A book by Nicholas Sparks
By some measures, in the mid 1970s, Youngstown, Ohio, was the world's greatest steel producing city. Then in 1977 came Black Monday, September 19th. Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company announced that it was closing its works in Campbell, a Youngstown suburb. In a few months 5,000 workers lost their jobs. Within five years 50,000 people were displaced by shutdowns in the Youngstown-Warren area of northeastern Ohio.
What happened next in the once proud STEELTOWN U.S.A. is the subject of a nearly 300 page long year 2002 study by two professors of Youngstown State University: Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo. At a conference in Youngstown in June 2010, my wife and I were fortunate to hear these two scholars review their book before the annual convention of the International Association of Torch Clubs. (For Torch Clubs see http://www.torch org.) Thus, in writing this review of their book, I have the benefit of having heard the authors respond to controversy about their disputed theses in the eight years since STEELTOWN U. S. A. was published.
In an historical sweep which begins in the early 1800s and carries into the early 21st century, Linkon and Russo lay out their vision of the past and future of Youngstown, Ohio. I recommend that you go to your library and spend a half hour leafing through STEELTOWN U.S.A. That should be enough to decide if you wish to invest another dozen hours or more into this generally attractive but sometimes numbing medley of photographs, cartoons, maps, interviews, history, geography, cameo biographies and selected interviews with workers, churchmen and others.
The book rejects Henry Ford's axiom that "history is bunk." It is a mistake in the early 2000s, argued Linkon and Russo, for some Youngstownians to refuse to remember Youngstown as a mighty steel town or to be ashamed of its later years when so many prisons were built in and around it. A city without a remembered history cannot have a future, they argue. Face the future bravely while remembering the past, warts and all.
The authors exhibit more than a faint air of Marxist historical determinism in their theorizing. They claim to have noticed more than other scholars struggles of Youngstown poor versus Youngstown rich, of one ethnic group versus another and the role of post-World War II prosperity in driving newly affluent white steel workers to abandon the inner city for the suburbs.
To me the best part of the book is its convincing study of corruption and mob activity in Youngstown, especially during and after the boom years of big steel. Immigrants needed powerful local figures to protect them from a pro-business Ohio State government and a sometimes crusading Federal government disenchanted with gambling and tax evasion. Whole layers of government and the courts were up for sale. In such a shady environment a loveable rogue like James A. Traficant, Jr. could be elected to Congress nine times before being expelled from the House for his criminal convictions. Traficant is newly released from prison and has announced, I have read, his intention to contend for his old Congressional seat. I would like to know where he comes down on the current, populist Tea Party movement. He reminds of the legendary kind-hearted rascal, New Yorker Gentleman Jimmy Walker, "Beau James." As Sheriff, Traficant became a popular hero by refusing to evict unemployed workers from their foreclosed homes.
Youngstown made many super achievers, including the creators of the shopping mall. Read STEELTOWN U.S.A. for the details!
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