A Dozen Images Made in or Near Youngstown, Ohio, That Show Why People Need Both Jobs and Fish


  • Alice Whittenburg




Economy vs. ecology. That’s one way to frame the debate that once raged in Youngstown, Ohio, between those who focused on the health of the Mahoning River and those who gave priority to the health of the local economy and the jobs it provided. The latter point of view was often stated in terms of ‘Jobs, not fish!’ and its proponents asked: Compared to jobs in steel mills, which make it possible for workers to have homes and a decent way of life, what does it matter that fish can’t live in the river? Initially, the steel industry benefitted a surprisingly small number of people, mostly owners and investors who treated workers as a resource to be exploited, much like the air and water. But later, thanks to union struggles, workers lived well in the Mahoning Valley, and environmental problems, such as a dirty river, were viewed as a necessary evil. In fact, the foulness of the river assured residents that the mills were going strong and were a source of prosperity.
In Youngstown today, deindustrialization has made economic insecurity a fact of life, and the Mahoning, once known as the dirtiest river in the United States, is home to many species of fish. The story of the changes that have taken place in the river landscape centers around the supposed incompatibility of having both jobs along the river’s banks and fish in its waters. Ideas from cultural geography can teach us how to view a landscape where so much conflict has played out.

When geographer James S. Duncan presented the idea of a landscape as texts which communicate and transmit information, he also argued that reading the landscape can reveal how power relations have played out in a given region. Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo built on similar notions in Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown as they showed how people's memories, experiences, and struggles are represented in the landscape.  Linkon & Russo also noted that conflict and landscape have a reciprocal relationship. ‘Landscapes not only are constructed by economic and social conflict,’ they stated, ‘but also reinforce such divisions of power.’ ( Linkon & Russo, 2002, pp. 15-16). Such a reading of the Mahoning River landscape yields a complex story about the ways people transformed the natural world in order to benefit from it and then lived with the environmental consequences of that transformation. Though this story is very much about how power and class relations have played out there, in the twentieth century such conflict was often overshadowed by tensions between advocates for steel workers and advocates for the river. Recently, however, the growing understanding of the concept of environmental justice, which has been applied to working-class issues by, among others, Christina Robertson & Jennifer Westerman in their call for a working-class ecology (Robertson & Westerman, 2015) and Karen Bell in her agenda for a just transition to sustainability (Bell, 2020), lays the groundwork for alliances between environmentalists and working-class people that were not present when the Mahoning River was an ‘industrial stream.’ Cultural geographers have also shown us that depictions of a landscape contribute to its meaning(s). Building on such ideas,  Linkon & Russo examined the landscape of Youngstown through the lens of images and stories, and this essay will view the more specific landscape of the Mahoning River by examining a dozen images created in or near Youngstown since the early twentieth century. Not all of these images depict the river itself, yet all help to clarify the way the conflict between economy and ecology has played out in the Mahoning Valley.






Creative Non-Fiction