Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–Why Local History?

An early sketch of the Brier Hill district and the town of Youngstown

I was in a conversation this week with someone who asked me why we should honor people in the Youngstown area who have done great things. It is a good question. Part of my response was to say that “For me, it is about more than honoring them or their memory. It is about the values they stood for that you hope to perpetuate.” That answer is part of why I write so much about Youngstown people, cultural institutions, businesses, and events that have shaped Youngstown.

We’re not a bunch of people who happened to land in a particular place that is just like other places in the U.S. Youngstown is a storied place and those who call it home are part of a 225 year old story. I happen to think part of how we make sense of our lives, what matters in them, what values shape them, is to understand the story of which we are a part and within which we live.

Yet one of the most common responses I receive to many of the articles I’ve posted in this series is, “why have I never heard about this before. I never knew that!” The reason, of course is that, with few exceptions, most of us were not taught our local history in school. I happen to think that is a great lack.

Sadly, the only local history many of us know about Youngstown are the stories of the mob, bombings, the closing of the mills, and political corruption. I would be a liar if I were to say that these aren’t part of the Youngstown story. But they are only a part. I haven’t focused much on these things because so much has been written. It also happens that in the plot of the Youngstown story, such things are only a small part of our rich story.

Yet so much that we continue to treasure in Youngstown we owe to people who put their time, skill, energy, and money into our community life. We owe our schools to people like Judge Rayen and N. H. Chaney and Paul C. Bunn. and Howard Jones. The efforts of Reuben McMillan contributed to the excellent library system of today. We have one of the most amazing museums of American art that we can visit for free because of the vision and bequest of Joseph G. Butler. Mill Creek could have become another industrial zone were it not for the vision and labors of Volney Rogers and the park leadership from then until now that stewarded this singularly beautiful place. Leaders like Charles P. Henderson showed that politics needn’t be corrupt. The Warners built an amazing theatre that the Powers family and later, the DeBartolo and York families preserved as a wonderful space for the performing arts. The Covelli Centre recognizes the efforts and investment of a contemporary restaurant entrepreneur. I could go on and on.

Local history helps us know how our city developed in the shape it did. It answers questions like “How did Brier Hill get its name and why is it so important?” What connection did the famous educator William Holmes McGuffey have with the east side of Youngstown? How did East Youngstown become Campbell? How did Salt Springs Road get its name? Why is the Wick family so important to our history? What importance did the Gibson, Zedaker, Foster, and Brownlee families have in the development of the South Side?

Local history matters because it is a story we get to help write. Among those I listed above are people from the early beginnings of Youngstown, a number from a century ago, and some who are our contemporaries. How do we write that story? The people in that history did it through hard work, integrity of character, a willingness to go out on limbs and take risks, and a stick-to-itivness. Many of them persisted twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty years in pursuing the common good of the city. I suspect that if anything is done that lasts another one hundred years or more, it will be because of people who embrace those same values and pursue a similar course.

And this is why our local history matters. First it made us, and then we get to make it.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

10 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–Why Local History?

  1. There is an essential connection between self understanding and place/environment that cannot be overlooked or overstated, Your celebration of Youngstown deepens my self understanding at every reading. I sincerely thank you for that gift Bob.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful Bob! So true! Youngstown, Ohio is a huge part of who I am. My parents, the Welsh community, my church, First Presbyterian and the fabulous hard working people of the steel valley are just who I am.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, so well said. Although I no longer live in Youngstown, over the years my father also told me stories of its history. Thank you for sharing so many interesting stories, the more I learn, the greater my pride in my hometown grows.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally agree. It was a privilege to grow up in Youngstown. As a graduate of Chaney (‘68)no better time and place to have been raised.

    Thanks for keeping the memories alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Iwas born in 1942 to a Polish Mom and Hungarian Dad. My first best friend Rosie Maducci was Italian whose dad had an Italian grocery store. I spent so much time at her house that I even learned a few Italian phrases…and even got to stomp on grapes in their cellar!! And WOW was it fun to have yummy meals at her house!!
    I went to school with protestants at Bankroft until 3rd. grade when I transferred to St. Dom’s. My classmates were like a quilt of many colors, nationalities and backgrounds. Who knows how many different nationalities were in our neighborhoods!!!??
    My dad was a bus driver when he returned from the war…all the while taking classes at Y College. After getting his degree he became our city’s Traffic Engineer and worked at City Hall.
    I could go on and on but my upbringing in Youngstown could not have been better!
    Each of our lives represents the history of Youngstown.
    Thank you Bob for generously filling in the pot holes of this valuable history over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve become so enamored of your writings I’ve shared them with my brothers and sisters, all of whom left Y-town for economic reasons. Each of them have enjoyed your musings and I forwarded a couple to a good female friend in New Zealand who grew up on the south side.
    AKA “The wrong side”!!
    Thank you sir!


  7. Bob: Not sure about your “roots” but I sure enjoy your musings about growing up in Youngstown. I’m descended from Irish immigrants who came here during the “potato famine.” It wasn’t that they didn’t love Ireland, but they had a problem with just “hanging around and starving!” Anyway, my great grandfather, Patrick Michael Kennedy, landed here in the late 1840’s, couldn’t even sign his name (the British, occupiers of Ireland for over 700 years, forbade the Irish being educated, owning property, etc) but he must have been good with numbers. In about 30 years he had managed to become wealthy as a contractor, lived on Boardman Steeet when it was a residential area, and was pretty well off and comfortable. The summers were a bit too hot for him on Boardman street so he sought out a site on what became the east side of Youngstown, where he bought some 300 acres, built a farm, and somewhat retired to what was then “the country.” The site was up on a hill overlooking what eventually became Lincoln Park. He donated quite a bit of land for the park. My Dad told me that the grandpa had said “an Irishman’s dream of Heaven is a “Castle On A Hill.”

    One of great grandpa’s sons, “Patrick Michael” became the second president of Home Savings and Loan Co, a company he helped found and served for 23 years. The Kennedy’s – there were three brothers who immigrated, Pat, James & John, all enjoyed levels of success back in the day. Unfortunately, ‘the Irish virus,’ alcoholism plagued our family for generations and in fact still does.

    I, like my Dad before me, was born and raised on “The Kennedy Farm” as it was known for years, up over Lincoln Park. The house still stands there. We departed around the late 70’s as it had become a bit of a burden for my aging Mom. It is still occupied by a lovely couple, Bob and Gina Thornton, who love it much as we did.

    Anyway, just wanted to touch base. Enjoy your work. And am proud to be from Youngstown. I once told Joe Malmisur, former athletic director at YSY (hired Jim Tressell) who also attended the same grade school I did (Sacred Heart) that growing up in Youngstown in the 40’s & 50’s gave us two years of education for every one year we lived. One we got in the classes by the Nuns – and the other in the streets. Very few Youngstowner’s raised in that milieu were able to be conned or taken in by charlatons. We had pretty much seen them all!! Bob Kennedy

    Liked by 1 person

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