Youngstown I was in town to deliver a lecture in the Working Class Studies Series at Youngstown State University, but a lot of what interested me was to really get a sense of Youngstown after not having been here for several decades. Youngstown has become iconic as a picture of the impact of deindustrialization.
What was a hulking steel mecca with fuming plants spewing smoke clouds through the Mahoning Valley and the jobs and union wages that people traded in exchange is smaller and cleaner, and according to Dr. John Russo, one of my hosts and along with Sherry Linkon, a co-director of the Center, but also perhaps the poorest community in the USA now. Bruce Springsteen had memorialized Youngstown in a famous song, and Sherry and John showed me what they called the “Springsteen Grotto” in John’s office. He had played in 1996 and on a Sunday morning had called John at home and asked if he would mind giving him a tour. Pictures showed both men covered with snow looking at the abandoned mills.
Talking to an urban planner with the Center after my lecture, he told me about Youngstown 2010, which seemed to be held in higher regard than the usual boosterism and Babbitry associated with such enterprises. One of the major goals, predictably in this mass media age, in fact had been to reshape the national view of Youngstown: to de-Springsteen it perhaps. He checked that off as having been done, but of course he means the image more likely of corruption and defeat than as a reflection of the past into the future. That can’t be done. The scars are everywhere. John Russo drove me down the big houses along Fifth Avenue in Youngstown and pointed out that there was no 4th or 3rd Avenue, just this one street as a reminder of the big whoops from the mill days. John and Sherry are also clear in their book done a decade ago and appropriately called, Steeltown USA, that there is a key role for “…memory in forming the collective identity of a place, yet we do not advocate imagining an idealized version of the past. The idea of community can provide a powerful unifying force for shared struggle and community development.” One thing still undone on the 2010 list for Youngstown had been dealing with “quality of life” issues, so that struggle for community development seems high on the task list.
In the questions several community leaders asked me last night about some points raised in my book, Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign for Working Families, they didn’t quite get how there could be more than $2 billion in entitled benefits left on the table that Ohio residents had not been able to access despite their eligibility. One woman asked me again to explain why people were not getting the benefits. The question was refreshing in some ways, because it spoke to their gameness to confront the challenge in Youngstown, but it was depressing in others because it indicates that citizens can be standing in the middle of a resistance governmental bureaucracy, and unable to see the pea shuffled quickly between the shells.
Having addressed a mixed crowd of labor leaders, church officials, students, community organizers, and others, I hoped I had succeeded in making the case for thinking big and working strong. Given its history and the commitment of so many now to its future, this small, broken city of Youngstown seems the perfect place for taking a chance and betting the whole pile.