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Who —or what —is creating our reflection?



Published: Sun, February 8, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

Now the rest of the nation is experiencing what Youngstown has faced, the educator says.

By ELISE FRANCO

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN — Beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps this is why it’s not uncommon for people who haven’t been in Youngstown for a substantial time to think the city is dying or dead.

But what about those who have lived here all their lives, growing up and witnessing the economic decline?

When “de-industrialization” happens in once-booming economies, people caught in the middle roll with it and learn to live with it, says John Russo, co-director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working Class Studies.

“There are some common patterns, and one of them has to do with a sense of economic loss, loss of faith in institution, a growing sense of helplessness and a questioning of the community’s identity,” he said. “De-industrialized communities learn to accept the loss and failures that occur as somehow earned.”

Rebecca Marquis, 31, of Youngstown, works inside 20 Federal Plaza downtown, and said she hears and sees people down on Youngstown every day.

“It’s because this area is so depressed,” she said. “I can only speak for myself and what I’ve seen, but it seems that everyone has such a high rate of depression, and I think it has a lot to do with the economic situation.”

Russo said these people often come to define themselves as losers — but not without outside help.

“In many ways, that self-definition is shaped by the way the community is portrayed and used by the media,” he said.

Jordan Klucinec, 35, of Canfield, owns the Draught House downtown. He said media coverage of crime and negative events pushes people to face the issues head on.

“Crime’s going to happen everywhere, but it seems like the only things really reported on here are negative,” he said. “It becomes the only thing you hear about, so it’s easy for people to view [Youngstown] that way.”

The media may have had a role in shaping outsiders’ view on Youngstown, but the city has played its part in the portrayal of itself.

“Look at the way the history unfolded in Youngstown, in terms of research in looking at reporting over the past 25 or so years,” Russo said. “The city went from being a poster child for de-industrialization to a site of loss and failure and desperation.”

He said one reason the community’s attitude never recovered is because, as with many media outlets, local media tends to focus on criminal activity, making Youngstown an object of ridicule.

“That treatment of how others see us becomes somehow ingrained in us,” Russo said.

Klucinec said some crime stories may get too much coverage.

“Do we have murders happen here every day? No,” he said. “But when it does happen, it’s on the news for five days in a row. It’s all you see.”

Russo’s most recent example was during the 2008 presidential election.

“In the last election cycle, reporters once again came back to Youngstown,” Russo said. “This time the story had changed because now the rest of the nation is experiencing what Youngstown has faced.”

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, three nationally known journalists, Connie Schultz, of The Plain Dealer; Marilyn Geewax, National Public Radio correspondent; and Jonathan Kaufman, Wall Street Journal reporter, will gather in Kilcawley Center on YSU’s campus for a panel discussion on these issues. People attending the lecture can park free in the Lincoln/Fifth Avenue deck. Tell the attendant you are attending the lecture.

Russo said the city has become a stand-in for other communities also on an economic decline.

“People wanted to see if Youngstown ever recovered,” he said.

James Young, of Boardman, said he just took a buyout from General Motors after 25 years. He was blunt in his opinion, saying he doesn’t see the city ever bouncing back.

“I haven’t seen any new jobs come in. I only see parking lots and abandoned buildings,” he said during his Friday in downtown Youngstown. “And it’s not just the city. It’s all around here.”

Russo said the city also becomes a model to look at in terms of how race and gender were portrayed throughout the election.

“They wanted to see how working people were relating to the issue of race and gender,” he said. “Once again, Youngstown becomes the stand-in for a national discussion about racism and sexism.”

Marquis said the question of what will change the mind-set of people in and out of Youngstown is a tough one.

“If there were more jobs, more good paying jobs, it would help,” she said. “I’m not sure, given the city’s image, that it would even help all that much.”

Klucinec said people can break the negative barrier by making a choice to be positive.

“Everywhere has good and bad things, and if you continue to dwell on the bad it becomes like that,” he said. “You just have to pick out all the good things.”

Russo said in order for people to break from the negative, they need to understand that the troubles extend past city limits.

“It happens in the suburbs too,” he said. “But people would rather talk about Youngstown than talk about their own communities.”

efranco@vindy.com


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