Recently, I received a comment on Facebook to one of my previous posts asking about the “working class” part of the title for these posts, and why that modifier. Why not just “growing up in Youngstown.”
That’s a fair question. I’m not interested in fostering class warfare by any means. And I realize that Youngstown when I was growing up was comprised of lots of people who were not “working class.” And strictly speaking, my father worked in sales and lower management positions in insurance and retail, as well as for a time, with a manufacturer who eventually moved out of the Youngstown area. If anything, he probably earned less most years than those in labor positions.
However, the physical, and social location that shaped me significantly was growing up on the lower West side, in the shadow of the mills. Most of the fathers on my street worked either in the mills or some other labor job. Likewise for many of the fathers of children in my elementary school. It was different by the time I got to Chaney, where some of the student body was from more middle class, and at the time, suburban parts of the West side. I was aware of the difference — in clothes and life experience.
This series of posts began when someone asked me what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown. It led to some thinking about the values and experiences that I think shaped many of our lives–from food to family to faith and values of hard work, self-reliance, and the love of beauty in a life that was often hard and harsh. We loved Mill Creek Park and Idora Park as oases from all the mills along the Mahoning River. We loved music, and dances, and art as things that made the hard work worth it. I don’t think we were alone in loving those things but I think they had a particular meaning for those of us who grew up in working class neighborhoods.
What has impressed me is how rich the life experiences of growing up in my working class neighborhood were. Sometimes I think “working class” or “blue collar” people are thought of as culturally impoverished. Yet my reading about these things points to “athenaeums” where workers took classes to improve themselves and their knowledge of the world. Some of the sharpest and most creative people I’ve met come from these backgrounds. In our neighborhood, many parents, though tired from work, cared about our homework, took us to libraries, and showed up at parent nights at school because they wanted us to succeed.
We may not have always traveled to far-flung places, but we appreciated a day at the lake, an overnight at Niagara Falls or staying in tourist cabins where we brought our belongings in shopping bags, and not fancy suitcases. I don’t think we thought much about what we didn’t have, but rather lived grateful for any enjoyment we could snatch from life that revolved around hard work at home or the factory.
So, while the things I write about have Youngstown as a common thread, when I write about things like field trips to Stambaugh Auditorium or neighborhood bars or family grocery stores, I’m writing out of the particular place and community within Youngstown where I grew up. I’ve had a lot of experiences since leaving the Valley and I work these days among highly educated folk. But I carry those “growing up” years in my heart and outlook on life.
Writing about it and interacting with so many who have shared these experiences has helped make more sense of life. A philosopher by the name of Kierkegaard once said that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Maybe another way of saying that is that understanding where you have come from helps you know where you must go. I hope these posts, and the conversations we have around them help us all a bit in that way.