Youngstown, O. - I don't know what it is about this place. It's been photographed to death, it's pretty much empty, and it's not a steelmill so it shouldn't really concern me that much. Still, I've grown to have a connection to it. The first photo I took of my city decaying around me was down here. Was interviewed by a PBS film crew here. Three times. The third trip they brought two Pulitzer Prize winners with them.
I'm not going to go into the whole history of the place, but you can read a detailed write up here.
My dad's buddy/distant relative John-o used to work here. I'd say he's the reason my parents got together. How else would a guy from the Westside of Youngstown meet a girl from the Westside of Warren? My mom said she thought John-o worked at Youngstown Steel Door when she and my dad met, but he was an employee of Republic at one point. John-o's girl worked with my mom making light bulbs at General Electric. After they got transferred from Ohio Lamp in Warren to Austintown Coil, they used to hang out at Tee Mar's on Meridian where she met John-o's friends, my dad included. Both couples are still happily married, and here I am typing this.
My cousin Chris took me here the first time I went. He had taken some amazing photos next door at Republic Steel's old Truscon plant. One in particular made me want to pick up a camera, a black and white of the locked gate at Truscon. I think we came across the rubber plant on accident. Can't recall, this was damn near 20 years ago. There was a lot more of the plant standing at that time, I've watched it decay over the years.
The rotten wooden steps that went up the side of a structure (that no longer stands) were decayed when our dumb asses decided to climb up it. Really glad we didn't die. Million dollar view though. Gallery below.
Photos from that first trip in gallery below. Most of this stuff is gone now. I was armed with some little bullshit point and shoot camera, which I really didn't know how to use. The photos are pretty terrible in quality, and I didn't know the first thing about photography, but I feel like I captured the way I saw it. And the way I want you to see it.
Images below are from the mid 2000s maybe? Not sure, but I had a real camera at that point. Caught a different cousin of mine looking over the ruins in the fourth image.
In late 2015 I get a private message on Facebook from a guy that says he is a documentary film maker with PBS. My initial thought was this is some kind of scam, but I check out his page and he seems legit. Says he saw my photos on my old blog, and that Nick Serra told him to contact me. Turns out they were producing a documentary about three US cities that have fallen on hard times: Memphis, Stockton CA., and Youngstown.
I spent the morning we were supposed to meet up tearing up floors at the Soap Gallery, which was yet to open. Left there sweaty and probably stinking, walked over to this coffee shop downtown and see Nick Serra and Sean Posey sitting outside. Now I didn't know these guys, but we were friends on the internet, and all had similar interests in our photography so I say whats up to them. They were these to meet these PBS guys too I came to find out. Keith and Chris from the Documentary Foundation show up and we skipped the coffee and went straight down Albert St. to film at Republic Rubber. Photos from that trip below. They interviewed us individually, I guess they wanted to touch on people that photograph their deteriorating cities. They seemed interested in the fact that my whole damn family was steelworkers. We went to the Krakusy Hall on the south side from there, which was torn down not long after. I had been there when I was younger and it was an active social club, so I had some stories for them too. After that, we all went down the Golden Dawn, had some schooners of Genesee, talked a little more and parted ways. Photos from that trip below.
I got a call from the Documentary Foundation guys the next day, saying they like the personal connection I have to the city, my passion for it, and they want to film with me again. We went back to the plant and did a longer interview. I didn't really shoot much, but I got to ramble on about Youngstown, which is fine by me.
It was a couple months later and they call again saying they want to film some more. They also say they are bringing these big time authors with them. I wasn't sure who it was, I just hoped they wouldn't be some stuffy academic types. I was pleasantly surprised, these guys were cool as hell.
I'm waiting for them at the plant, and Dale Maharidge and Michael S. Williamson show up. I forget how it came up, but one of the first things Michael tells me is that he took the photo of the steelworker holding his kid in the taphouse of the Jeanette furnace at the Brier Hill works. I was woefully ignorant to these guys and their body of work, but I had seen that photo. I replied something like "Holy shit man, that was you?! That is like the most iconic Youngstown photo I ever seen!"
We spent the next few hours photographing the plant, and talking about the downfall of Youngstown and other steel towns like ours. These guys covered the situation here when the bottom was dropping out, and saw a side of Youngstown that people in my generation never will. And documented it well. Their book Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass was what inspired Bruce Springsteen to write the song Youngstown (The line "now the yard's just scrap and rubble, guess them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do" is a reference to their interiew with Joe Marshall Sr and Jr down the Ohio works after the furnaces came down.). They sneaked the Boss into the Brier Hill works to photograph in front of the Jeanette furnace. When he played the song Youngstown in Youngstown at Stambaugh Auditorium in the 90's they accompanied him there, the lucky SOBs.
The photos below are courtesy of Dale Maharidge, who posted them on Facebook about thier trip and the visit to Republic. I was telling them I had the Youngstown Sheet & Tube logo tatted on my arm, as well as an image of the Jeanette furnace. We came to the conclusion that Michael probably took the photo I found on the web when they had Springsteen down there. You can see the goosebumps on my arm in Dale's photo below (fig. 3).
This was easily the most humbling and inspirational experiences of my life. Blood was shed (fig. 1), tales were told, photos were graphed. Once we wrapped up there, I convinced them to go to Nicolinni's and got them to try the greens, which you should do with every out of towner. We talked some more, where I received encouragement to write a book and put my experiences growing up in Youngstown out there. Sit tight for that. I had to leave right after, I was living in Columbus and had to work the next morning. They wound up at the Vista, a little neighborhood bar down the end of my cousins old street. I should have called off and went damn it. Son of a bitch. They interviewed other people there, former steelworkers that were hurt by the shut downs, and my buddy Dub who just happened to be there shooting pool. I really should have stayed, they could've seen that Westside kids order a shot and a beer just like the oldtimer steelworkers before them that drank at that same bar. We just don't have the good paying jobs they used to.