Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Diaspora

We went out to breakfast this morning at a local diner. We often do this on Saturdays before grocery shopping. We were served by a woman, who along with her mother who also works at the restaurant, are Youngstown natives. The woman mentioned her other job, on the wait staff at a nearby Italian restaurant, and so our typical Youngstown question was, “do they have good red sauce?” Somewhere in the conversation she also mentioned that her manager grew up in Struthers, and then called him over. A relative of his was the kitchen manager at the Elmton, a restaurant in Struthers and we talked about the old ladies who made pierogies at the Catholic church and other great places to eat.

This happens frequently to us. I know there are a lot of Youngstown people in Columbus. A local newscaster, a county commissioner, and judge have Youngstown connections. Via Facebook, I’ve discovered several high school classmates live here. And through previous posts in this series, I learned of others as well–along with the fact that there is a Wedgewood Pizza in the area, along with other Youngstown connected places like Handels, Belleria and Quaker Steak n Lube [Update: since this post was first written Wedgewood and Belleria have closed their shops leaving many Youngstowners in Columbus in search of good pizza one more].

The idea of “diaspora” is that of dispersion or scattering. It has been used most in history in reference to the Jewish diaspora. Often diasporas are forced, as was the exile of the Jews in 587 BC, and their dispersion after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some dispersions are for trade and economic reasons. This is a significant reason for the diaspora of urban industrial cities like Youngstown. Generation after generation thought they could grow up, get jobs in the community, and raise a family and stay close to parents and grandparents. And then it all changed.

Actually, a mini-diaspora began in the 1950s and 1960s as people started moving to the suburban communities around Youngstown for more spacious homes and better schools. Cars allowed us to commute into the city but the ethnic and economic mix of the city of Youngstown began to change. The fabric of neighborhoods started shredding. Downtown began to die as retail followed the area population.

Then 1978 came and with it the shutting down of the steel industry that had been Youngstown’s lifeblood and led to the collapse of many other businesses. And while there have been entrepreneurial people and other survivors who stayed, many of us either because of jobs we had or economic necessity moved elsewhere. Through this blog, I’ve come in contact with the “Youngstown Diaspora” extending from Columbus all the way to New Zealand.

One of the responses to my last Youngstown post, from someone in Oklahoma included this thought-provoking question: “I live in a beautiful city, clean and progressive much like Columbus. . . . So why are these memories so etched deep in my heart[?].” This haunting question seems to be part of the diaspora experience. Even though we may live in other places, we continue to feel a deep connection to our homes–the foods, the places, the personalities, the politics, the culture of this place we grew up. It is so odd, we’ve met people that we’ve felt a special connection with, only to find out that they are also from Youngstown, and off we go in talking about all these things. Through this series, I’ve discovered several Facebook groups of Youngstown natives and it is incredible the number of people and posts sharing both memories and current concerns! Youngstown is indeed etched deeply in our lives.

I think much of this is about identity. So much of who we are is formed in our early years, before we are 20. It seems true of me that you can take me out of Youngstown but you can’t take Youngstown out of me. I also think it is because we knew we had something very special in those years that had to do with home and a way of living, that we want to recapture. And some of it seems to be place, somewhere we had roots. It is a collage of visual memories of a good place that consisted of the glow of blast furnaces, the Home Savings tower, Christmas displays at Strouss’ and McKelveys, cookie tables at weddings, Handel’s, Lanterman Falls, Idora Park, and more.

I’ve discovered we Youngstowners are not alone in this sense of “diaspora”. I caught this TED talk on the Detroit Diaspora. I found a good deal I connected with. One thing that I’m wondering about because I haven’t heard this said by many from Youngstown is the idea of return. The longing for return is a big part of many diasporas. Jews will say “next year in Jerusalem.” And I wonder, and would love to hear from those in the “Youngstown Diaspora”, do you ever think about returning? And what would those of you who stayed think if at least part of this “diaspora” returned and brought the resources and experience gathered in other places back to Youngstown? Or is your form of return connecting with others in the Youngstown Diaspora, to return in memory to all that was good about that place we grew up?