Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Why I Don’t Write About Organized Crime

Youngstown Mob Talk Podcast episode produced by Johnny Chechitelli

A friend of ours asked me if I had heard of The Crooked City: Youngstown, Ohio podcast. A friend of his from Youngstown was talking about it. In short order, I noticed several articles about it and realized, “this is a big deal.” In a Business Journal article this past Thursday, I learned that it was one of the top ten podcasts nationally for a number of weeks last year. Turns out I’m not much of a podcast guy, although I’ve been listening to episodes of Crooked City as I write. It’s pretty good stuff. National crime podcaster Mark Smerling puts these podcasts together, but local WKBN producer Johnny Chechitelli, who also produces a local podcast, “Youngstown Mob Talk,” contributed from his archives of research to the project. I also learned that there is a “Youngstown Mob” Facebook group with 28,000 members. On February 9, Johnny Chechitelli and Joseph Naples III are doing a live “Youngstown Mob Talk” at the Robins Theatre in Warren.

I’ve never focused on writing on organized crime in Youngstown, other than passing references. Hearing about all the interest in the mob, it occurs to me that if I wrote on it, there might be a lot of interest. But as interesting as it is, I’m not going to go there.

This is not to say that the history of organized crime in Youngstown is not a significant part of Youngstown history. Part of its history I grew up with. I saw the headlines of the latest mob hit or car-bombing or fire-bombed business. I knew that our politicians were enmeshed in mob influence. The Jim Traficant years, the focus of The Crooked City, which focuses on first person narratives, came after I moved away, though I heard him give one of his drug talks during college. He was riveting. I understood his appeal.

I’m impressed with the work Smerling and Chechitelli have done, and so many others have done and are doing to tell this story. Hopefully, it will inspire everyone in the Valley to say “never again.”

Here’s why I’m not joining them.

  • Whenever I tell someone I grew up in Youngstown, the first thing they bring up is “Crimetown” or “Bombtown” or “Youngstown tuneup.” Seems like everyone, whether from Youngstown or not, knows about this history. And I did as well. I’m not always that keen to re-live it.
  • There are already a number of good people who are in this lane, many who have spent years researching this stuff from Johnny Chechitelli, or James Naples III, a local mob historian and nephew of Joey Naples, or long-time Vindy reporter Bertram D’Souza. I want to drive in another lane. In their lane, I’d just be a wannabe.
  • I tell those who ask me about the mob scene in Youngstown that despite all this, Youngstown was a great, good place to grow up in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. My articles, in part are an explanation of why Youngstown was a great, good place. So many of us who came of age in those years feel the same way and that story also needs to be told.
  • I write about the people and institutions that made Youngstown a good place. I often hear back, “I never knew this about Youngstown. Why didn’t we learn this in school?” I wonder about that as well. I think we need to hear these stories as well. It is one thing to purge corruption. The question is, what do we put in its place? There are some amazing models from William Rayen to P. Ross Berry to Volney Rogers to Mayor Charles Henderson.

Because of work, I don’t live in Youngstown, but as the saying goes, “you can take the boy out of Youngstown, but you can’t take Youngstown out of the boy.” I not only love what Youngstown was, but also what it can become. There are people in education, in health care, in the arts, in the religious community, in the professions who are doing good work. There are people investing in neighborhoods and starting businesses. I loved the library as a kid and love the new library on the Westside and the renovation of the main library. I know there are serious problems as well. But one of the basic principles of building good places is not to focus on the problems or look to some outside “sugar daddy” but to build on the assets inherent in the community. The people of Youngstown, past and present, who have invested in Youngstown are a big part of those assets. Those are the stories I want to tell.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!