoning Valley Historical Society that may be pre-ordered at their website.]
  • There are values we grew up with that are worth preserving and passing along to our families and others. Youngstowners are no-nonsense, hard-working, family-oriented, and resilient. Youngstowners do not tolerate those who whine, indulge in self-pity, or self-adulation. We would say they are “full of it” (or something more earthy).
  • Not all our memories are nostalgia. We know what makes a good place. We know what the “new urbanists” are only just discovering–that a good place has sidewalks, home owners, and a diversity of businesses and services in walking distance. I’ve had a chance to talk to some working in the Idora Park area to renew the neighborhoods there and they get this–and that good places are not 90 day wonders but take years of hard work.
  • We cherish beauty. Somehow, we’ve managed to preserve and enhance Mill Creek Park and we return there whenever we visit. We’ve always supported the fine and performing arts. The gritty world of manufacturing taught us that it was not enough just to make things–we craved things of beauty. The world still needs people with this vision.
  • We are people who know how to celebrate. I can’t think of any place where the weddings are more fun than in Youngstown. Nobody else (except some Pittsburgh folk who probably got it from us) even knows what a cookie table is let alone what a good one looks like! We didn’t think all of life is a party. Much of it was hard, so when there was a wedding, or even a wake, you celebrated. When there was a holiday, you cooked and baked like crazy and you celebrated.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There is so much we carry within us that has not been lost. But it can be if we keep it within because none of us lives forever. The best of our heritage can live on if we share it with our children, and bring our best into our communities, our places of worship, and our work.

Writing this series has been a fun project with a serious purpose. The experiences and memories that we’ve shared and enjoyed together are things that have shaped us. I think much of that is profoundly good–good to remember if we are seeking the peace and prosperity of Youngstown–and good to be mindful of and draw upon wherever we find ourselves.

Read all the posts in the Growing Up in Youngstown Series by clicking the “On Youngstown” category link either at the top of this page or in the left column of my home page.

4 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — What We Still Have

  1. Hey…I love your articles, especially this one. Here is a fact I don’t hear much about – I moved TO Youngstown, in 1996 and lived there for seven years until my job took me elsewhere. We LOVED Y-Town…it was a surprise (because we had heard so much bad about the town and area). Because I did not grow up there, I thought of Youngstown as the Youngstown-Warren area (we actually lived in Girard)…but we loved the downtown area, the small towns around that had such great shops and food, and the proximity to such beautiful agrarian countryside. I don’t get why Youngstown doesn’t have a better reputation, and can’t seem to find a way to market itself to attract people to come back, or move there. It is a diamond, hidden maybe…but a diamond none the less. We would still live there if not for my job situation. We come back often, and feel like we are Youngstown natives. We love Youngstown and are proud to have called it home.

    • Actually, I’ve found a number who think as you do. The big challenges, at least in the city, seem to be jobs, crime, and the schools, although there are some innovative things like the STEM school at the former Chaney that are changing things in this last category. But there are a number of bright spots, a renewed downtown, restaurants, some neighborhoods that are being renewed, the business incubator, Youngstown State and more. I think part of the challenge is ignoring the nay-sayers and continuing to invest. My hunch is that something like this takes a generation of effort and good leadership (at least 20 years). I do think Youngstown is increasingly celebrating the good things about itself as is evident in this video I just saw posted this morning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QITHT330Yw4

  2. I have enjoyed these articles so much! So much to remember! I had two pics from Mill Creek Park: one of Lanterman’s mill and one of the covered bridge nearby. I had them put on canvas and now one hangs in my living room and the other in our bedroom. I’m 4000 miles away, but I still have a bit of “home” in my present home!

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