Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fireworks

Wfc_pyrotechnic_display

By Fieldington at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28678368

Last night was our big fireworks display in Columbus–Red, White and Boom. We enjoyed it in the comfort of our living room but hundreds of thousands made their way to downtown Columbus for a half hour or less of ear-drum shattering pyrotechnics.

Remember fireworks growing up in Youngstown? Of course there were the homegrown variety. One year, I remember dad’s version of fireworks was to set off some automobile flares in our backyard. Actually was pretty cool! As young kids, we got sparklers, which seemed magical the first time we lit them.

As we grew older this was pretty tame stuff. I have to confess, I’m not very good at lying, and my folks were pretty strict about not buying fireworks. That didn’t prevent me, however, from watching my friends set them off. Of course there were the little firecrackers, which mostly just made a lot of noise. There were cherry bombs, which really made a loud boom, and were the favorite for throwing in a mailbox of a crochety neighbor. There were Roman candles and bottle rockets for lots of light as well as noise.

It seems I recall that some of the little mom and pop stores would sell this stuff out of a back room or under the counter. This was before some of the big stores on state borders that made liars of lots of people who swore they would only use the fireworks “out of state.” All I know is many of my friends whose parents weren’t as strict about this stuff had no problem finding them. No one I knew ever got in trouble for them. And the nights leading up to July 4, then as now, were filled with the sound of do it yourself fireworks.

The big display for most of us who grew up in Youngstown was at Idora Park and that was the place to be on the evening of the Fourth. Some years we went there and saw everything, the stuff that detonated low as well as the rockets that went way up high. Other years, we watched from the highest ridge of Rocky Ridge on the West side, where you had lots more room and lots less traffic.

The approach of dusk meant the wrapping up of all those family picnics, storing away the last of that potato salad, and licking those gooey s’mores off your fingers. Then it was pile into the family car or station wagon and head off to see the fireworks. Sometimes, we’d sit in the back of a neighbor’s station wagon, sipping lemonade poured from a big thermos while we waited for the show to start.

We’d “ooh” and “ahh” at all the cool effects of fireworks that looked like snakes and others that looked like weeping willows. I always liked the “spiders”. We wanted them to go on forever. Then there was the pause, and suddenly the sky lit up and seconds later, we would hear an almost endless “boom-boom-boom-boom-boom” as the display reached the finale. Then silence and cheers.

And then we went home realizing that a month of summer was gone. We renewed our determination to swim, play baseball, eat ice cream and sleep in as much as the parents would let us. That Tuesday after Labor Day was only two months away and we all knew what that meant.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–Buses

NYC_Transit_Authority_FACCo_GM_TDH-5106_Old_Look_3100

By AEMoreirao42281 (Own Work) via Wikimedia Commons

Remember when buses looked something like this? My first memory of riding a city bus in Youngstown was when I was staying with grandparents on the South Side and my grandmother took me downtown shopping. Later on, in my sophomore year in high school I started working at McKelvey’s. They were open late on Mondays and Thursdays and so I caught a bus on Mahoning Avenue near my house to go to work. Fares then may have been only a quarter, but I was only making $1.25 an hour back then. It was only about a ten minute bus ride to cover the two miles between home and work. My father also worked at McKelvey’s and would give me a ride home at night (we were a one car family–I didn’t own a car until after college which actually saved a lot of money).

Mostly I remembered that the buses seemed old, with lots of rattles, and at that time of day weren’t very full. I don’t remember any “regulars” nor much about the bus drivers. My wife had a different story. She took the bus to college and back home and there were a number of regular passengers and they all seemed to get to know each other. Maybe the people riding the bus from the South Side were friendlier!

After college, we both moved out of town and got married. The bus system, now called the Western Reserve Transit Authority (which still operates under that name), was the main form of transportation for my mother-in-law who did not drive. Trips to the grocery store and downtown were adventures, and we were grateful for bus drivers who looked out for her and helped her as she got older.

Mass transit has a long history in Youngstown according to this blog post from the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. In 1875, the Youngstown Street Railroad Company provided horse-drawn service from the Brier Hill area to downtown. Eventually horses were replaced with cars powered by overhead electric wires. Eventually the Youngstown Park and Falls Street Railway connected downtown to the Lanterman Falls area giving birth to Terminal (later Idora) Park.

WRTABeginning in the 1920’s, streetcars gave way to buses and the Youngstown Municipal Railway Company became the Youngstown Transit Company. As automobiles became more popular and the freeways were built ridership dropped the bus system turned operations over to the Mahoning Valley Regional Mass Transit Authority, which in 1971 became the Western Reserve Transit Authority.

