IF it’s August, it must mean once again that nearly everyone in the Mahoning Valley is Italian – at least for a weekend or two or three.
This weekend, the sights, the sounds and the smells – ooh, those savory smells – of the Italian Republic are enveloping Central Square in downtown Youngstown for the 34th Annual Greater Youngstown Italian-American Festival.
Next week, the hubbub and hoopla of southern Europe’s boot-shaped nation will play out on Courthouse Square for the 35th Annual Warren Italian-American Heritage Festival.
Then, from Aug. 15 to Aug. 18, the Brier Hill section of Youngstown, one of the oldest and largest Italian-American neighborhoods in the Valley, will welcome throngs for its traditional Italian festival at Calvin and Victoria streets.
In short, opportunities abound for all to celebrate unabashed Italian pride.
VALLEY’S ROBUST ITALIAN COMMUNITY
And, bellissimo, there is indeed much to commemorate, appreciate and celebrate for Italians and non-Italians alike.
First, one must recognize the grand scale of the Valley’s Italian-American community. Its members have every good reason to revel in the close-knit bonds in one of the largest ethnic groups in the region.
Just how large is it? According to the National Italian American Foundation, some 82,000 people of Italian descent call the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area their home. That ranks the Valley as 31st largest metro area in the nation in its proportion of Italian-American residents.
What’s more, according to Zip Atlas, communities in the the Mahoning Valley occupy 10 of the top 20 spots in all of Ohio for the highest concentration of Italian-Americans in the population mix.
They include Lowellville, 25.2 percent of total population; Struthers, 22.8 percent; Girard, 22.1 percent; Niles 19.6 percent; Hubbard, 17.2 percent; Summitville, 16.6 percent; Campbell, 16.5 percent; Canfield, 16.2 percent; Youngstown, 15.3 percent; and North Lima, 15.1 percent.
So though there will be no shortage of red-blooded Italians to take part in this month’s festivities, the thriving Italian-American community in our region and our state has so much more going for it than simply its strength in numbers.
For about 150 years now, immigrants from Italy played major roles in the industrialization and growth of the Mahoning Valley.
As reported in “Steel Voices, An Ethnic Community Archive,” the magnet that drew some 10,000 Italian immigrants to Mahoning and Trumbull counties by 1920 was the burgeoning iron and steel industries. While many were unskilled laborers many filled specific niches – such as the construction (brick and stone) trades, the local ceramics industries, as well as in the mills, the archive reported.
As a result, neighborhoods such as Brier Hill and Smoky Hollow in Youngstown, Parkwood in Girard and Mason Street in Niles provided and continue to provide ample opportunities for Italian-Americans to bond and preserve their heritage and culture.
The Italian community has often been characterized by strong ties to family, the Roman Catholic Church, fraternal organizations.
VICTIMS OF BIGOTRY
But like many immigrant groups, Italian Americans here and throughout the nation have endured heaping helpings of mean-spirited intolerance, bigotry and stereotyping over the decades. One of the longest surviving stereotypes paints Italian-Americans with broad strokes of criminality and corruption. Truth be told, however, the FBI has concluded that only 1 in 6,000 Italian-Americans has any ties to organized crime, a smaller segment than many other ethnic groups.
In fact, Italian-Americans have played and continue to play many positive and pivotal roles in government, science, business, industry, education, arts and culture in our community and our in our country.
It is the pride behind those achievements and contributions that will take center stage this weekend in downtown Youngstown, next weekend in downtown Warren and Aug. 15-18 in Brier Hill.
We suspect tens of thousands of Valley residents will once again flock to each of the festivals for a fun-filled time and for an opportunity to offer up a grazie or two to our robust Italian-American community for its noteworthy role in building the rich character of our multicultural community.