Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Brier Hill

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An early sketch of the Brier Hill district

Brier Hill. The Brier Hill works. Pizza, Italian Festival. St. Anthony’s Church. The story of the Brier Hill neighborhood weaves all of these elements together. The neighborhood’s history goes back to 1801 when George Tod, the father of Governor David Tod, moved to the newly settled town of Youngstown, having been appointed secretary for the Ohio territory. He settled on a farmstead northwest of the Youngstown settlement, naming it Brier Hill because of the briers that covered the hillsides.

When George Tod died in 1841, David inherited the farm but was more interested in what was underground. Seams of a high quality coal known as “block coal” ran under the farm and built his fortune in mining the coal, attracting Welsh settlers who had mining experience in Wales. The coal was in demand for the blast furnaces that were springing up along the Mahoning River, and Tod joined with others in opening the Tod No. 1 furnace in Brier Hill in 1847. By the 1880, blast furnaces and rolling mills lined the valley and attracted other immigrants, especially Italians who became the heart and soul of the Brier Hill community.

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Brier Hill Iron Company’s Grace Furnace circa 1889.

Until 1900, Brier Hill was its own village, with a post office and schools. Only then was it incorporated into Youngstown. There were three parishes that served different ethnic communities–St Anthony’s for the Italian community, St. Casimir’s for the Polish community, and St. Ann’s for the Irish and other Catholic residents. Only St. Anthony’s at 1125 Turin Street still serves the community. St. Casimir’s was sold for a dollar by the Youngstown Diocese to a group that formed the Brier Hill Cultural Center, located at 145 Jefferson Street. A group broke off from St. Anthony’s in 1907 and formed St. Rocco’s which was received into the Episcopal Church in 1918. In 1957, the parish relocated to Liberty Township and had its final services in 2006.

The Brier Hill neighborhood is bounded by Belmont Avenue on the east, the West River crossing on the south, West Federal Street (Route 422) on the west, and Gypsy Lane on the north. Part of the community, that includes Tod Field, is separated from the rest by the 711 freeway. Tod Homestead Cemetary occupies much of the northeast corner of the area.

Brier Hill pizza has its beginnings in the backyard ovens used for breadmaking in the Italian community. (There is a bread oven like one of these in Smoky Hollow’s Harrison Common.) Leftover dough was made into pizza topped with a sweet and thick tomato sauce known as “Sunday sauce,” bell peppers and Romano cheese. The sauce and peppers may well have come out of backyard gardens, and this simple but tasty pizza was probably a special treat during the Depression. Now, you can hardly sell pizza in Youngstown without offering a Brier Hill pizza. But the place to go is St Anthony’s on Friday’s. You need to order ahead and their website has the number to call with your order as well as a video with Casey Malone about their pizza making operation!

For the past 27 years, the Brier Hill Italian Festival has kept the Italian heritage of this community alive. For four days, up to 25,000 people come into the community for good food from one of twenty food vendors, music and Italian culture. The festival gathers at what is perhaps the Italian cultural heart of the community at Calvin and Victoria Streets, where the Italian American (ITAM) VFW Post is located. This started after we moved away, and in our endless quest for good Italian food, we’ve got to go sometime!

Today, Brier Hill, like many other parts of Youngstown struggles with population decline and the razing of properties in parts of the neighborhood. In 1997, the iconic Jenny blast furnace was demolished, one of the last leftovers of the Brier Hill works. In August of 2018, the city was trying to get rid of an illegal dumping ground right behind  St. Joseph the Provider school. St Anthony’s continues to serve the community, the Italian Festival draws business into the community, Jubilee Gardens, one of the larger community gardens with 32 acres, serves food needs in the community, and the Brier Hill Cultural Center keeps Polish culture and wider community history alive. One hopes those seeking to preserve this community, and its history, will be able to attract residents and businesses willing to invest in its future.

 

8 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Brier Hill

  1. I do not know Youngstown. The elephant in the room, usually, in discussions of urban decline is the great migration of black sharecroppers from the South to northern cities that began in the early 20th Century and switched into high gear at the end of World War II, for the most part ending in the 1980’s. It was the largest migration in human history not fueled by war or famine (according to Nicholas Leman,”The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America,” Penguin Random House, 1991). Did the people and institutions, especially the churches, make efforts to transform Youngstown’s homogeneous neighborhoods into multi-ethnic communities, or, as happened in Chicago and Detroit, did the white folk run? Our nation has yet to come to terms with the festering inheritance of its original sin that all men are created equal except for the three-fifths who were counted but did not count. Is Youngstown, today, integrating in any meaningful sense of the word, like Oak Park, Illinois, or is it trapped in a pattern of segregation comprised of outer (white) suburbs with black and Hispanic citizens, mostly poor, packed into ghettoes?

    • Perhaps this happened for a short while in a few neighborhoods, but flight to the suburbs was the rule. The city today may be more integrated, reflecting conscious choices of some, as well as economics.

    • A big issue also is de-population and a surplus of housing stock as the city shrank from 170,000 to 60,000. What has happened is that vacant homes have been torn down, areas allowed to revert to nature, or in some instances, to urban agriculture. The biggest factor continues to be the loss of the city’s industrial base.

  2. Although politicians like to blame the loss of jobs on foreigners and the moving of manufacturing out of the United States, the main culprit is machines. Soon we will have driverless cars and trucks and employeeless convenience stores. What is to be done with all us surplus human beings?

  3. With all due respect to the good work that St. Anthony’s parish does with their beneficial pizza operation, I have to comment that the pizza itself is one of the most overrated foods of this area, IMHO. I am of Italian heritage and I love good pizza but St. Anthony’s pies are not that great, to my taste anyway.

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