It has been four to five years since I last drove down my home street. At that time, it was clear that a number of houses, including the one I grew up in, were vacant. Siding had been stripped off part of our old house. I had the sinking feeling that I was watching the death of a loved one.
The other day, my sister-in-law wrote to me that the old house was no more, that there was simply a vacant lot where it once stood. Somehow, I knew that was coming. Yet just eleven years ago, in 2006, it was one of the best kept houses on the street. My parents put a lot of love and care into the house they lived in for 65 years in which they raised three children. They finally sold it when health reasons suggested that it was time to move into a retirement community. That it took less than eleven years to destroy that home reflects the tragedy of Youngstown — the depopulation that followed years of corrupt and self-serving political leadership and rapacious industry that took the labor of the city’s workers, took the profits, and left the city desolate. A city of just over 60,000 can’t sustain a housing stock built for 170,000. The truth is empty houses are targets of opportunity, and the natural elements combined with human elements will quickly destroy even the best kept home, once abandoned. At least the city is tearing these homes down.
Yes, I’m angry that this could happen to what was once a perfectly good home. Not that I want to go back — when we’ve moved we’ve given thanks for what the home has meant to us, prayed a blessing over it for those who would follow, and not looked back. We are not going to be knocking on the doors of owners of places we once lived to look around!
But it is sad that the place filled with so many memories is no more. These were some of mine, which I write down against the day I may not remember them or be around to do so!
- There was the front porch that was the coolest place on many summer evenings–a place of family conversation, listening to Indians games, cold glasses of lemonade, the old metal porch swing.
- The front door with the button lock in the door that would mean you’d need to use a kitchen knife to get the door open. My mom was really good at that.
- The living room where we shared so many Christmas mornings around the tree Dad so exquisitely decorated, albeit with lots of cussing and muttering when the lights would tangle or he couldn’t get it to stand straight! My mom always sat in her yellow wing chair, that now sits in our family room, police radio on the table beside her.
- The dining room, where we shared so many Thanksgiving dinners. Eventually the buffet and table of my grandparents filled the room. I also used to love to listen to the shortwave receiver that was part of the radio/record player console and hear stations from Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
- The kitchen, with the old stove and the table around which we shared so many meals, so many stories, political discussions, and sometimes arguments. There was usually a dog dish around, and a dog we’d sometimes slip things from the table.
- Down the stairs was a basement. I remember the HO slot car layout along one wall that I would spend hours with my friends racing cars. In one corner was my dad’s desk, where he would bring home work, pay bills, and listen to his polkas when they bothered mom. In later years there was a pool table that my son and my father played many games together. We captured a picture of them at it, probably one of the last times they played.
- Along another wall was an old workbench and table, and above them a pegboard with tools and shelves with baby food jars filled with nails, screws, nuts, bolt, etc. I used to love to tinker there with scrap pieces of wood, making rubber band guns. The furnace and water heater were in the middle of the basement. The washer on another wall with laundry tubs. They never bought a dryer, hanging clothes on the clothes lines strung back and forth from the basement rafters. In one corner where our front and side walls met was a coal cellar, from the days when the house was heated by a coal furnace. It was where summer stuff was stored in winter, along with Christmas decorations, and other odds and ends, including an old Western Flyer bike we rehabbed for me.
- We had three bedrooms upstairs and I slept in one or the other at some time in my life. My parents was on one side of the front, and I had a small bed there in my early years. I moved to the back bedroom to make room for my sister. I used to love looking out the window where I could see downtown. I had a battery powered electricity kit, and later built contraptions with an Erector set. Finally, when my brother married, I moved to the other front bedroom that had more space. This was where I had the stereo I bought where I would listen to WDVE from Pittsburgh and would play rock music as loud as my parents would let me.
- There was a light in the hallway we left on at night, under which the dog usually slept. Across from it was a bookcase filled with encyclopedia volumes where I could explore the world for hours on indoor days. That bookshelf, though not the encyclopedias, is just to my left as I write this post.
- Outside was the garage, which my dad and his father-in-law put up on supports while they built a foundation, filled it in and raised it 4-5 feet. I can only imagine how hard they worked to do that. What I most remember about that garage was that one or the other of us was always breaking windows, until dad made me replace and repair them myself. Somehow, I didn’t break any more after that.
I feel like I’m just getting started. We were a real family in that house, with all sorts of ups and downs, many good memories, and some not so good, but all part of the fabric of my life. Yes, it saddens me that the structure is not there and that this is a story that has been repeated numerous times in many good places around the city. But that house and all the memories we made in it lives on in my mind, in the stories we tell our families about those days, and in the people each of us are. And perhaps the great, good places so many of our homes and neighborhoods were might offer hope to those homesteading in the city, and trying to rebuild parts of the city. May they make many new and good memories in those places!