Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Vanished Homes

The home I grew up in. (Photo taken by Carol E Campbell)

It has been four to five years since I last drove down my home street. At that time, it was clear that a number of houses, including the one I grew up in, were vacant. Siding had been stripped off part of our old house. I had the sinking feeling that I was watching the death of a loved one.

The other day, my sister-in-law wrote to me that the old house was no more, that there was simply a vacant lot where it once stood. Somehow, I knew that was coming. Yet just eleven years ago, in 2006, it was one of the best kept houses on the street. My parents put a lot of love and care into the house they lived in for 65 years in which they raised three children. They finally sold it when health reasons suggested that it was time to move into a retirement community. That it took less than eleven years to destroy that home reflects the tragedy of Youngstown — the depopulation that followed years of corrupt and self-serving political leadership and rapacious industry that took the labor of the city’s workers, took the profits, and left the city desolate. A city of just over 60,000 can’t sustain a housing stock built for 170,000. The truth is empty houses are targets of opportunity, and the natural elements combined with human elements will quickly destroy even the best kept home, once abandoned. At least the city is tearing these homes down.

Yes, I’m angry that this could happen to what was once a perfectly good home. Not that I want to go back — when we’ve moved we’ve given thanks for what the home has meant to us, prayed a blessing over it for those who would follow, and not looked back. We are not going to be knocking on the doors of owners of places we once lived to look around!

But it is sad that the place filled with so many memories is no more. These were some of mine, which I write down against the day I may not remember them or be around to do so!

  • There was the front porch that was the coolest place on many summer evenings–a place of family conversation, listening to Indians games, cold glasses of lemonade, the old metal porch swing.
  • The front door with the button lock in the door that would mean you’d need to use a kitchen knife to get the door open. My mom was really good at that.
  • The living room where we shared so many Christmas mornings around the tree Dad so exquisitely decorated, albeit with lots of cussing and muttering when the lights would tangle or he couldn’t get it to stand straight! My mom always sat in her yellow wing chair, that now sits in our family room, police radio on the table beside her.
  • The dining room, where we shared so many Thanksgiving dinners. Eventually the buffet and table of my grandparents filled the room. I also used to love to listen to the shortwave receiver that was part of the radio/record player console and hear stations from Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
  • The kitchen, with the old stove and the table around which we shared so many meals, so many stories, political discussions, and sometimes arguments. There was usually a dog dish around, and a dog we’d sometimes slip things from the table.
  • Down the stairs was a basement. I remember the HO slot car layout along one wall that I would spend hours with my friends racing cars. In one corner was my dad’s desk, where he would bring home work, pay bills, and listen to his polkas when they bothered mom. In later years there was a pool table that my son and my father played many games together. We captured a picture of them at it, probably one of the last times they played.
  • Along another wall was an old workbench and table, and above them a pegboard with tools and shelves with baby food jars filled with nails, screws, nuts, bolt, etc. I used to love to tinker there with scrap pieces of wood, making rubber band guns. The furnace and water heater were in the middle of the basement. The washer on another wall with laundry tubs. They never bought a dryer, hanging clothes on the clothes lines strung back and forth from the basement rafters. In one corner where our front and side walls met was a coal cellar, from the days when the house was heated by a coal furnace. It was where summer stuff was stored in winter, along with Christmas decorations, and other odds and ends, including an old Western Flyer bike we rehabbed for me.
  • We had three bedrooms upstairs and I slept in one or the other at some time in my life. My parents was on one side of the front, and I had a small bed there in my early years. I moved to the back bedroom to make room for my sister. I used to love looking out the window where I could see downtown. I had a battery powered electricity kit, and later built contraptions with an Erector set. Finally, when my brother married, I moved to the other front bedroom that had more space. This was where I had the stereo I bought where I would listen to WDVE from Pittsburgh and would play rock music as loud as my parents would let me.
  • There was a light in the hallway we left on at night, under which the dog usually slept. Across from it was a bookcase filled with encyclopedia volumes where I could explore the world for hours on indoor days. That bookshelf, though not the encyclopedias, is just to my left as I write this post.
  • Outside was the garage, which my dad and his father-in-law put up on supports while they built a foundation, filled it in and raised it 4-5 feet. I can only imagine how hard they worked to do that. What I most remember about that garage was that one or the other of us was always breaking windows, until dad made me replace and repair them myself. Somehow, I didn’t break any more after that.

