Friday, May 8, 2009

Mythical Geographies of Youngstown

I'm sure everyone has seen an old map depicting an ocean as the home of terrible monsters. The cartographer isn't indulging an artist's prerogative. The image is meant to convey that the territory is unknown. Unfamiliar spaces are the places where myths and folklore thrive, allowing us to manage a seemingly chaotic world.

The Rust Belt is a similar region of wonderment for the American psyche. At least, that's true for the centers of culture on either coast. As fellow-blog-in-arms, I WILL SHOUT YOUNGSTOWN notes, the curious invocation of Youngstown on the television show The Office is the buzz of the watercooler this morning. The reaction of outsiders is most telling:

I have had my doubts before. In one episode the boys from Scranton drove to Utica and back to battle Karen (a three hour drive) and made it back well before the end of the work day. Tonight's episode clinched it: the writers of "The Office" have no knowledge of rust belt geography. ...

... I'm sure there's some small gag factor in getting married in Youngstown, generally considered one of the worst cities in America, I get that. But that's why you're pros... find another awful city that's drivable.

The comments following the post depict Youngstown in even a less flattering light. The view from Dayton:

I lived in dayton, ohio. a very short trip to youngstown, or as most people around southern ohio like to say, Gunstown. I would never want to get married there, Youngstown is a HUGE place for the bloods gang. I mean it, huge. Gunstown, they do have a good diary farm though, with good ice cream.

I can tell you that a person who has never been to Ohio wouldn't make any distinction between Dayton and Youngstown. He or she wouldn't want to get married anywhere in the entire state. Heck, the entire Midwest might be taboo. Such is the lot of Flyover America.

More troubling is the ignorance within the Rust Belt. I'm a native of Erie, PA who champions Pittsburgh from a residence in the Front Range of Colorado. My image of Youngstown is one of corruption and mafia-plagued. However, that could apply to my hometown. But since I'm intimate with the city, the local crime syndicate doesn't dominate my impression of Northwestern PA.

Still worse are the cynics who actually hail from Youngstown. Some are economically and politically disenfranchised. Others are just itching for a new place, new experience. All think that nothing good or interesting can happen in the Mahoning Valley.

Enter the outsider, a place hopper, who adopts a city. Erie has Rochester-born Peter Panepento. Pittsburgh has this Erieite blogger. And, of course, Youngstown has Phil Kidd (from Southwestern PA). We represent a different kind of mythical geography, one of possibility. Such is the reward for those willing to brave the monsters of Greater Youngstown.

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