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.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — What We Still Have


Stone Bridge on Lake Glacier (c)2015, Robert C Trube

How good it was. How much we’ve lost. These two phrases seem to capture the gist of so many of the online conversations I’ve had with present and former Youngstowners since starting this series of posts.

On the one hand, so many of us, especially those of us who grew up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, share these incredibly rich memories of working class Youngstown ranging from good jobs to healthy neighborhoods to close extended families to a surprisingly rich cultural life ranging from ethnic festivals to classical concerts, from baseball and bowling leagues to art shows at the Butler.

On the other hand, even with all the efforts to create a “new” Youngstown, we live with a communal grief for what has been lost–from the skies aglow with steel-making, to summers at Idora Park, to the sadness when we visit the neighborhoods of our youth to find an abandoned house or vacant lot where we once lived. It is not a simple thing to occupy, let alone maintain all that housing stock when you’ve lost 100,000 of your people.

I could go on but what I would rather focus on is what we still have, whether we are living in Youngstown or are part of the “Youngstown Diaspora.” What I’ve discovered as I’ve written and interacted and reflected is that having grown up in Youngstown, there are things we carry with us. You may take us out of Youngstown. You can’t take Youngstown out of us.

  • For one thing, we know good food. If nothing else, our mission to the world ought to be one of educating people about what makes a good pizza! It has been a delight to meet Bobbi Ennett Allen and see the great work she and her friends have done in Recipes of Youngstown to preserve so many of those family recipes and good ethnic dishes we grew up with. [2/8/15 update: There is now a second Recipes of Youngstown that will be coming out soon to benefit the Mahoning Valley Historical Society that may be pre-ordered at their website.]
  • There are values we grew up with that are worth preserving and passing along to our families and others. Youngstowners are no-nonsense, hard-working, family-oriented, and resilient. Youngstowners do not tolerate those who whine, indulge in self-pity, or self-adulation. We would say they are “full of it” (or something more earthy).
  • Not all our memories are nostalgia. We know what makes a good place. We know what the “new urbanists” are only just discovering–that a good place has sidewalks, home owners, and a diversity of businesses and services in walking distance. I’ve had a chance to talk to some working in the Idora Park area to renew the neighborhoods there and they get this–and that good places are not 90 day wonders but take years of hard work.
  • We cherish beauty. Somehow, we’ve managed to preserve and enhance Mill Creek Park and we return there whenever we visit. We’ve always supported the fine and performing arts. The gritty world of manufacturing taught us that it was not enough just to make things–we craved things of beauty. The world still needs people with this vision.
  • We are people who know how to celebrate. I can’t think of any place where the weddings are more fun than in Youngstown. Nobody else (except some Pittsburgh folk who probably got it from us) even knows what a cookie table is let alone what a good one looks like! We didn’t think all of life is a party. Much of it was hard, so when there was a wedding, or even a wake, you celebrated. When there was a holiday, you cooked and baked like crazy and you celebrated.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There is so much we carry within us that has not been lost. But it can be if we keep it within because none of us lives forever. The best of our heritage can live on if we share it with our children, and bring our best into our communities, our places of worship, and our work.

Writing this series has been a fun project with a serious purpose. The experiences and memories that we’ve shared and enjoyed together are things that have shaped us. I think much of that is profoundly good–good to remember if we are seeking the peace and prosperity of Youngstown–and good to be mindful of and draw upon wherever we find ourselves.

Read all the posts in the Growing Up in Youngstown Series by clicking the “On Youngstown” category link either at the top of this page or in the left column of my home page.

Review: Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission

Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission
Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission by J.D. Payne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you noticed how many people from other countries are living in your city? J.D. Payne thinks this is part of God’s providential work that creates great opportunities for mission if his people will have eyes to see it. My city, Columbus, Ohio, has the second largest Somali population in the U.S. with over 40,000 residing in our city. A whole network of shops, restaurants, places of worship (mostly Islamic) and businesses have developed in consequence.

People are moving for all sorts of reasons from country to country and Payne chronicles this movement with both stories and charts of data. There are refugees, migrants seeking better economic opportunities, students enrolling in our universities. And this is not just the case in the U.S. It is the case on every continent.

