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YOUNGSTOWN Authors analyze area's loser attitude



Published: Sun, September 15, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A new book is designed to help area residents stop feeling like losers.

THE VINDICATOR, YOUNGSTOWN

By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- Sherry Lee Linkon was sitting at a Youngstown State University football game this season when the public address system went out.

"Oh well, what do you expect from Youngstown?" someone behind her said.

Linkon has been hearing many such disparaging comments about Youngstown lately. She's been listening for them since a book she wrote with John Russo came out this summer.

The comments are evidence of a relatively new attitude that area residents have developed about themselves, she said.

"It's the attitude that we're really losers here," Linkon said. "We are looking at that and analyzing how that happened."

Linkon and Russo, co-directors of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, wrote "Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown" to explore Youngstown's change in identity over the years.

The book has two audiences. For other academics, the authors wanted to explore how Youngstown became a symbol nationally for industrial failure.

But they set out to write in a nonacademic style so it would be read by others, particular residents of the Mahoning Valley. They want to convince residents that the area's problems can't be fixed without recalling the past.

Yes, that means remembering Black Monday, the closing of Youngstown Sheet & amp; Tube's Campbell Works 25 years ago this month, they say.

And it involves coming to terms with the subsequent demise of the local steel industry and how the community was devastated by the loss of 50,000 jobs in steel and related industries, they say.

But it means much more.

Remembering the past also will include recalling what made the community strong in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

"This was a great community that had a hard-working working class. They were the salt of the earth," Russo said.

It also had community leaders, with prominent names such as Butler, Stambaugh, Tod and Powers, who were willing to give their time and money to make it better, he said.

Recall and learn

It's time for the community to reclaim its identity, the authors said.

They know many people say recalling the past is just nostalgia and others say talking about the steel industry is useless because the mills aren't coming back.

They argue, however, that the good and bad must be remembered and looked at. With the good, residents can be reminded of things they should be proud of. With the bad, they learn the causes of problems that still plague the community.

The book traces Youngstown's history through the boom and bust of the steel industry.

For 75 years, residents were proud of their successful industrial town. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, however, the city's image changed.

At first, outsiders regarded residents as fighters as they organized to try to bring the mills back. Then outsiders began studying the city as a poster child for the failure of industry.

In the 1990s, however, the city's image changed again, the authors argue. Outside reports about the city changed from a theme of "poor Youngstown" to "something's wrong with Youngstown." The authors say residents internalized this image and began to feel like losers.

For Linkon and Russo, one of the biggest problems that has developed is a division between blacks and whites and between the poor and those with money.

These race and class divisions always existed, but the collapse of the steel industry made the divisions wider because blacks were just beginning to become accepted in more responsible positions in the steel mills, Linkon said.

When the children of that time became young adults a decade later, they faced a hopeless economic future, which led to high homicide rates in the city, she said.

Linkon and Russo said the book has sold better than expected.

The University Press of Kansas printed 1,200 copies of the book, which sold out in four weeks. A second printing of 500 copies is nearly sold out, and more printings are planned.

Measures of success

More than sales, however, the authors say they will consider the book a success if it's accepted by academics. They are hopeful that will happen because of the quick sales and events such as an upcoming book signing at another university center for working-class studies in Chicago.

They also have met with area elementary, middle school and high school teachers about involving their students in hands-on learning about the area's history.

Another measure of success will be if the book impacts area residents, they say.

The hope is that it will start people talking about their community -- the good and the bad -- to restore a sense of pride to Youngstown.

"I want to encourage people to think about and talk about what this community is like and how it got that way," Linkon said.

Russo said area residents and leaders are afraid to talk about problems such as race and class divisions. For example, they use code words like urban and suburban when they mean black and white.

"It's time to begin a discussion about this community that has not occurred," he said.

shilling@vindy.com




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