Work and Memory in Youngstown
Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo
Once the symbol of a robust steel industry and blue-collar economy, Youngstown, Ohio, and its famous Jeannette Blast Furnace have become key icons in the tragic tale of American deindustrialization. Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo examine the inevitable tension between those discordant visions, which continue to exert great power over Steeltown's citizens as they struggle to redefine their lives.
When "the Jenny" was shut down in 1978, 50,000 Youngstown workers lost their jobs, cutting the heart out of the local economy. Even as the community organized a nationally recognized effort to save the mills, the city was rocked by economic devastation, runaway crime, and mob scandal, problems that persist twenty-five years later. In the midst of these struggles the Jenny remained standing as a proud symbol of the community's glory days, still a dominant force in the construction of both individual and collective identities in Youngstown.
“Compelling. . . . An intriguing history of the deindustrialization experience in Youngstown. . . . Linkon and Russo have succeeded in illustrating the importance and use of historical memory in shaping the future discourse of public policy issues involving deindustrialization.”
—Journal of American History
“The authors compellingly examine Youngstown’s struggle for re-definition and recovery by studying its contradictory representations of itself, before and after the steel mills. . . . Rewarding reading for any Ohioan—or any American—interested in the psychological effects of deindustrialization on Rust Belt communities. This book proves that, in the authors’ words, ‘Youngstown’s story is America’s story.’”
—Ohioana QuarterlySee all reviews...
“This richly textured portrait of Youngstown, Ohio probes the injured soul of a declining city and exposes the contradictions embedded in working-class life. Unlike so many community studies, Steeltown resists the temptation to idealize the past or its subjects. . . . The authors correctly note that ‘Youngstown’s story is America’s story.’ The sharp and increasing disparities in wealth, the growing consolidation and power of corporations, racial stratification, and declining industrial unions and communities reflect the country at large in the twenty-first century. Steeltown’s emphasis on the importance of remembering and the process of denial and redefinition of identities makes a significant contribution to American culture studies.”
“This excellent study combines an impressive collection of diverse sources into a complex, well-written analysis of conflicting community memories and their meanings; its import extends to all communities confronting structural change.”
“A fascinating study, critical yet accessible. . . . The authors’ conclusions leave the reader with a sense of hope.”
“Beautifully written with a plainspoken lyricism reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, Steeltown U.S.A. sensitively probes conflicting representations of Youngstown across a century of growth, struggle, and heartbreaking decline. . . . A cold-eyed, warm-hearted elegy for industrial America that somehow renews our rusty spirits.”
—Jack Metzgar, author of Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered
“Linkon and Russo document with stunning precision the meaning of the erasure of memory. Steeltown U.S.A. should not only be read as a cautionary tale about corporate responsibility in an era of globalization, but as a lesson to all Americans that we must understand and preserve our past if we are to effectively deal with our future. Steeltown U.S.A. is a vital book.”
—Dale Maharidge, coauthor of And Their Children After Them and Journey to NowhereSee fewer reviews...
Focusing on stories and images that both reflect and perpetuate how Youngstown understands itself as a community, Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo have forged a historical and cultural study of the relationship between community, memory, work, and conflict. Drawing on written texts, visual images, sculptures, films, songs, and interviews with people who have lived and worked in Youngstown, the authors show the importance of memory in forming the collective identity of a place.
Steeltown, U.S.A. is a richly developed portrait of a place, showing how images of the Jenny and of Youngstown have been used in national media and connecting these representations to the broader public conversation about work and place: Bruce Springsteen's song "Youngstown," the book Journey to Nowhere, and other pop culture artifacts have helped make Youngstown the symbolic epicenter of American deindustrialization. And while many people see the need to get over the past and on with the future, in rushing to erase the difficult parts of Youngstown's history they might also forget the powerful events that made the city so important, such as the struggles for economic and social justice that improved the lives of steelworkers.
This multifaceted study of the meaning of work and place in one community pointedly depicts the relationships among economic development, media representations, and community life. As we see how people's faith in the value of their work dwindled away in Youngstown, their stories can help us understand not only how the meaning of work has changed but also why the changing meaning of work matters.