Last week, I went to the Vacant and Abandoned Property Action Council meeting with a Tom Fitzpatrick, a Wooster alumnus who sits on the council. We had met up for coffee, and since a component of the Literary Lots project is to provide purpose for an underutilized lot, he invited me to join him when he went to the meeting. At the meeting, he introduced me to a woman who said, “Why did you bring her here? You’re going to scare her away once she hears us all talking about all of Cleveland’s vacant and abandoned properties!” Tom laughed and replied, “Nah, she’s from Youngstown. She’s heard it all before.”
Tom grew up in New England and had lived many places, but when he came to Cleveland, he was shocked at the vast expanse of vacancy. Sure, he had seen poverty all over the country, but the vacancy of the Rustbelt is something he had never seen, and he became really interested in the problem and much of his work has dealt with how to combat vacancy and abandonment. I, however, grew up in a small town just east of Youngstown, Ohio on the Pennsylvania state line. In many ways, Youngstown epitomizes the Rustbelt. Formerly the home of the steel industry and a multitude of immigrants from Italy, eastern Europe and Ireland, Youngstown is now a quickly shrinking city with not much to it, but it has an incredible amount of character and is truly a community. For example, there are many cultural quirks that are uniquely Youngstown. One of my personal favorites is the tradition that we have giant cookie tables at weddings. The cookie table is a tradition that dates back to when the immigrant working class had all of their friends and neighbors bake a batch of cookies each for the wedding because they could not afford to buy cake for all the guests. There is something about traditions formed in times of hardship that makes them carry on for years.
The Youngstown community has played a huge role in my life. Until I went off to college, I had attended every single home YSU football game. I event went to preschool at YSU and had a little cheerleader outfit that I would wear to the games and go down to the sidelines and cheer with the YSU cheerleaders. As I got older, I continued my community involvement, but in different ways. With my Youth Ministry club, I volunteered at the soup kitchen, a holiday giving tree gift exchange, and taught vacation bible school for children in the community. In college, I got involved with Circle K and did some service in the Wooster community, and my involvement in the College of Wooster community is extensive. When I lead the “Community of Learners” session at ARCH, the summer orientation and registration session for incoming first-years, we talk to them about the importance of the Wooster ethic when living in a community where we all live and work together. We talk about it specifically in reference to college, but the importance of respect in a community is applicable in any situation.
I am very new to the Ohio City community, which is the neighborhood where the Literary Lots project is taking place. However, after a mere month, I already feel connected to it. For me, the Literary Lots project cannot fail because even if it makes a difference for just a few families by giving them a fun day out, a little extra educational enrichment, or even tacos for dinner on a Tuesday night, it was worth it because it’s about helping out the community, and giving people a chance to experience something great so close to home. I think about all of the times my mom took my siblings and I to the library or drove an hour to take us to the Pittsburgh Zoo or Children’s Museum, and how much that inspired my love of learning at a young age. So many children were not lucky enough to have those experiences, but Literary Lots is creating those experiences for children in Ohio City right in their own backyard. (Disclaimer: The former analogy was general – Literary Lots is not creating the Pittsburgh Zoo experience in Ohio City by any means.)
As a fellow Rustbelt native, I understand what it is like to drive past abandoned buildings on your way to work everyday, and I know that it is not ideal. But I also know what it is like to love the city that is home to those abandoned buildings and the people that also drive past them everyday, and I love that I get to help out a community that so clearly values their home and fellow community members – and a community that I have grown to love myself.