Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Caring for our Common Home

steel millsEarlier this week I had the chance to hear Cardinal Peter Turkson speak on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’ “. At one point he talked about the beginning of his concern for the creation. It was when he was growing up in Ghana (he is African) and saw the degradation to his beautiful land caused by the surface manganese mines.

In that moment I realized I had something in common with Cardinal Turkson. I grew up in Youngstown. I saw the stark contrast between the Mill Creek watershed, and the river into which it flowed–the Mahoning. I watched how on one hand we were thankful for the clouds of smoke over the valley that represented jobs and paychecks and how we fled to the park or places like Pymatuning or Cook’s Forest for cleaner air whenever we could.

I realized that seeing these things was the beginning of my concern for the creation, what Pope Francis calls caring for our common home. I know lots of people these days argue back and forth about the science or how rigid our environmental standards should be when jobs are at stake. I find the idea of caring for our common home far more compelling.

Let’s take Youngstown. A number of you who read these posts do so because you loved growing up in Youngstown, and for some you love it so much you still live there. I have friends working for the renewal of neighborhoods in various parts of the city.

What do we love about the city? Of course there is all that good food. But beyond this, here are some of the things I think of:

  • The fact that there are so many vantage points where one can see across the valley and see much of the city, day or night.
  • I think of the hill above downtown with St. Columba’s Cathedral and First Presbyterian Church overlooking downtown, and as it were, blessing the city.
  • I think of St. Elizabeth’s by the freeway, inviting the sick and the injured to find solace and healing.
  • I think of the river, slowly becoming the site of restaurants. Could it be a place of walking trails, fountains similar to the riverfronts in many cities?
  • Of course there are the lakes and trails and pavilions of Mill Creek Park. Lanterman’s Mill and Suicide Hill, the Silver Bridge and Fellows Gardens.

It seems that this is a time when Youngstown can have a new beginning…or fall prey to outside interests who would degrade it once more. It has taken 30 years to clean up the sites of the old mills, “brownfields” in environmental terms, and begin to develop new businesses. The old Ward bakery has been converted to artists studios. Downtown is coming back in a new form.

Cities take decades to develop or re-develop. Youngstown is particularly vulnerable to predators who think the city so desperate for jobs that it will allow those big interests access to the natural resources of the city and degrade them.

Youngstown has the chance to both attract businesses with its location, tax incentives and low overheads and do this in a way that is safe for our land, air, water, and people. Both are possible.  We had a hundred years of trading the beauty and health of the Valley for jobs. If we care for our common home we won’t let that happen again. There’s too much we love and count precious.

What do you love about Youngstown that you believe is worth preserving and enhancing?

2 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Caring for our Common Home

  1. Hello Bob, your question is very thought provoking. I was born in Youngstown , the product of 4 generations of Y-town folks (who bravely imigrated from Ireland and Austria) and visit very often. I truly love the city and hope it has true opportunities for growth and positive change. My true love in Youngtown is Mill Creek Park. It is the jewel of the area. Dr John Melnick (published1976) wrote a wonderful history and tribute titled The Green Cathedral–a fitting title. The park gets a level of funding from tax levies in Mahoning County. I sincere hope the resolution of the problems with the water in Lakes Glacier and Newport is happening now. Readers of this fine article, read Dr. Melnick’s book.
    With Youngtown love,
    Michelle Humans White

    • Thanks Michelle. I want to get a copy of this book sometime. Actually, living in a flat area, I love the fact that Youngstown is built around a river valley with hills, feeder creeks with ravines.

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