Growing up in Working Class Youngstown — Leaving the Valley

vintage youngstown postcardDid 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.

3 thoughts on “Growing up in Working Class Youngstown — Leaving the Valley

  1. Bob, I forward your blog to my sister in California every week! We are like you, in that we’ve have lived away, longer than in, the Youngstown area. Keep going!

  2. Bob, I read your post on “leaving The Valley” a few moments ago. Admittedly, I read “Bob on Books” only intermittently because there is so much to read nowadays on the Internet. I could not help but wonder if, as Baby Boomers, remaining in Youngstown makes one “loyal” while moving away to other cities and towns nationwide makes one “disloyal”. Those who moved out of The Valley 40+ years ago did so for economic/employment opportunities. Our parents generation is mostly deceased. I bring this up because Youngstown and vicinity is upheld by “nostalgia” — Idora Park, the steel mills, a thriving downtown. “Lordstown” was shut down this past spring. The Vindicator will be folding up next month. And what about medical care? Does one have to automatically “think Cleveland and Pittsburgh” in order to receive good medical attention? What will keep the spirit and pride of Youngstown alive?

  3. Bob, your comments for this blog is exactly what ive been saying for years to friends… The history of Youngstown has been one of fight..and when you think you got no more, you cant stop till its done and right has been restored. We had to move for health reasons; My mother became sick in 1973 along with many others on the North Side from what the drs thought was a three day flu – and never really recovered. Drs thought it may have been from the new restrictions that came from the newly formed EPA to the mills in the form of caps on the smoke stacks to filter particles. Coming from Youngstown to California was kinda wake up call.. the Bicentennial was a big thing there, but a blip here, Western Reserve kid in CA? fight. Health issues? fight. We fought the schools here telling me i wasn’t “educated” enough.. yet they were using my YO 4-6th grade texts clear into 10th grade here. Went to college – still fight to get through …..I fought an eminent domain action on my community – when i felt i was too tired to go on, i still had that “can’t stop” attitude.. and we won. My other half had a vacation, and decided that at 29 years away we would go to YO to see my youngest nephew get married….in 2005 i discovered where that fight came from. I drove around, still knowing where to go after all those years.. then i went to the Industry and Labor Museum… I understood. NE Ohio was the center and flashpoint of the union movement, and the sacrifices made to get us to where we were. That fight was bred into us, and reinforced while we grew up with the mills, fabricating plants and people. Watching Shout Youngstown was also a reinforcement….driving around being reminded of the news reports of Beirut of the 1970’s… You can take the person out of YO, but YO is still there no matter what. I have met some youngsters (meaning those born after the mills were long gone) and i can see some of that fight left. What is funny is how many people i have come across here in CA that are from the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys.. and we instantly know we are kindred spirits. I have Boardman managing a store i go to, Austintown for my locksmith, Eastside/Warren for the Philly cheesesteak shop, Girard for the stationary store manger, Southside for the checkout girl at the supermarket, All we do is listen to each other talk and say, are you from Youngstown? When did you leave? Ive met managers from YS&T, workers from Republic Steel, a former manager of sorts from Mill Creek Park (we constantly compare San Diego’s Balboa Park to Mill Creek), and so on. We lament the close of Rayen, talk about the Penguins, and compare Isalys chipped ham to a local market who tries to emulate it..Royal Crown better than Coke or Pepsi, compare Moggs sausage to a LA area Italian sausage (close enough)… then i come across an article or person who talks about Youngstown today, and i shake my head. I understand the decline. I understand the fact that its the poster child for the change from a manufacturing to service economy. I cry for the fall of the Vindicator and closing of Lordstown. But unless you are from there you do not understand what and why.

    Thanks for the posts… and keep them coming!

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