I’m glad there has continued to be bus service in the Mahoning Valley. For cash-strapped college students and the elderly who either did not like to drive or could not, as well as others for whom a car was a burdensome expense, the bus, though not always as convenient, provided a way to get around when it was too far to walk. And for those who regularly commuted, it could be a social occasion as well.

Did you ever ride the buses in Youngstown? What were your memories of taking the bus?

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?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Idora Park

Idora Park was indeed a working class amusement park. In a comment to a previous post, someone said that Idora Park was their idea of amusement parks–no one in his era (or mine) would have dreamed of going to Disney World. I don’t think I even became aware of the bigger regional amusement parks like Cedar Point until high school and my first time at Cedar Point was in college. Idora Park was my idea of an amusement park growing up.

“IdoraDanceHall1920” by Youngstown News Agency, Youngstown, Ohio –

The park was opened on May 30, 1899, the same day as Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh. Both were at the terminus of trolley lines and Idora Park was originally known as “Terminal Park” and operated by the Youngstown Park and Falls Street Railway Company.  The park was located next to Mill Creek Park and near scenic Lanterman Falls. The idea was that urban dwellers, many working and living near the steel mills and other industries would take the trolley out to what was then mostly rural land on the South Side of Youngstown–and escape from the dirt and grime to a park-like fantasy world of rides, a dance hall, a midway and more–a glimpse of an idyllic life before returning to the workaday world. Youngstown Sheet and Tube, one of the big steel companies, would host company picnics at the park and as many as 20,000 workers and their families would come out on those days.

I remember my parents talking about going to dances at the Idora Ballroom with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and other big bands of the time. In my generation, rock groups like the Monkees and the Eagles played there as well as lots of local bands.  There was always a big name band playing there on WHOT days, when you could get passes from the radio station to ride the rides all day.

My first memories of Idora Park were wide-eyed wonder as I came into the entrance and glimpsed the “Rockets” ride–these silver space ships suspended on cables that went round and round this central tower. That was the first time I ever flew!  Afterwards, there was a stop at the French Fry stand at the base of the ride for the best french fries I’d ever eaten–Youngstowners still dream of these fries.

Nearby was the fun house. I wasn’t sure I liked it the first time–with its undulating floors, random shocks given by teenagers who operated the house, crawling through a rotating cylinder. Eventually it was fun, but to an awkward, somewhat overweight kid like me, not at first. There was also a Caterpiller ride nearby with cars that went round and round on an undulating track and for part of the time, you were covered in darkness by a canvas cover as you did so. That was fun! Then to settle down, you could take a ride on the park railroad–my first ride on anything resembling a train.

Lots more fun was the midway, trying to win prizes by knocking down so many milk cans, and more. There was the discovery of cotton candy, this billowy pink stuff on a cone that melted into sticky sweetness on your mouth and hands. Across the way was the carousel made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, that was the classic carousel. When the park closed, it was sold and now sits in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York.  Youngstowners dream of the day when they can bring it home and regret that we ever let it get away.

“Janes Carousel glass house MB jeh” by Jim.henderson – Own work. 

Nearby was the Rapids ride, which began by riding this boat through a dark, scary tunnel with things that would leap out at you, then floating in daylight along a “stream” before being towed up a hill and then “shooting the rapids” and getting utterly soaked when you hit the pond at the bottom of the hill.

My introduction to roller coasters was at Idora Park. When I was really young, we would ride the Jack Rabbit, the first coaster to be built at the park and exciting enough. I knew I was a “big” boy when my dad took me for the first time on the Wildcat. The Wildcat was a classic wooden roller coaster, painted yellow that, to borrow a New England phrase, was a “wicked good” coaster with steep descents that left your stomach in your throat, twists and turns, bumps and ascents that left you exhilarated and breathless. Coaster enthusiasts from throughout the U.S. loved to come to ride this classic coaster.

The demise of this coaster spelled the demise of the Park. On April 26, 1984, sparks from a welder’s torch started a fire that quickly spread to the Rapids and the Wildcat, destroying both as well as a number of concession stands along the midway. The carousel was saved and the Park managed to open for the 1984 season, closing to the public for the last time on September 3, 1984. In October, the rides were auctioned off. The land was eventually sold to a church which has yet to develop it.

I’m not sure that Idora Park would have survived in the Youngstown market in any event. Kennywood exists to this day, drawing on a much larger metro area and more distant from attractions like Cedar Point. Yet there is great sadness as well as a number of efforts to keep the memories of Idora Park alive, as this wonderful escape from work and urban life within the Youngstown city limits.

