This weekend is the premiere of Warren native Eric Murphy’s film “Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown” — a documentary that details the life of the late Jim Traficant.
The film, which will debut at the Cleveland International Film Festival this Saturday, is expected to portray Traficant as an authentic but unorthodox legislator, one that did not conform to Washington convention as he represented an area known concurrently for its organized crime and its failed steel industry.
Traficant’s story is one that has captured the attention of Youngstown residents since he arrived on the local political scene in the 1980s. And — more than 30 years later — his story maintains its public appeal. So much so that every notable local news outlet has provided coverage of the Traficant film’s development, and TV star Ed O’Neill has helped raise funds for the documentary.
Why, though, does the story of a shamed former congressman continue to resonate with Youngstown locals? How did Traficant retain his popularity even after his conviction of 10 felony counts? And why are we still fixated on Traficant even after his death?
Certainly the answer has something to do with Traficant’s unruly style, his refusal to play by the rules and his willingness to do favors for constituents. But a complete explanation of Traficant’s appeal should also account for external factors that extend beyond Traficant himself and account for a unique disposition characteristic of many Youngstownians.
Here in Youngstown, many are proud of our not-so-glamorous past; they boast — only half jokingly — about the city’s high crime rates and dismal economy. And it’s not entirely surprising to see someone walking around Y-town wearing a T-shirt that features an AK-47 assault rifle and reads, “Youngstown Ohio: 2 Time Defending Champ ‘Murder Capital of America.’”
For whatever reason, some residents are enamored by this area’s failures, and Traficant — someone who promised to crack down on crime only to become a felon himself — can be seen as the embodiment of this undoubtedly captivating and somewhat charming failure.
We understand the appeal; our city has some serious character. There is something about a city’s grimy, seedy past that makes the locale feel authentic — striking sharp contrasts with the bright lights, polished windows and chrome of similar cities that have had a bit better luck in the second half of the 20th century. And we are not in any way saying that we should reject our history; some on this editorial board admit to telling tales to outsiders of Youngstown’s past with glee, but, in our remembrances of the past, we must recognize it is just that — the past.
While we can understand why Youngstown residents continue to fixate proudly on a gloomy past, we also realize this: we do not lack current accomplishments in which to take pride.
Downtown Youngstown, for instance, continues to experience new development, housing several new bars and restaurants and becoming a social center for university students. And the Youngstown Business Incubator has recently been named the best university-associated business incubator in the world.
Youngstown State University has also reported good news as of late: enrollment is expected to increase for the first time in four years this fall; junior Ashley Orr has been named a finalist for the esteemed Harry S. Truman Scholarship; and our women’s track team has won back-to-back Horizon League championships.
While we are not proposing that our readers forget about our past, we are calling for a reformed method of branding ourselves, because we are not a failed city known only for high crime rates and a bad economy. We are, instead, a city that has experienced failures, but has never given up. We are a city that practices resilience and a city that experiences success.