I feel like I’m just getting started. We were a real family in that house, with all sorts of ups and downs, many good memories, and some not so good, but all part of the fabric of my life. Yes, it saddens me that the structure is not there and that this is a story that has been repeated numerous times in many good places around the city. But that house and all the memories we made in it lives on in my mind, in the stories we tell our families about those days, and in the people each of us are. And perhaps the great, good places so many of our homes and neighborhoods were might offer hope to those homesteading in the city, and trying to rebuild parts of the city. May they make many new and good memories in those places!

An Evening with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College."Marilynne Robinson" by Christian Scott Heinen Bell - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.”Marilynne Robinson” by Christian Scott Heinen BellOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I read Gilead and Home several years ago and have Lila on my “want to read” list. So when I heard that Marilynne Robinson was speaking at Northwestern University while I was at a work conference near O’Hare Airport, I jumped on the opportunity to go hear her. She was speaking on “Our Elegant Universe: Is Beauty an Accident?” as part of a program called The Veritas ForumShe gave a prepared talk on the theme and then participated in a question and answer period with an audience of at least 500. I scribbled some notes from the talk and Q and A time. This is not a verbatim rendering, but rather a summary that I hope is faithful to her words and thought. I thought others who love Robinson’s work might enjoy this, and those who have not discovered it might try one of her novels.

In her presentation, she argued that the beauty of the world, the elegance of the universe (of which she sees us a part) is no accident. She thinks that science and theology ought not be at war over these things when in fact both perceive the grandeur of the creation. She contended for a “divine freedom that precedes reality” and that materialist explanations don’t allow for that which is beyond our own experience. She sees in the sheer variety of beauty,rather than being one thing, the grace of God.

Here are some of the questions she discussed following her presentation:

What is a day like in the life of Marilynne Robinson? Has that changed since Gilead?

Not really. I am a solitary creature surrounded by many, many books. My sister visits me a couple hours a week to connect me to the outer world. Otherwise I stay in my house except for walks which I’m told are good for my circulation. Otherwise, I stay in my house. I like my life but many would not find it enviable. I’m a monk, basically.

Was there a “conversion moment” in your life.

I can’t remember any “dawning”. I never thought of myself as other than Christian. I almost went to divinity school except that there weren’t many opportunities for women. I went to graduate school instead. I was always good at writing. My brother encouraged me and Housekeeping was kind of a family artifact. But as for my Christian experience, I would describe it as uniformity with enriching.

Have you ever thought that the Christian subject matter of your novels would limit your audience?

I never considered it. I was never a careerist. I wrote about what interested me. I was surprised by the reception of Gilead. I don’t think about my readership. I’m just glad they are there. Writers should trust their own insights and trust the interests of the public.

When you look at the world, do you ever think evil overcomes beauty? Does this argue against God?

Most people throughout history have lived with great afflictions and yet many have produced works of incredible beauty in the belief that there is something beyond evil and suffering.

Is God beauty?

Beauty is a signature of the divine. But nothing is identical with God — that would be blasphemy.

What challenge would you leave with students?

Two things:

1. Remember who you are, the flower of the universe. You can do all kinds of things and you won’t know until you try!

2. Read the primary sources!

This is a much-edited version of 90 minutes of presentation and dialogue. Besides the fact that she lives surrounded by many books (!), it was a delight to spend an evening considering the beautiful aspect of our pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Others may see beauty in a world without God but what struck me was the seamless arc between her perception of the beauty that finds its source in God and the beauty manifest in her writing. I for one am glad she simply writes what interests her. I’m thankful that she has given expression to this and trusted to the interests of her audience for in so doing she has given us great works of beauty.

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.