161 Youngstown, OH: Grist for the Mill

I drove downtown over the Market Street Bridge, which spanned the Mahoning River and the train lines paralleling the river. In the valley to my left lay a huge steel mill, a boxy turquoise corrugated tin building surrounded by mud and a fan of railroad track spurs. The meters where I parked near the convention center had plastic bags over them that read: "Welcome visitors, 2-hour free parking." Napoli Pizza and the Draught House bar were two of the few businesses still open. Silver's Vogue Shop for men's clothes in fact displayed clothes that were very out of vogue.

On the tourism board's map of things to see in town, half were churches. Brian had said, "The people who came here brought their religions with them and then they all wanted their own." Eastern European tear-drop-shaped onion domes led me to the 1913 Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was right by Holy Trinity Ukrainian Church. Our Lady of Mount Carmel church on a hill east of downtown flew both the American and Italian flags. Right next door, Sts. Cyril and Methodius flew Slovak flags. Even the Baptists were split into three congregations: the Tabernacle Baptist Church, Union Baptist Church, and Metropolitan Baptist Church.

In a town dominated by industrial hulks and old churches, the city park was a beloved haven. Mill Creek Park was home to one mill still left in Youngstown. Though not a steel mill, Lanterman's Mill operated as a fully working gristmill, just as it did when opened in 1846. The gardens included a lovely reflecting pool and fountain, and a flagstone terrace that offered a vista overlooking downtown.

At the handsome café inside the new visitors' center, I interviewed the three women working behind the counter. Two were in their early twenties. One had straight, dark, shoulder-length hair, and a heavy dose of purple eye shadow above her brown eyes. The other had straight black hair down to the middle of her back. She wore jeans, and glasses rested on her large Roman nose.

The third woman was older. She had light brown eyes, full red lips, and a round button nose; her light brown hair was pulled over each ear and curled around her neck. Tan overalls tented her small wiry body, and short, baby-like forearms extended from the sleeves of her white T-shirt that (like her coworkers') bore the name and logo of her catering company employer.

To my question whether people in Youngstown were isolated like Hopper's characters, the older woman barked, "Yeah."

The girl with glasses answered, "I think so because we're not a big city so we don't see a lot of culture. What we call culture is just, like, junk."

The older woman sneered, "If you're a cultural institution looking at this part of the country, why not set up in Cleveland or in Pittsburgh; why choose Youngstown?"

"Youngstown is cleaning up," the mascaraed girl offered.

The girl in glasses agreed, "Yeah, they cleaned it up."

"They tried to bring back the Youngstown area," the older woman scoffed, "but I don't think that it's ever going to come back. Once you get a huge influx of organized crime, forget it."

"I don't know," interrupted the mascaraed girl. "I don't think we're isolated from each other. I think we're isolated from the rest of the world, yeah." She added with a shrug and a giggle, "I like it here. People are friendly here. I feel comfortable here. We don't want to like put it down. You know what it's like: we can put it down, but it's our town. I grew up here my whole life," she said to the older woman. "You haven't."

"See," The older woman countered, "I've lived elsewhere and she hasn't. I have a daughter the same age as these girls I am working with."

"Why are you here?" I asked.

"Why do I live here?" she said as if she were asking herself. "My husband got transferred here. But my life situation is changing, so hopefully in the next few years I can move out west someplace where I'm comfortable. It's where I come from."

"I noticed that different churches are side-by-side. That gives me the impression that it is a little bit isolated, that communities don't mix."

"I never contemplated that," the mascaraed girl considered "but yeah."

"Well, yeah," the girl in glasses added, "There's a lot of different denominations. Ethnic groups do tend to stay to themselves in Youngstown. Some of these people still only speak the one language. They like to stay in one area. There's not a lot of mixing. They have a lot of family here. You know, grandkids take care of their grandparents."

"There is that tradition," her younger counterpart agreed. "Maybe it's really a good community; a lot of people have lived here all their life."

The girl in glasses laughed. "Either it's all they know, or they are tight because they're inbred."

The older woman shook her head, "The city is hideous. But the park is just wonderful. Take a peek in the library before you go. There's a display about the park history."

"I didn't know that," the mascaraed girl exclaimed. "See, that's interesting that I didn't know about that, and it's right here. The best part of Youngstown is right here."

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