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Youngstown NEEDS its old attitude



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



By THERESA M. HEGEL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

"Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown" by Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo (University Press of Kansas, $34.95)

Youngstown has accumulated a musty closet full of nicknames, many of them derogatory, in the years since it was a bustling center for steel production. The city has developed a reputation as a once-booming metropolis now fallen into decay and despair, corruption and chaos. It has become a place for the national media to both pity and scorn.

Many citizens would like to forget Youngstown's past, clean out the closet, protect it from further attacks with a healthy dose of mothballs. They would trash its threadbare togs and donate all those loud, embarrassing neckties to charity.

To move into a brighter, untainted future, a contingent of the city feels that both the positive, such as Youngstown's rich steel history and revolutionary fights for labor rights, and the negative, such as high crime and unemployment rates as well as certain corrupt officials, should be forgotten or brushed aside.

However, Sherry Linkon and John Russo, both professors at YSU, believe this attitude is, in fact, detrimental to progress and development. In a new book, "Steeltown U.S.A.," they argue that it is necessary to remember Youngstown's past, good and bad, to maintain a cultural identity, a unity to help the city move forward and battle against "injustice and erasure." With a critical and unflinching eye, residents can learn from mistakes and celebrate past triumphs.

Media portrayals

In their book, Linkon and Russo study many of the images and words that have been used to represent Youngstown and its people. They cull material from popular culture -- especially Bruce Springsteen's well-known song about the city -- the works of area artists, local and national news sources, oral narratives and promotional items (from both the city's chamber of commerce and local industries).

Linkon and Russo look at how, during the heyday of the steel industry, Youngstown had a strong and proud self-image, and they examine how deindustrialization forced Youngstown to redefine the meaning of work and thus, itself.

The city then existed as a sort of nebulous limbo, where crime, unemployment, poverty and racism flourished. When Youngstowners failed to come up with a new way to define themselves, the national media stepped in, using the city for its own agenda, whether to pity Youngstown as a "poster child for deindustrialization" or to ridicule the city for its high murder rates, problems with organized crime and how it embraced prisons as a "growth industry."

Seamless narrative

The narrative of "Steeltown U.S.A." is woven seamlessly, and it is almost impossible to pick out Linkon's or Russo's individual threads. Their collaboration resulted in a fascinating study that deftly analyzes a variety of portrayals of the city.

The conclusion the authors draw, that "if Youngstown is to be a real community it must understand its past" and "how the history of work and struggle are linked to the landscape and people's ways of remembering," leaves the reader with a sense of hope, but the message is not easy or reductive.

"Steeltown U.S.A." is critical, yet accessible, and should be of especial interest to locals interested in Youngstown's past and invested in constructing a better future.

hegel@vindy.com




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