This piece originates from the book One for Sorrow, written by the author Christopher Barzak.I found it by looking at the Burgh Diaspora Blog, who linked to the Shout Youngstown Blog
With some of its scenes set in the Steel Valley (another steel valley) and downtown Youngstown, the book is available for pre-purchase from Amazon and will be published this summer by Random House.
“The tracks led into the downtown through a valley that had once been a bed of industry, and we followed them until we came out of dead space and into the valley. Under the cover of real night, we entered the city and lights began to spread in all directions like a sea of strange, glowing pearls.
The valley itself was a wasteland. Vacant factories with smashed-up windows. Black scars on the ground where steel mills had been demolished by their owners years ago. Yellow-brown weeds and thorny bushes. Leftover machine parts. Rotting car frames and engines. Rusty metal workings. Toilets covered in strange stains. Broken forty ounce beer bottles. Couches with springs curling out of the stuffing. And far too many stones to look at and be reminded of Gracie.
The dead roamed here also, trudging through the thin layer of snow that had fallen. They wandered the rubble of the mills, leaving no footprints as they went. They lingered in doorways, smoking cigarettes, nodding as we passed. Most were men wearing grease-stained jumpsuits; others were young women wearing long tweed skirts, carrying folders pressed to their chests.”
Really, don’t know much about the book but I guess it’s set in Youngsown Ohio and it’s likely damn powerful stuff, if that’s just taste. I’ve passed through the place, and that’s about all I can say about it. I don’t mean to imply that, every Steel town is the same, but I saw an interview with this author that makes me think that there a lot of common threads in our history. The interview is really the subject of this post. The opening say’s a lot of stuff that applies to most places around here to one degree or another.
“Shout Youngstown: Please describe your recent path, from Youngstown to Japan to back in Youngstown.”
“Chris Barzak: I did my undergraduate and graduate degrees both at Youngstown State University. What I recall about those years between 1994 and 2004 is that the community couldn’t even recognize itself as a community. There was very little effort made, or at least taken out and put into the hands of the people, to bring us together, to feel as if the city was ours. People passed through the city or went around it in some cases; they didn’t live in it. I lived in it, but it felt very similar to living in a vacuum. My best friends were the books in the university library. I spent more time there reading things that weren’t even assigned for my classes, looking up from a space where people in some other place in the world (and some other time, in many cases) felt it was important to think and to put thoughtfulness down on paper, to leave it behind for others to use it if they could. The city I saw when I looked out the windows of the top floor of the library, though, hadn’t been treated in the same way. It had been used and abused by people, corporations and big businesses and corrupt organizations and politicians over the course of a few decades, and people – the citizens of the city – had allowed it to happen. They had forgotten or chosen to pretend it was their duty to protect the public space they lived in. The disintegration of not only the physical world of Youngstown but the communal bonds of the people living within and around it eventually became so oppressive to my spirit that I decided to leave.”
After several years he recently came back.
“When I came back to Youngstown, I was afraid I’d find nothing had changed and that I’d want to return to Japan very quickly. And though it did take me some time to readjust to living in my own culture again, I was immediately heartened and filled with hope for other reasons. The city, it seemed, had changed to some extent while I was gone. The downtown was open, people were actually walking in it – not just people who worked downtown either. There were businesses open – a music store, a gorgeous martini bar that is just as good if not better than any bar I’ve frequented in New York City or Tokyo, a fashionable and hip nightclub, and there was this amazing group of young people meeting at the Oakland Center for the Arts to hold this event called The Stage, where people could show off their talents – in art or music, literature or dance, standup comedy, acting, drag performance, anything at all really, and everyone was supportive of each other. It felt like a real community”
SY: Can you elaborate more then, on the difference in the city during your earlier years here, and after your sojourn in Toyko?
“CB: I’ve noticed that the people have come out to the streets again. This is always a healthy sign of life in a community. I’ve noticed they are beginning to insist on having a say and a hand in the creation and maintenance of their city and city life again. I’ve noticed that, though there are exceptions, many of these people are the young, the new generation. They are refusing to accept a life of stagnancy and “holding on”, waiting for someone outside their own community to save their community for them. We’ve put “the hope for some industrial giant to swoop in and save things” behind us, and really, thank God for that. We should find healthier ways to grow an economy here. Rather than allowing ourselves to become dependent on big business, we should encourage small business and entrepreneurship within the community and surrounding area itself. We will learn how to live by our own means, rather than be subject to a life provided for us by a few of the very wealthy in the nation, a life that isn’t something we should settle for anyway:”
SY: What do you want Downtown Youngstown to be like in five years?
CB: I want Downtown Youngstown to be even more full of people than it is now. I want businesses to open that value creativity, community and civic awareness as well as businesses that foster economic trade. I want an independent bookstore, I want a place where local artists can sell their work by consignment to the public, I want a newspaper that attempts to engage with the people rather than just the politicians and business owners in the region. I want a fully functional Arts Center (the Oakland Center for the Arts would be the perfect place to grow this from, if the board of directors for the Oakland could be persuaded to see themselves functioning more in that way) that provides a space for all of the arts in the area: writers, actors, artists, musicians, encouraging them to come together and exchange ideas, giving them a place to display their talent and to act as an “incubator” for the artists and thinkers of the region.”
“I want to see a downtown with a grocery store, a dry cleaner, and affordable housing so that people can come out of their hidey-hole apartments in the cut-up sections of the city and come together again, where they can live and work together. I want more social activist groups to stand outside of the courthouses and the mayor’s office and raise their voices until they must be heard by the decision makers of this city. I want more than anything more members of the community to join those choruses of voices, so that we can all be heard. Without a forum for the community to feel as if it can be heard and attended to, without a process for the community to feel as if they have ownership of their city streets, any progress that’s made will eventually fail once again.”
Notice that he didn’t say, I wan’t jobs, jobs, jobs at any price.