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Youngstown - Lanternman Falls

Lanterman's Mill, Mill Creek Park, Youngstown (Wikipedia Commons)

When You Come From Youngstown, Everyplace Else Seems Dull


Most places-cities, towns, even countries -are malleable, open to being shaped by a person or a group of like-minded people. They can have an impact on the spirit of the place, its substance, ethos or reputation; it can be reinvented. Bloomsbury in south London is an example of this kind of place: many people can't think of it without thinking of the "Bloomsbury Set," the most famous of whom was the writer Virginia Woolf. People may choose, or choose not, to live in a place because of this kind of human imprint: "It used to be okay but now it's all stockbrokers" or, in Britain, "You'd be tripping over footballers' wives."


Then you have the other kind of place. You don't shape it, it shapes you. You are simply a bird of passage in its history, only there to get a leg-tag and keep your head down. Columbus Ohio, Cork Ireland, and Youngstown are three examples that come to mind. Columbus as a shaper of people is clearly described in the wonderful stories of James Thurber. The writer Frank O'Connor did the same for Cork. Nobody's done it for Youngstown, yet, but it doesn't matter-Youngstown acts on people, implacably, remorselessly, with no need for literary credentials. For decades the people of Youngstown have looked on with fascinated horror, resignation, and somehow, hope, as one defining event after another--cruel, dangerous, cartoonish, or downright ridiculous, has occurred, seemingly by some tricksterish hand: certainly, we believe, not by our own.

There's almost a sneaking respect for the sheer scale of outlandishness that occurs, from the Congressman who removed 60,000-80,000 books from the Library of Congress, to the current scenario in which another Congressman, expelled from the house by a 420 to 1 vote and sent to prison on multiple charges, is out and trying running for office again.  Over seventy of our public officials are in jail. Some of them, perhaps, are in one of our own private or public prisons, because Youngstown's economy, once based on steel, is now centered on prisons, including the Ohio State Penitentiary supermax, complete with a death row unit. For a while in 1998, when five murderers walked out of a local private prison, even this endeavor was seen as failed; one business journal headline[1] said "Forget Youngstown case; private prisons can work." As a city, Youngstown regularly appears on "the ten worst" or "the hundred worst": sadly, considering the emphasis its immigrant residents  once placed on education, it recently appeared as number  ninety-three out of hundred on a list of least educated people: only 19% of people 25 and older have a bachelor's degree; the national average is 25%.


Rarely do we hear of Youngstown's other side: for example, it has the second largest metropolitan park in the United States, close to 3000 acres of forest, trails, waterfalls, and recreational facilities. When I was growing up, we had more baseball fields than any other city of its size in the country.  Our amusement park, Idora Park, which burned down in 1984, had one of the top roller coasters in the world.[2] The last two are poignant boasts, maybe, but a lot of other places never had a place like Idora at at all.

So most Youngstowners take whatever comes their way in stride, but others do prefer a place that's a little more manageable:  hence, through migration and natural attrition, the population has dropped by almost 60% from the steel mill days to its current figure of 70,000. Still, that 70,000 stand for something...

Youngstown - Sheet and Tube -

The last of Youngstown Sheet and Tube
(source: Wikipedia Commons)


There's also the problem of the figures:  the US census estimates for 2006 show that median family and median household incomes are half or less than half of the national average; the percentage of families living below the poverty lines is three times higher than the national figure. Our percentage of vacant houses is twice as high.

But today, Youngstown has come up with a community development plan, Youngstown 2010[3], which has attracted a lot of interest from failing industrial and declining cities around the world. Part of the plan involves demolishing my grandmother's house (page 35 of the plan),  but there are other features, as well: realizing that the city must be smaller, greener, more compact, with a diversified economy, a renewed downtown and viable neighborhoods organized around a focus, in this case, the university.  Youngstown State University and many community groups have been involved in helping to shape the plan:, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative,  the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., the Idora Neighborhood Association, Wick Neighbors Inc. and Defend Youngstown (  )

In January 2010, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected the plan, denying $32.4 million in funds needed for clearance and resettlement of neighborhoods, on the grounds that the plan didn't demonstrate the city's ability to carry this out. For a newspaper summary of events in early 2010, see It's a great plan. It still could happen.


In 1974, during the height of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland (the Irish are understated; World War II was known as a "The Emergency"), I taught at Queen's University in Belfast. I commuted from Dublin. Sometimes the train track was blown up and we passengers finished our journey by bus. Other times, a bomb might have torn up the main train station in Belfast, and we'd arrive somewhere  else. Once, I found my accommodation gone, leaving  just a smoldering hole between two familiar buildings.

I was there during the General Strike of 1974, in which the unionist Ulster Workers' Council brought the province to a standstill in a successful effort to block sharing of political power with nationalists.  Threatening paramilitaries often blocked my path from the station to the university, judging whether I was a nationalist or a unionist by reading my clothing, attitude, hair, and probably many other exquisitely sensitive signifiers. Fortunately, I had one confounding attribute-an American accent-so I was left to carry on, and for a of my few train-station to university trips during the strike, I acquired a little entourage of frightened companions who proceeded in lockstep with me, never opening their mouths when we approached yet another belligerent strikemeister.