What was your first amusement park experience? If you remember Idora Park, what was your favorite memory?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Summer Memories

The last day of school. What a wonderful feeling it was to have what seemed like an endless summer stretching before you. Having celebrated the Fourth of July yesterday with a picnic and fireworks, I thought this might be a good time to think about summers growing up in a working class Youngstown neighborhood.

WHOT day ticket

WHOT Day Pass (courtesy of my wife!)

Probably one of the big differences from what I see so many people doing these days were that most vacations were “stay-cations” before the word was ever invented! No trips to Europe or other exotic faraway places. Vacation might have involved a few days at Lake Milton or Pymatuning, or perhaps a cabin over in Cook’s Forest. Most families didn’t have the resources for more. I remember what a thrill it was when my grandparents took me to Gettysburg and Lancaster, PA! Even trips to Cleveland to see the Indians play or down to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates were a big deal in our family.

Until I was older and more mobile, most days were spent around the neighborhood. Mornings often included chores around the house, or cutting lawns for people in the neighborhood to earn a little spending money. Summer afternoons were often spent in one of several places–my front porch which was shaded by awnings and pretty cool even on the hottest days. If I was alone, I was probably reading one of the books I got from the West Side Library (some things never change!). Sometimes friends and I would pitch baseball cards or have marathon Monopoly games. The other place most of us hung out was Borts Swimming Pool (or Pemberton in my wife’s case). Hardly any of us had air conditioning so it was the best place to cool off, and as the hormones kicked in, to look at all the pretty girls in their bikinis. Only problem–I was terribly near-sighted, and usually left the glasses home or in the baskets we used for our clothes. Sigh!

Sam McDowell (Plain Dealer file photo)

Sam McDowell (Plain Dealer file photo)

Evenings were a good time for a pick up game of baseball down at Washington Elementary’s playground at the end of the street. Only problem as we grew older is that we hit lots of balls over the fence, and sometimes down the freeway ramp to I-680. That was an adventure, trying to recover your ball. Because the playground was asphalt, we usually wore the cover off a ball before long and then it became this black, electrical taped sphere! No umpires, so usually we either fought until someone backed down, or called a “do over.” Once it was dark, it was usually home to the front porch to catch the Cleveland Indians game on my transistor radio. I was a big Indians fan. It was an incredible thrill one year when dad got us box seats behind home plate when “Sudden Sam” McDowell was pitching. I’d never seen a ball thrown that fast and you could feel as well as hear the “smack” of the ball in the catcher’s mitt.

As I got older my friend Jimmy C. and I used to sit on his front steps in the evenings and try to solve the mysteries of life which usually had to do with figuring out girls. Not sure we ever did! Often we would walk up Mahoning Ave to the Dairy Queen, get ice cream cones and hang out for a while with friends. Sometimes we would go up to Borts Field, watching baseball games (and what else) hanging out with girls from the neighborhood trying (and usually failing) to impress them!

Summer highlights were the Fourth of July Fireworks at Idora Park, our in-city amusement park, which closed in 1984 after a disastrous fire destroyed the Wildcat, one of the best coasters in the country, and other park buildings. We usually didn’t go to Idora Park for the display but to “Rocky Ridge”, now know as the James L. Wick, Jr. Recreation Area. From the top ridge of the park, we could see over the trees and get a great view of the display without the traffic. Of course, a summer wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Idora Park. The coasters, the fun house, the french fries under the “rockets” ride, were all great fun. The best day to go was WHOT Day. WHOT was a local radio station that sponsored special discount passes to the park every year. Local bands and national celebrities played there and you could ride the rides all day on the pass.

I could go on and on. I already mentioned the local DQ. There were also trips to Isaly’s for skyscraper cones and when I was older, we would go over to the south side of town for really good home made ice cream at Handel’s. For all I know, I could have run into my wife, unbeknownst to me, because Handels was just down the street from where she grew up. And there were the family picnics at my grandparents. Grandma Trube made the best potato salad and we would get to stay up late in the evening chasing fireflies while the citronella candles kept the mosquitoes away from the grownups.

One thing about summers in working class Youngstown–we never talked about being bored even though the stuff I write about seems pretty ordinary by today’s standards. We made our own fun (and sometimes mischief). Our parents often had to work hard, and so didn’t have lots of time to keep us entertained.  Somehow, that all seemed to work out pretty well. We knew if we got in too much trouble, our folks would hear about it from the neighbors.

Looking back on summer memories has been fun. What were some of your best summer memories, whether you grew up in Youngstown or not?