Payne has one simple contention and that is that those who come from a particular country, especially those not easily open to western missions, may make the best people to take the gospel back to these countries and plant churches. The basic issue is whether believing people in host countries will recognize the opportunity and respond.

Payne suggests a simple four part strategy consisting of Reach, Equip, Partner, and Send. One of the things he warns against is that without an intentional focus on sending, many will simply assimilate into a host culture and host believing communities. Contrary to some, he believes in real partnerships and that what Western churches have to offer is not all bad, even though paternalism in various guises is to be watched for. What he does observe is that Western partners with returning immigrants have much more access to the immigrant’s culture than they would on their own.

What I like about this book is that it refocuses the discussion on immigration from national policy debates to the kingdom implications of the immigration that is taking place. While the policy debates do matter and Christians should be involved in pursuing justice and mercy that welcomes the stranger we should also be wondering what is God up to in these global dispersions and how we might co-operate with God in what He is doing.

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Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Diaspora Part 2

Usually I write one of these Youngstown posts a week. But my post yesterday on “Diaspora’ elicited an amazing number of responses (over 90 at last count!) to my question, “if you’ve left, would you ever think of returning?” One of the things I realized after the post was that I did not answer the question myself. So I thought I would take the time today to say a bit about that and to respond in general to your comments.

A bit of personal biography. I moved from Youngstown after finishing college in 1976 to work with the collegiate ministry organization I still work with–it is a great organization and I count myself blessed to have spent my adult life working with them–maybe that reflects an old Youngstown value as well. So I departed from Youngstown before 1978 and the closure of the mills. Since leaving, I’ve lived in four Ohio towns–Delaware, Toledo, Cleveland, and for the last 24 years, Columbus. So while I left, I never strayed very far! My wife (also from Youngstown) and I were married in June of 1978 and she joined me in Toledo and worked for several years on the city desk of the Toledo Blade.

For most of our married life, until 2012, we had at least one living parent in Youngstown, and so visited regularly. We still have friends in the Youngstown area and connections with several Youngstown area churches that help fund our collegiate ministry work. So, in our case, it seems we will continue to make regular pilgrimages back to the area.

To be honest, we find ourselves with mixed feelings when we visit. We rejoice in the rejuvenated downtown, the continued growth of Youngstown State (of which we are proud alumni!), the renewed attention to protecting the treasure that is Mill Creek Park, the continued excellence of St Elizabeth’s, which nursed my parents through several serious illnesses before they passed. Perhaps the greatest heartbreak is the decline that is evident in some once beautiful neighborhoods, including the one I grew up in. The house I grew up in, last I knew,was vacant and ‘strippers’ had apparently been at work removing siding, and who knows what else. I heard at one point that it might be slated to be demolished. I haven’t gone back and looked.

My home in its better days.

My home in its better days.

Would we return? I’ve learned never to say “never” to God, so I won’t say that! But like a number who commented, we have put roots down in Columbus, and our son and his wife and work I love are here. I think Youngstown actually taught us to love the place, the people, the institutions of the town you are in, and that is so for us with Columbus. But like many of you who do not plan to return, we always remember, and frequently talk about, and keep in touch with Youngstown.  Every town we have lived in has had its problems, including our current home, so it just seems wrong for me to point fingers at others. I would much rather both remember Youngstown’s rich past and its impact on my life as well as celebrate the present victories and future hopes of those who call it home.

I was amazed by how many who responded to the blog had returned to Youngstown and were glad they did. That is so part of the diaspora experience. There were many others who said they would in a heartbeat. While most had wonderful things to say about Youngstown, some had negative experiences or perceptions that they would not want to relive. This is one question where there is no “right” answer, one that each of us must answer in our own ways.

It was fun to see the connections people made with each other on the Facebook comments and heartening to see the care expressed toward several who had experienced loss. I started this series of posts out of a blog post on class and having someone ask me, “what was it like to grow up in working class Youngstown?” What has surprised me is how so many have joined in this conversation, sharing memories, making connections, and offering insights that have helped me understand more about the answer to that question. You’ve reminded me of what I’d forgotten and made me think of that I’d not considered and I’m profoundly grateful. Thank you!

I’ve been thinking of other topics to write about but since this has turned into a conversation, I’d like to hear what you would be interested in seeing in these posts and talking about. And that goes for those not from Youngstown who have found things they identify with as well.

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?