By Nathan Hritz
Imagine a small town tucked away on the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio – kids playing baseball in the streets, old men sitting out on the porch or a family gathering for dinner. Imagine hordes of men coming out of their respective steel mills after a long, hard day of work.
In the pre-war era, and even during both world wars, my hometown of Sharon, Pennsylvania played a key role in producing steel, which is a material used to fuel war machines and even more crucially, a material used in building the nation we live in.
Sharon is not the only town like this. On a broader spectrum, I am talking about the Rust Belt – a place that many, myself included, still call home. Many of the towns strewn throughout the Rust Belt are still haunted by the giants that fueled the nation – once great mills, now vacant.
Rust Belt homes bear oddly placed toilets and showers in their basements. Even entire neighborhoods are populated with homes that look almost identical to one another. We are all affected by this as students at Youngstown State University, whether we choose to accept that notion or not. Youngstown itself once had the potential to be a metropolis like New York City or Chicago, cities fueled by industry.
An almost eerie atmosphere plagues the air. You can feel it and see it on the faces of those who once worked in the mills. It was not all that long ago that these mills were in full swing. Many have payed tribute to that era, including Bruce Springsteen in his song “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which evokes the perspective of an unemployed steelworker in Youngstown, Ohio.
Workers who once worked at the blast furnace in the Youngstown Steelworks know that the Jeanette blast furnace, nicknamed “Jenny” by its workers, was named after the daughter of Brier Steel Hill president, W.A. Thomas. Even “Jenny Magazine,” another publication at YSU, is named after the famed blast furnace. The blast furnace was demolished twenty years ago in 1997.
On second thought, these giants do not haunt this land. I believe they stand to remind us of how great the Rust Belt once was and how great it could be again. Empty buildings, once filled with small business, now lay empty, but not a single one of those buildings goes without a story that somebody would love to tell.
Though the biggest of these buildings, these old shells of mills, are far too large to re-inhabit, there is still hope for the cities built around them. I cannot speak for all cities, but I can speak for my own and I will.
In the past five years, a revitalization in the buildings that were once privately-owned businesses has been taking place. Choice individuals capitalize on the fact that the depressed nature of these old steel towns offer lower costs of living. Property value is significantly lower than in other areas of the United States, making the Rust Belt a prime location to open new privately-owned boutiques.
Though we may be living in the shadow of fallen giants, I am proud to call the Rust Belt my home. We’ve been through the fire, and we’ll keep fighting on. Just like we always have.