One of the beauties of winter is the pristine whiteness of a blanket of new-fallen snow covering streets, sidewalks, roofs, and tree limbs, and turning even the most prosaic landscapes into winter wonderlands.
Rarely do these last long before traffic and snow-removal equipment turns the virgin snowfall into mounds of snow and streets of slush. But in the Youngstown I grew up in, this landscape was changed, or strangely tinted in the phenomenon known to some of us as “black snow.”
In some parts of the city, the snow was black or gray as it fell, picking up the particulates of the steel mills. In most other parts of the city, the snow would soon be speckled with black particles, from the soot in the atmosphere that drifted downward and coated the snow.
It was the winter equivalent of “black rain” that especially afflicted communities in the shadow of the mills like Struthers, but could affect other parts of town depending on the wind patterns.
We didn’t think too much about the fact that the air that colored the snow was also the air we breathed. It was simply a sign of the prosperity Youngstown enjoyed when the mills were going full tilt. Whether it was dirty piles of snow or stains on siding or pitting on cars, at the time we simply regarded it as the color of jobs.
There were few people at the time who questioned whether this was good for us, even when it made so much dirty and ugly. In fact, often such folk were shouted down because more environmental regulations and anti-pollution measures would just take away jobs. The question was, was black snow and rain taking away something else?
It is probably difficult to measure the respiratory effects of this pollution on things such as incidence of cancer or COPD or asthma because of the prevalence of smoking and second hand smoke during this same era. But it probably didn’t do us any favors.
That day is now past, and while it was traumatic for Youngstown, and there is no way to go back to the old days, it has also opened the way for Youngstown to be a cleaner city, one without black rain or snow. One with a river that fish live in and people boat on. One that has the potential of being a healthier place to live. And perhaps one where a snowfall stays beautiful just a bit longer…
Do you remember black rain and black snow? Do you know those who were affected by the air quality of the city in years past?