- Car Bombs to Cookie Tables: The Youngstown Anthology eds. by Jacqueline Marino and Will Miller
With the possible exception of Detroit, no city has epitomized the Rust Belt experience more so than Youngstown, Ohio. For a time, its hulking, empty steel factories, struggling neighborhoods, flamboyant mobsters, and corrupt politicians seemed to represent all of the ills that had accumulated in the once-thriving industrial cities of the American Midwest and Northeast. Bruce Springsteen even wrote a dirge about the city while journalists and scholars narrated its decline in extensive detail. More recently Youngstown has become a model of Rust Belt revival. It was among the first to embrace the notion of a shrinking city, an approach that has earned praise from think tanks and economic development specialists and even earned its former mayor, Jay Williams, a job heading the Commerce Department's Economic Development Agency.
Car Bombs to Cookie Tables: The Youngstown Anthology lets locals have a say in the ongoing conversation about this quintessential Rust Belt city. A collection of short essays, poems, and photographs produced by Youngstown residents and assembled by its editors, Jacqueline Marino and Will Miller, it offers a rich and varied account of growing up in Youngstown, living there now, and striving for revival. The book is "not about the past" its editors insist, nor is it mindless boosterism (8). Instead, it presents firsthand accounts of Youngstown experiences, good and bad. Despite these protestations, there is a nostalgic tone to the book. Memories of people and places, mostly warm, occasionally sardonic, suffuse many of the entries, even in the portions devoted to renewal. There is no reason to shy away from that sensibility because, viewed from the vantage points presented here, Youngstown is best imagined as a success story, a city that thrived for several [End Page 81] generations and enabled those living there to build rich, meaningful lives. When it revives, in whatever form, it will do so because of its past rather than in spite of it.
The book is organized to reject a simple narrative of decline. The editors divided the contributions into sections on Loss, Family, Work, and, finally, Rise, an arrangement that seems designed to accentuate current experience and the city's efforts at renewal in recent years. The section on Loss is a bit of a surprise, dwelling more on music and the local music scene than on old neighborhoods and shuttered factories. Yet the essays devoted to Family focus mostly on the recollections of those moved away or the memories of parents and grandparents, such as Keith Gottberg's affecting reminiscences of his steel-worker grandfather and Stan Sujka's tribute to his dziadek, his adopted grandfather. Discussions of Work take place mainly in the past tense as well. These include Tom Kerrigan's well-crafted memoir of summer employment at US Steel's Ohio works, where he witnessed the struggles of a single mother in the face of sexist abuse, or Tom Wood's account of his odd-jobs work as a teenager at a local factory, which included assignments such as dredging up the remains of a dead guard dog that instilled in him "an aptitude for dealing with death and decay" (137). If the contributions devoted to Youngstown's "Rise" avoid this nostalgic quality, they nevertheless take on a defensive or boosterish tone, with essays entitled "Defending Youngstown," and "Making the Case for Youngstown" mining this vein most explicitly. Interspersed photographs, more than a few of which examine empty, rusting factories, reinforce the book's wistful character, as do profiles of a series of sports figures—Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Bernie Kosar, Jim Tressel, and Maurice Clarrett—who rose to great heights before falling precipitously. (Presumably their efforts to pick themselves up again and go on explain their inclusion in the "Rise" section of the book.)
Like so many commentators on the American Rust Belt, the editors of Car Bombs to Cookie Tables seemingly feel compelled to deny the idea that Youngstown's best days are behind it...