A favorite city of mine

Sunday, February 22, 2015

(This piece is by request [kinda] from some great folks at First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown. The text below was the core of a presentation I made to them a couple of Sundays ago. It had never been a column here. They suggested such.)

This month, I’m eight years here in town. I still get asked one similar question from my first year here:

“How do you like it here?”

It is asked in a tone not of inquiry or curiosity, but of disbelief — like when some driver cuts you off on I-680. My wife was last asked in November at a dinner.

In a life that’s included New York, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Sandusky, I’d like to talk about one of the best cities in which I’ve lived — Youngstown, Ohio.

I love the diversity — the towns and terrain, the churches and organizations, the ethnicities and more.

I love that you can go urban to Amish in 15 minutes.

I love that in 60 or so minutes in three directions, I have big-city sports, entertainment and culture. It includes almost 20 universities and 10 major and minor sports teams.

God only made five Great Lakes, and one of them is 60 minutes from my door.

I love that in at least five towns in this area, you can live in a home from $100,000 to $250,000, and still walk to a morning breakfast shop or evening dinner place.

There are enough four-lane options to handle the best traffic we can throw at it, and my commute is 12 minutes. I once even rode my bike to work.

The food variety here is among the best I’ve known. I lived in Nebraska, and we ate beef, corn and kolaches. I lived in Sandusky, and it was perch and walleye.

Our cuisine so far here includes paprikash, cavatelli, fagioli, haluski (at Rips Cafe), cabbage rolls, souvlaki, wedding soup, peppers (especially Dom Vecchiarelli’s and Dan Frum’s), hummus and more.

And it’s not just the food — but the authenticity of who serves it. When I interviewed here, my lunch on Mahoning Avenue was served by the thickest Hungarian accent I heard since my grade-school buddy’s mom.

When we’ve wanted to just walk and breathe, we’ve been to Mill Creek MetroParks, Poland Forest, Mosquito Lake, Beaver Creek, Lake Milton, Meander Creek.

We have inexpensive golf courses of such quality, groups come from Toronto and points farther to play.

In Youngstown, we have “a university” and “a tech incubator.” Just saying, that is distinguishing.

Let me use golf again to illustrate something else cool about here. I’m pretty confident in my driver, that if I stood at just two points in downtown, with a decent drive and breeze, I can reach:

DeYor Center, Stambaugh Auditorium, Covelli Centre, Center of Industry and Labor, Tyler History Center, OH WOW! Children’s Museum, Oakland Center for the Arts, Victorian, Butler, McDonough, Dana.

That those are within a golf swing of each other is enriching. With a good wind, I might reach Riverside Gardens, Youngstown Playhouse and even an actual golf course — Henry Stambaugh.

That’s all just top-of-the-head stuff that we’ve done as a family. It’s not a list from Trip Advisor.

So, with just that sample, why would anyone question living here?

Without fail, we get asked from people who are from here.

I can’t recall one transplant coming up to me with a “So what the hell dragged you here?”

The bad things here are not any worse than any place I’ve lived. In one past home, we wrote a story about how 50 absentee votes were cast from addresses that were the right field of the baseball stadium. Homes were last there five years earlier.

The one distinction with our bad things: We celebrate them more than any place I’ve lived.

Our fantasizing of our flaws, namely the mob, political corruption and abandoned factories to me is almost Stockholm Syndrome-like.

We have this sometimes-neat chip on our shoulders. But too often, the chip becomes an attitude, and quickly a bad one. We seem to especially develop a chip when someone else does better.

I like what one friend said about that: When you’ve lost so much, you hold on to and fight for the littlest things.

“Why the garden club could not save Youngstown” is a brave study comparing our region with Allentown, Pa., and how it rebounded and we did not. It zeroes in specifically on how their population engaged one another positively and ours did not.

I think our institutional-based upbringing creates a prevailing wisdom that to advance is to play the game, toe the line, wait your turn. That’s how you’ll cash in.

I think that’s how we’ve been.

I see change.

New county auditor Ralph Meacham’s win will be one of the greatest local events of this decade. Our political landscape is horrific. We need more independents, more Republicans, and more Green Party just to get out of this machine.

I like what is happening in America now with “Shark Tank nation” — this surge in entrpreneurism that any of us can make a smartphone app or a business.

We have that attitude downtown in larger outfits such as America Makes, the Youngstown Business Incubator or NYO Property Group.

But I like it especially in smaller places such as One Hot Cookie. Owner Bergen Giordani had a wild idea based on a cool name. She leapt at it, left an unsupportive employer for a supportive one at The Rich Center, and will soon open her third store while furthering a great nonprofit.

I’m a huge optimist in what Youngstown State University can be in the next five years.

Oil, gas, manufacturing are being redefined here, despite the current lull.

I think we should celebrate more the local business mogul.

A community’s bonus bank balance back in the day — in addition to jobs — were the company owners and presidents who lived right here as well and wanted better for the place they call home.

We have a great cast of moguls here. That negative chip we sometimes have develops into crosshairs on some of those guys, and I think that’s just foolish and short-sighted.

I shake my head when people complain what they don’t have in their Vindicator. They are unaware what other similar cities do not have in their paper because the owners live elsewhere.

I don’t anoint those moguls as perfect. But I believe they have enough balance of means, clout and concern to do good for more than just themselves. And they do.

We need to celebrate, too, this next generation of college grads and 20-somethings — the gamer generation.

They want to be here in the place they’ve heard their grandparents tell pretty good stories about. If they can’t find a job, they will make one — like a cookie store. And they’re willing to get their hands dirty for others as much as for themselves.

String all of these threads together, and you have the fabric that makes a great community.

Why would you not want to live here?

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.