Did you grow up thinking you would always live in Youngstown? Both my wife and I did. Until we didn’t. Until then, we knew there was a world outside the Mahoning Valley. We just never thought we’d live somewhere else in it.
This is not a post about the economic troubles of Youngstown. I moved from Youngstown to near Columbus in 1976 to work with the collegiate ministry I am still employed with. Back then, they did not allow you to work at the school from which you graduated. Since I went to Youngstown State, it meant going elsewhere. After a year, I moved to Toledo. My fiance, now my wife, followed the next year, and we were married in 1978. Subsequent assignments with work led to moves to Cleveland for nearly ten years, and then to Columbus for the last thirty, longer than the twenty-two I lived in Youngstown.
I’ve been thinking what an interesting thing it is that I have been writing weekly about growing up in Youngstown for five years now, when it has been more than forty years since I lived there. People like to say that “you can take me out of Youngstown, but you can’t take Youngstown out of me.” Sometimes I cannot believe that over forty years have passed because the memories of people and places and experiences, of school days and family celebrations are as vivid as if they were just a few years ago.
Writing about Youngstown has helped me see how growing up in the Valley not only has shaped me in many ways, but so many of us that grew up here. We like certain foods like good Italian cooking that we can only find in Youngstown–as we did on a recent visit back. We compare every park to Mill Creek Park. And we’ve talked about that quite a bit!
There is a certain way of approaching life that says “you can knock me down, you can shut me out, but I will keep showing up.” Maybe it was those parents who grew up in the Depression era. There is a saying, sometimes attributed, probably erroneously, to Winston Churchill that goes, “When you are going through hell, keep going.” I think it was someone from Youngstown who first said it, probably reflecting on life in the factories with its heat and dangers, boom times, strikes, and layoffs. That mentality has stood me in good stead.
Joni Mitchell, the folk rocker many of us grew up with has a line from The Big Yellow Taxi that I was thinking about recently in another context, but applies to many of us who grow up in Youngstown, and perhaps other places as well. She sings, “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone.” There was so much of Youngstown that I saw or heard about that I never gave a thought to while I lived there. I saw Oak Hill Cemetery many times but had no idea of the history of the city memorialized within its bounds. I only knew of Volney Rogers as the name of a junior high rival school, and not as a visionary who saved a place of beauty that continues to delight one hundred years after his death. I never grasped what an extraordinary treasure the Butler was nor what a renaissance man its founder was as historian, industrialist, philanthropist, a friend of presidents, and an art collector. I don’t think I realized how all the neighborhood restaurants and local bars and family groceries made the town such a great place.
I don’t think myself a traitor to my town because I left. Most of our families did not live here from the founding of the city (there are some, I’ve discovered). My wife’s mother came here as a girl of ten. My father was born in Warren, my mother outside of Pittsburgh. We’ve always been a nation on the move. But I do find myself thankful for those who have come to or stayed in Youngstown. I had the chance to meet Bill Lawson of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society recently, and came away even more deeply impressed with his and his staff’s efforts to preserve and pass along the history of the Valley. I’m so glad that Jack Kravitz is still making his famous corned beef and Reuben sandwiches. Jim Tressel seems to have done so much to develop Youngstown State far beyond what it was when we were students there. I could go on.
I started writing to understand some of the memories of growing up in working class Youngstown and how that had shaped my life. As I kept writing, I discovered a story of which I’d only heard hints when I lived there. It has enriched my life and made me proud of the place where I lived. It has taught me what makes a good place, lessons I hope I can bring to my own place. If nothing else, all of us who have left have a mission to teach the world what good Italian food tastes like! For my friends who remain in the Valley, I hope that remembering the good strengthens your pursuit of the good in your place. I admire what you are doing more than you can know. I look forward to telling more of the stories of the Valley, the stories that have shaped us, the stories in which we live.