Racial, class strife jeopardizes Youngstown’s future, book says

By GEORGE NELSON | METRO MONTHLY ASSOCIATE EDITOR

When “Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown” went into a second printing four weeks after its release, authors Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo were surprised, to say the least.

Russo said it was “almost unheard of for an academic book.”

“One of the things that the sales tell me is that the argument that we make about the importance of holding onto history resonates with a lot of people here,” Linkon observed. “There are lots of people in this community that . . . want to hold onto that and want to understand it, and it isn’t just nostalgia.”

Russo agreed.

“People want to read something about this town by people who live in this town and want to come to grips with it,” he said.

In addition to chronicling much of the Mahoning Valley’s industrial history, including the collapse of the local steel industry and its results, the book also addresses how the story of the Mahoning Valley has been portrayed.

The authors, co-directors and co-founders of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, said the book grew out of their interest in the song, “Youngstown,” recorded in the mid-1990s by Bruce Springsteen. The song – which contains lyrics pertaining to the old Jeanette blast furnace as it describes the lives of local steelworkers and the impact of steel’s decline – was based on the 1985 book, “Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass.” Russo also was involved in the development of that book, by writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson.

“We were interested in that connection, and then we were interested because national news media started to report on the Springsteen song and tell the story of how that song came to be, and we were interested in how that story was being told,” Linkon recalled. “At about that time, University Press of Kansas had asked us to develop a book on working class studies and pop culture.”

Linkon and Russo proposed a book of about half a dozen chapters, one of which was going to be called “13 ways of looking at a blast furnace,” she continued. “We were going to look at all the different ways the Jeanette blast furnace had been represented in different kind of media and culture.” Instead, their publisher asked if they could build an entire book around that.

Russo, who came to Youngstown several years ago for a position at YSU, said it was hard for him to conceptualize how to do the book.

“It was very difficult to be in Youngstown and be very much part of what’s going on, to write about it,” he recalled. “I was sort of like many of the steelworkers. I didn’t want to talk too much about it. You were moved by what happened here. I was angry, it was frustrating, and I think it takes time to sort of germinate and to let those sorts of feelings out.

“And the other thing was there was so much going on about how Youngstown was being represented in the press and all the sort of clichés that were being used,” he continued. “You could clearly see this town was moving from this sort of poster child for deindustrialization to the site of corruption and cultural problems and everything else. When Springsteen came, we saw the song as one type of representation, we saw how the CBS Morning News did the story, and the story didn’t become about Youngstown, it became about Springsteen. We started playing around with the ideas about the uses of Youngstown as a sort of theme.”

Other reflections of the region’s image included major media portrayals of problems at the Community Corrections Agency prison and a George magazine article that characterized Youngstown as among the 10 most corrupt cities in the country. Russo characterized many of the portrayals of the community as “wrong-headed” and “cliche-ridden,” focusing on the problems without addressing any of the underlying factors. “We sort of tried to figure out how we can talk about Youngstown and what happened here in a way that was not going to be a straight history book,” he said.

In working on the book, Linkon said she was struck by “the buildup of layer after layer of images of Youngstown that are negative, that are incomplete, that paint this place as a site of failure . . . When I really started paying attention to that, I saw just how pervasive that is, how much there is of that. It helped me to understand why this community seems to have this sort of odd combination of boosterism and inferiority complex.”

One of the major ideas of the book, Russo said, is what happens when a community loses its way and allows others to define it.

“If Youngstown lets others define what it is and not define itself, that’s a major problem. It’ll lose its complete identity,” he explained. “The problem is that it means you’ve got to take a look at both the good points and the bad points and deal with them. It’s not just corruption – it’s racism you’ve got to look at. This is the fourth most segregated city in the United States, this area, according to the Brookings Institute.

“You’ve got to take the good points with the bad, and also the trauma of what happened here. It was a trauma, a community trauma,” he added. “You lost the steel industry, and that it was the heart and soul of its identity. People breathed it. They ingested it, they lived it, and that whole experience was absolutely wiped out within a five-year, six-year period.”

In the early chapters, the book details how many of the social, ethnic and racial divisions that continue to plague the community today were fostered in local industry – for example, mill jobs often were assigned based on race and ethnicity, and worker housing was divided into plats whose names and locations emphasized class and race differences between workers.

“Unless the town comes to grips with the issues of race and class it’s never going to recover. It still has never fully done that,” Russo argued. “This community is losing its identity of what it is and why it’s important. This area is still the eighth most important industrial manufacturing region in the United States, according to Industry Week, and it’s an important economic area, but we have to come to grips with some of the major issues which I think right now are issues of race and class.”

“What I would most want people to come away from this book understanding is that the story of Youngstown is much more complex than they may think it is, and that neither forgetting the past nor romanticizing the past is going to help us move ahead to a better future, that we need to think about how we got to where we are and do that critically and creatively,” Linkon said.

© 2002 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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