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.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Neighborhoods

Youngstown is a city of neighborhoods. I suppose that is true of most cities but until I began this series of posts I only had the vaguest notion of how true this was of Youngstown. I was always aware of the “sides” of town, having grown up on the West Side. Sometimes it seemed like traveling to any other side of town was like traveling to the other side of the world when we were growing up. That seems strange now that I live in a much larger city where the trip to the grocery store takes almost as long as it would to drive to another side of Youngstown. I know this because my wife grew up in Brownlee Woods and it took me 7 minutes to drive from my house on the West Side to hers (we both lived near I-680 so that helped).

Many of the neighborhood communities in Youngstown had a name, and the ones that did, at least in some cases, still maintain a certain sense of vitality. Brier Hill comes up again and again in my reading. A strong Italian-American community, common employment in the mills, great food, and St. Anthony’s church all seem to be defining qualities that brought this community together. They’ve even given their name to the iconic Youngstown pizza!

Rocky Ridge neighborhood accessed from http://www.cityofyoungstownoh.com/about_youngstown/youngstown_2010/neighborhoods/west/rocky_ridge/rocky_ridge.aspx

Rocky Ridge neighborhood

But there are many others as well: Brownlee Woods, Buckeye Plat, Lansingville, Crandall Park, Wick Park, Rocky Ridge, Kirkmere, Newport, Smoky Hollow, Fosterville, Idora and more. Some, like Buckeye Plat were established to provide housing for mill workers near the mills. Others, like Brownlee Woods and Kirkmere were post World War 2 developments with a much more mixed population.

What distinguished many of these communities and helped explain how they were worlds unto themselves was that churches, stores, restaurants, gas and auto repair shops, schools and libraries were all often within walking distance. That’s why going downtown or to the other side of town was such a big deal. Most of the time, you just didn’t need to leave your neighborhood to live your life, except to travel to work, if you lived further out. In the earlier days of the city’s development, workers walked to and from work in the mills and manufacturing plants. Most older homes had front porches and socializing at night with those walking through the neighborhood or those next door was common.

Neighborhoods are not only an important part of Youngstown’s past but seem to be an essential part of Youngstown’s future.  Active neighborhood associations like the Idora Neighborhood Association are encouraging the renovation of homes, neighborhood block watches and moving into the city. The City of Youngstown is assisting these efforts through their Neighborhoods website.

If you are from Youngstown, where did you grow up? Did your community have a name? What were your favorite neighborhood memories?