Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Family


State Library of Queensland, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Family. Not family values, but family, was important in the working class Youngstown I grew up in. They weren’t perfect, by any means. Then, as now, families could be abusive or even violent. Now we talk about it more, which is a good thing, particularly if it means protecting women and children.

In most cases though, barring divorce (which was much more rare) or death, you could count on both a mom and dad being around. From what I remember, this was true in almost every house on our street. Families were usually larger than today. The Pill was just coming into use, and some still obeyed religious teachings that banned the use of contraceptives. Families of three children were common (including mine) and, if memory serves, a couple families on our street had five kids.

But family didn’t stop with mom, dad, and kids. Often grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins lived in the city, sometimes in the same part of town. Sometimes, an elderly grandparent would even live with the family. People didn’t want to die in a hospital or nursing home. They wanted to die at home, with their people.

My wife’s father had two brothers who lived within blocks. They built each other’s garages, went fishing together, and my wife grew up regularly seeing her cousins. One even shares the same birth day. Holidays were often a movable feast, going from one household to another, sometimes in the same day, sometimes over several.

Families looked out for each other. They helped each other get jobs, and helped out when someone was out of work. They started businesses–tool and die shops, groceries, restaurants, real estate development– you name it. Some of those names have become well known around Youngstown–Butler, Wick, Stambaugh, Cafaro, DeBartolo or Rulli Brothers. Some were more local–like Cherol’s Market on the West Side.

Extended families were important. If the worst happened and a parent died, or divorce happened, there were often aunts, uncles, or grandparents who helped fill the void of both love and mentoring that often was the difference of a kid succeeding despite bad circumstances. Networks of families, particularly in ethnic communities made for cohesive neighborhoods, good friends, and not a few marriages.

There was a dark side to this in Youngstown. Some extended families and family alliances pursued businesses outside the law and used force and the threat of force to bend others to their will, including public officials. No one wanted a “Youngstown tuneup.” A way of doing business that compromised public figures and siphoned public funds into private coffers drained resources from the city and undermined the rule of law.

On balance, though, families were good for Youngstown. They brought cohesion to neighborhoods, stability to kids growing up, and functioned as a kind of “safety net” when neither government nor employers offered much. Today we are much more scattered, and many families, particularly children left Youngstown in search of jobs. I can’t help but wonder if one of the things that might renew Youngstown and other cities like it would be to figure out ways to make it possible for families to stay together. Ultimately it takes jobs, but I wonder if it might also be a good idea to provide incentives for families to create their own businesses and stay together. Maybe that’s a pipe dream.

Families take a number of different forms today. Whatever form they take, at their best, they form character, provide mutual support and care, and a sense of identity (Callan, p. 2). Strong families helped make Youngstown a great place to live. I can’t help but think this is still true.

What did family mean for you growing up in Youngstown?