I'm not a particularly brave person; I come from a place where people, with pretty good reason, rarely went to bed without looking underneath it first. But in Belfast, in 1974, neither side's paramilitaries frightened me. Of course, unlike the people who lived there, I had no personal experience of the violence, no relatives or friends killed or maimed. But it shames me now to say that another reason was that, basically, I didn't like their outfits. One thing you could say for the Youngstown Mafia was that they had certain noirish flair, and the guys in Belfast had none. Also, the Mob targeted specific people; ordinary people didn't usually end up as collateral damage.  So I had been schooled, culturally, in what violence looked and acted like, and these guys fell short.  My cultural "schooling" was false, though, just as movie violence is false. Many people in Youngstown had lost relatives and friends to the Mafia, and I imagine their reaction to Belfast would have been far more mature.

Maybe, though, one might still ask "Who wouldn't want to come from a place like Youngstown, where you learned to judge killers on style?" Where a book about us, Journey to Nowhere, inspired Bruce Springsteen to write a song about us?  Look at Some people aren't that crazy about the music, but are grateful, anyhow.


Since I've now lived in Ireland for about forty years you might ask, "If she still thinks so highly of the place, why doesn't she go back and live there?"  Like many people who left, there wasn't, or wasn't going to be, any work for me, even though for some the non-work would have been in steel, and mine would have been in anthropology. But not too long ago, while I was visiting Youngstown, one of my worst fears was realized. I happened to witness a road accident, and while a fellow witness and I waited for the police to arrive, we talked a little and he said, politely,  "You speak very good English for a foreigner." So maybe it's time to go back.



A few more facts about Youngstown




The photograph on one of the opening pages of Trickster: an anthropological  memoir  shows some of the last speakers of the Yerington Paiute dialect. Under the heading  "Numu/Paiute people" on this web site, I give a little information about their language, and a YouTube link that allows you hear it spoken.

Youngstowners have a dialect, too: we speak Western Reserve English, found in parts of the Upper Ohio Valley and western Pennsylvania. It reflects both Midwestern and Appalachian influences. Some particular features are the pronunciation of "o" and "au" as a mixed vowel, so that "caught" and "cot" sound the same, and indeed they certainly sound the same to me.  And from southern Appalachia comes a word that immediately identifies us anywhere we go: "y'uns" for "you," plural.   Some of us also use the word "redd" (to clear, tidy, from Scottish and northern English, 15th century.)  So, "Are y'uns going to redd up your toys?" A final distinctive example: "to be" is often omitted in certain sentences: "That dog needs washed."

You can get an idea of Youngstown dialect by listening to two of the voices speaking on the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) site, Listen to speakers "Ohio Four" and "Ohio Five," neither of whom is from Youngstown, but have similarities of dialect.


On a broader scale, there are regional dialect differences across Ohio, which can be over-simplified as "northern, middle and southern" and the various other speakers on this site reflect some of them. To take one example: in audio interviews "Ohio Four" and "Ohio Five," compare the pronunciation of the word "job" (near the beginning of the interview) with its pronunciation in "Ohio One," which is from a Cleveland speaker. This is the dialect my mother picked up, irritatingly, after a one-day visit to Cleveland, and as I wrote in Trickster, used forever after on the telephone.


 (The IDEA site records only English-language dialects, but includes the voices of people whose first language is not English). If you're interested, check to see if they need samples of speech from your area, and volunteer a recording. They certainly have no Paiutes speaking, as yet-in fact, few American Indians speakers are represented-so this is a good opportunity.)


Irish language:


In Trickster: an anthropological memoir, I mention that some people outside Ireland think that the Irish language is simply English spoken with a "brogue."  My grandmother and a number of Irish immigrants across the United States spoke Irish. To learn more about the language and some popular facts, this unexpected site does a pretty good job:



Youngstown's ethnic and racial composition has changed dramatically: in 1960, about 20% of the population was African-American. In 2006, according to US Census of Population estimates, it was 46%. |While 10% of the population was foreign-born in 1960, there's only a minuscule proportion now. The various ethnic groups have scattered to the suburbs.


Youngstown State University's Oral History Program has recorded the stories of people from many local ethnic groups. See for various groups, including the following:


Michael A. Beverly, African-American Experience in Youngstown 1940-1965 (2002, Master's thesis):


Michael Yarosh, second generation Ukrainian:


Michael Villano, Italian immigrant: 

Thomas Kelly, Irish immigrant, priest who celebrated my mother's funeral



James Kiriazis, second generation Rhodian Greek, my undergraduate professor of anthropology (see Trickster: an anthropological memoir,  Chapter 9.) )


Mary Ellen Kurta Wilcox, second generation Slovak

Slovak family




More readings


In addition to the recommendations at the beginning of Trickster, here are a few more readings on Youngstown:




Ledbetter, James and Daniel. B. Roth. 2009. The Great Depression: A Diary. (A personal account of the Depression in Youngstown by a young lawyer, Benjamin Roth) Philadelphia: PublicAffairs.


Peyko, Mark. C.  Ed. 2009. Remembering Youngstown: Tales from the Mahoning Valley. Charleston SC: The History Press


Shale, Rick and Charles C. Jacques.  1999. The Last Ride of Summer. Jefferson OH: Amusement Park Press.


for census figures:®=null%3Anull&_keyword=&_industry=



[1] (

[2] (For the way it was, see For the way it is now, see Rick Shale's and Charles Jacques's The Last Ride of Summer (1999) cover the history of the park. For oral history memories of summers at the park, see Idora Park.)


[3] Youngstown 2010: see 

for discussion of plan: see   This is an edited version of the Public Television Service (PBS) of a 2002 community meeting to discuss the 2010 Vision.  Over 1200 people attended this event; in 2009, the same number attended the welcome home dinner for Jim Traficant, former Congressman, freed after a seven-year prison sentence.