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American Quarterly 55.2 (2003) 315-321

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Remembering and Redefining Deindustrialized Youngstown

Laurie Mercier
Washington State University Vancouver

Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown. By Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2002. 288 pages. $34.95 (cloth).

COMMUNITY REACTIONS TO THE WAVE OF INDUSTRY SHUTDOWNS THAT HIT AMERICAN cities from the late 1970s through the 1990s became familiar and almost formulaic. First, a corporation announced a likely plant closure; next, unions and local and state officials scrambled to offer desperate concessions to keep it open. Then the company spurned assistance and announced relocation in another country. The media dutifully reported that labor, environmental, and tax demands had driven out the industry; community leaders quickly squandered aid on failed industrial parks and redevelopment schemes; crime and social problems rose with unemployment; residents began revising their history to blame themselves for an industry's demise. 1

What at first glance appears to be another book about deindustrialization in the Heartland, Steeltown U.S.A. models new methods of analyzing representations of past, present, and place. 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. Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo, codirectors of the Center for Working Class Studies at [End Page 315] Youngstown State University, critique idealized memory, which "not only masks difference and the conflict associated with it, but can also gloss over the community's own struggles" (241). Youngstown's one hundred-year history from booming steel industry hub to crumbling crime-ridden ruin is examined in light of traditional divisions within the community, and among labor, community, and capital, which are scrutinized for their failure to create alternative responses in the wake of the shutdowns.

Youngstown's moniker "Steel Town, USA" reveals how closely linked were work and place, even as residents divided over its meaning. The authors open their tale with Bruce Springsteen's song "Youngstown," released some twenty years after the steel mill closures, to illustrate the conflicted memories of the place. Linkon and Russo recognize how representations such as Springsteen's reflect and perpetuate how Youngstown understood and understands itself, and they feature an impressive array of texts, images, art, buildings, films, music, and interviews to map this landscape.

Once one of the most important industrial communities in the United States, workers staged some of the most militant labor struggles and through their efforts enjoyed a high rate of home ownership, relative prosperity, and good schools and jobs for their children. Yet public images of steelwork reveal tensions between those who viewed it as a source of struggle and those who promoted steelwork as uniting the community. Postcards, photographs, and illustrations highlighted the grandeur of mill buildings with their sleek lines and tall smokestacks, but the emphasis on technology and professional expertise erased ordinary workers from the steelmaking process. Advertisements, cartoons, newspaper columns, and institutions attempted to suppress class conflict by emphasizing individual efforts, not collective labor struggles, as the path to success. The Episcopal Church, for example, features stained glass windows extolling the virtue of work and company-worker cooperation. Company calendars provided industry histories devoid of labor strikes and filled with messages praising hard work. The schoolbook series produced by Howard C. Aley during the 1950s, a time of labor unrest, describes a homogeneous, conflict-free community devoid of class differences. Although the authors adroitly deconstruct these portrayals, one wonders how workers themselves responded to company propaganda and why the authors did not query residents for their own interpretations. Did these images settle on the unconscious [End Page 316] minds of workers and residents and engender greater support for corporate aims, or did they ring false and fuel greater resentments against company manipulations?

Against these images, Linkon and Russo juxtapose more critical views of the mills, work, and community by local writers and artists. Kenneth Patchen's poems tell of smoke, grime, exhaustion, and physical and psychic injuries. Local...


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