“Well my Daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two
Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble
He said, ‘Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do.’”
In his 1995 hit, “Youngstown,” Bruce Springsteen laments the downfall of its steel industry, constructing a historical narrative that centers on the betrayal of working-class heroes, whose willing sacrifice in the effort to build the nation and win its wars is cast aside by profit-hungry “big boys.”
Haunted by the Boss’s lyrics, on Sept. 8 students in my Recent American History course traveled to Youngstown to visit the Historical Center for Industry and Labor and key sites described in the book Steeltown, USA. The trip helped to reinforce central themes from the reading and underscored the eminently practical motivations for studying the past.
The museum provided personal glimpses into the social history of Youngstown’s long relationship with steel making. A guide walked our group through exhibits, where they learned that victims of industrial accidents were often immediately incinerated by molten steel upwards of 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. In these cases, the company provided a 140-pound slab of steel for a grieving family to place in a coffin in lieu of the worker’s body. The locker room of one of the former mills had been reconstructed, each locker filled to reveal a decade-by-decade transformation of worker’s lives through the century.
Cassese’s Mahoning Valley Restaurant provided an opportunity to discuss impressions (anyone who knows me knows that food is really important). A quick perusal of the menu was all that was necessary to appreciate why this local landmark has been around for almost a century (and the students who ordered the Tressel Tortellini said they enjoyed it!).
The wide-ranging lunch conversation highlighted two important benefits of studying the past: providing perspective and appreciating complexity.
Because history does not ever truly repeat itself, it cannot offer ready-made “lessons” to apply to the present. It does, however, provide a vantage point for useful perspective on the present. Youngstown’s failure to recover from the downturn in the steel industry in the 1980s made it an emblem for America’s post-industrial challenges, so understanding the city’s trials and tribulations provides valuable insight into globalization’s far-reaching local impacts.
Knowledge of the past also helps us make sense of complex causality. Youngstown’s dramatic deindustrialization was not a natural “organic” process. The industry’s leaders allowed the Mahoning Valley to languish as new investment followed demand in the growing South and West. This, along with lower-priced foreign competition and the development of new plastics led to the gradual decline of the industry. The loss of steel was really only the beginning of Youngstown’s death throes, as local corruption and organized crime preyed upon the weakened city. More than just “them big boys” in Springsteen’s song, a whole host of factors need to be appreciated to understand this story.
After lunch, we climbed back in the van for a short tour of the city. Its suffering over the past generation is painfully apparent in its landscape, especially noticeable as we drove by the boarded-up mansions of the city’s former elite. Watching kids arrive home in the working-class neighborhood of Brier Hill reminded us that this is still a living place. The Marietta College connections are also obvious: we have many students from the area, and several in class observed that Youngstown’s run-down blocks resembled their Appalachian hometowns.
What can be learned from a visit to Youngstown? Support from blue-collar Democrats lured Donald Trump to the city recently; even one of the former steelworkers who inspired Springsteen’s song declared allegiance to the man who has promised to “Make America Great Again.” In many ways, Youngstown’s struggles are America’s struggles, where we are increasingly divided by race and class, and frustrated by living in a globalized world where the proven rules of the past no longer seem to work.
As an instructor, I often see my job as posing the right questions rather than outlining the right answers. That may seem like an adroit side-step, but I do know one thing: we are not going to solve the country’s problems by hiding out in suburban enclaves. Real solutions demand uncompromising, and often painful, acknowledgement of problems. I have confidence in the ability of our bright young people to figure out creative ways to advance forward.
Dr. Matt Young is a professor in the department of history, political science, philosophy, and religion.