Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I don't mourn its passing

Youngstown, Ohio is featured in this month's Inc. magazine. Youngstown! The city with poisoned air, in the heart of the Steel Valley. Famous for nearly a hundred unsolved bombing murders (which more or less ended in November 1962 but which have remained alive in memory). Famous for electing bribe-taker Jim Traficant to the sheriff's job and then to Congress, and then for supporting him while he did prison time. (Left: One of a million pics of an abandoned steel mill.)

But to many of us from Steel Valley families, Youngstown also has Mill Creek Park, 4,400 acres and more than four miles long, of lakes, waterfalls, tumbling streams, glacial caves, forested cliffs, and flowered meadows. (Right: Mill Creek's silver bridge in winter -- my dad would take me there the day after Christmas to feed the chickadees, which flocked on the field by the bridge.)

Youngstown has ethnicity. Everyone knew a restaurant with something special. Carchedi's in Lowellville?  Wedding soup. Cornersburg Pizza? Best pizza in the world. Kravitz's Deli? Corned beef to die for. Joseph's?  A separate psrt of the menu "For Fressers Only." Yes! I did know people -- cosmopolitan types -- who sneered that "in Youngstown, even food at the Ding Ho tastes like spaghetti sauce." Well, one thing that didn't taste like spaghetti was kolachi. I just googled kolachi and what was the FIRST result? A recipe from Youngstown, Ohio!   I note that the recipe keeps the fillings a secret but next time your Aunt Ann is making it, I prefer walnut.

In the Labor & Industry Museum (near St. Columba's Cathedral, left) there are blast furnaces and locker rooms lifted out of a steel mill. Locker rooms signs are in at least a dozen languages. While men of different ethnicities mingled in the locker rooms, their families didn't mingle anywhere. I have a photograph of a sixth-grade me as a finalist in the Vindicator spelling bee. Two other finalists represent St. John the Baptist school (Slovak) and St. John the Baptist school (Polish). Honterus Lutheran had services in Swedish. My college sweetheart John's family spoke Friesish at home. My friend Oksana Zayatz's dad was a Ukrainian orthodox priest (and Gayle Woloschak, one of my profs this semester here in Chicago, was best friends with Oksana's little sister).

Neighborhoods on Youngstown's west side had blood feuds going and their leaders never spoke to outsiders. For a couple years, my mother chaired the American Cancer Society's annual fund drive. She tried to get organizers in every neighborhood of Mahoning County. Nobody in a hundred blocks of the west side would speak with her -- not patients, not the priests, not the parents, not the children. Serbs here, Croats there, Ruthenians and Rumanians, Slovaks and Slovenes, all living in hostile silence in the shadows of their own, unshared saints.

And that ethnicity became something to flee. At Youngstown State, right along with their diplomas students would get a name change. Topolski became Talbott, Degli' Uomini became Degly. Why did Ozersky become Ozer, though? A Youngstown past was something to be ashamed of and left behind as soon as possible.

And it wasn't just the people in the neighborhoods of post-WW1 immigrants who wanted to get out. Pioneer families like mine, who'd settled there before statehood around 1800, counseled their kids to get out, move away, don't come back. Our generation saw people who stayed as deliberate losers. Over the years, when I sent Youngstown articles to several childhood friends, their question was, "Why do you care?"

I cared because Youngstown is a fascinating place and a life there can be well-lived. In the western foothills of the Alleghenies (which you can see now that the mills are gone from along the Mahoning River) most neighborhoods had tree-lined streets. There were dozens of cultures. Sure -- my mother's family, Ulster Presbyterians out of the Pennsylvania mountains, were a culture too (they just didn't understand that theirs was also a culture, with dialect and tribal rules). First Unitarian Church, on Youngstown's north side, was a Harvard culture. Butler Art Institute (right) in its McKim, Mead & White building, was a copying-Andrew-Carnegie culture.  It was possible to live a good life in Youngstown -- if you could let go of that nagging feeling that others, people in bigger cities, people on the coasts sneered at you for being too dumb to know the difference.

I am so proud of my many cousins who've stayed around the area (or, as we say, the southeast corner of northeast Ohio).  Betsy Johnquest taught at the Rayen School (which my dad, both grandmothers, several aunts and uncles, and one ex-husband attended) and preserved its 140-year history in a final Rayen Annual when the school closed.  Heather McMahon and Brigid Kennedy were both in a recent selection of Forty Under Forty Who Are Making a Difference in Youngstown.  Uncle Dick McLaughlin returned from a law partnership in Washington to make a difference in Youngstown.  And they have.

The reporter for Inc. magazine went there looking for people who have given up.  But giving-upness is old news.  Black Monday, in 1977, was 33 years ago!  Two generations have come and gone -- to the south or wherever they imagined a pot of gold awaiting -- but Youngstown is still there!   With ethnic food, a lively art scene, doers and shakers who open their ranks to newcomers, a symphony orchestra, several wonderful museums, and an interesting and different city plan.  You can have all that and encouragement for a large garden and live near a farm, within ten minutes of City Hall, at the same time.  That sounds like a pot of gold to me!  (Right: Lanterman's Mill in Mill Creek Park.)

I have always wanted to build a house out of Coke bottles and cement.  And I'll bet Youngstown would welcome a non-standard idea like that!  I have a site overlooking a glacial gorge all picked out, too.


SEH said...

Yes, and your Aunt Ann (the one who doesn't make kolachi, AFAIK), has also just returned to Y-town.

Diggitt said...

I would be stunned if Aunt Ann made kolachi.