By Chris Jennings
If you, like I did, woke up on summer mornings with a mini boom box and a blank tape to listen for hours on end waiting for The Foo Fighters or Everclear or Rage Against the Machine or “Possum Kingdom” by The Toadies or Cake — anything by Cake — then you probably listened to 107.9 WENZ in Cleveland, otherwise known as The End. In those early years when I first moved on from A.C. and Kelly in the Morning, I would listen to the The End for hours, waiting to hit record in the last few seconds of each song, hoping for the next one to be right on. Green Day. Bush. Everclear. Live. Anything by Live. Except “Lightning Crashes.” The only other things I had to do on those mornings was decide whose house to sleep over at that night or which pickup baseball game I wanted to play in that day and whether I should pick up Big League Chew or Jerky Chew on the way. These were the perfect days of my childhood.
Even though it was a school day, when I woke up on the morning of May 12, 1999, it was poised to be one of the best days of my life. My freshman year was just weeks away from ending, and I had tickets to see the Dave Matthews Band with three of my best friends. They were my favorite band at the time, and this was my first concert ever. The show was at Gund Arena. My mom drove us to Cleveland, packed into my grandpa’s latest Buick Regal — he’s a GM guy. Our seats were about as far away from the stage as possible, but I didn’t care because I was watching my favorite band play at my first concert, and I was standing next to the girl of my fourteen-year-old dreams, Jillian Antonucci, with whom I’d been friends since kindergarten and with whom I was in love to an embarrassing degree. The first time I heard “Yellow” by Coldplay was in her living room. I remember that now only because of how much that mattered to me then. Poems were written. Notes were sent. In one of the more embarrassing moves of my life, I once sent her an email asking if it would be okay to kiss her. An email. Freshman…But I was there, and she was there, and as the band played their encore and the crowd erupted and the sweat dripped from my pimply fifteen-year-old forehead, I can tell you with near absolute certainty that her hand almost definitely brushed against my hand.
For as close as I was to spontaneously combusting, I held my shit together. That night, we emerged from the arena into the cool spring breeze, the lights of the city upon us, the sounds muted by the lingering buzz of the speakers in our ears. As Radiohead would sing a year later, everything was “in its right place.” And, in our haze of elation and second-hand weedsmoke, none of us had any inkling of the devastation already in progress. That night was the end of the world as we knew it.
By the next morning, 107.9 had undergone a complete format change and rebranding. I felt like my life had done the same thing.And the outgoing DJ’s must have agreed, as they played REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” for 24 hours straight. We listened in relative silence the whole way home as I quickly realized that a light I thought would burn forever was about to wink out right before my eyes. My hopes of moving up from brushing Jillian’s hand to maybe actually holding it were dashed. A kiss was out of the question. By the next morning, 107.9 had undergone a complete format change and rebranding. I felt like my life had done the same thing.
I turned 15 nine days later.
The amount of change and confusion already ingrained in those early teen years was compounded by new questions. What would I do now on those summer mornings? What would car rides be like? Would I have to actually buy a Reel Big Fish CD?
Napster and CD burners helped answer those questions in short order, and our region’s collective memory of 107.9 The End faded quicker than the need for all of those blank tapes that couldn’t even be given away at our summer garage sales. Five years later, it was stacks of cracked, unmarked burned CDs. Another five years, old iPods. Now, thank God for Spotify.
And to think of it that way, the end doesn’t sound so bad. Each time, the end of one thing making room for something faster, sleeker, cooler.
But we in the Rust Belt know that what follows the end isn’t always better.But we in the Rust Belt know that what follows the end isn’t always better.
For all intents and purposes, the world ended in Youngstown on September 19, 1977: Black Monday. We know the story. Deindustrialization. Depopulation. Ruin.
And yet, many of us in Youngstown gather in places carved out of the ruin. Sanctuaries. A growing few. And I wonder, “Is it possible?” Is it possible for me and the young people I teach to see and hear and taste the kind of life and bustle and pride in our hometown that we’ve only known through black and white photos and the stories of our parents and grandparents. Is it actually possible?
On the other hand, I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a group of sophomores, so I can’t help but think of the man in the story, as he wakes from a dream he can’t remember, with only the feeling of it. This man who wants so desperately to help his young son survive the end of the world, but he wakes from this dream, that he has while sleeping inside of an underground bunker filled with food and tools, with the feeling “that he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they’d never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over.”
Like that man, I consider the real possibility that maybe this isn’t the place for any of us. And I wonder how I could possibly teach these young people to care about a place whose viability I question every day.When I go to my car each morning to the parking lot behind my apartment building in downtown Youngstown, I see a beautiful, historic building — The Gallagher Building — towering over me, rotting from the inside out because the building’s owner abandoned it the minute he bought it three years ago, as a mayor and city council sit on their hands and do nothing to force a sale or to support the owner in fulfilling the empty promises he’s made for the building’s restoration. Promises that have been well documented in our city’s newspaper time and again but have gone unchecked by that same paper for these three years. Never a followup story: “When are you planning to start construction?” “Why haven’t you at least closed the windows on the upper floors to prevent the weather and animals from damaging the building’s infrastructure?” “You said that your brewery would open in the first quarter of 2016, but the building sits untouched still. What are you waiting for???” Those are the questions we should be asking. Yes, downtown has come a long way, but let’s not get complacent. If we want to see this progress continue, then we and our leaders must continue to push. We can’t let that building and the 7,000 square feet of property it sits on continue to collect dust and mold and trash and weeds until it’s replaced by a parking lot. We can’t take ourselves or the future of this city seriously if we permit that sort of neglect on the same city block we so often tout as a sign of the city’s resurgence.
Now, I absolutely realize that the fate of one building will have little bearing on the direction of this city. The economic and educational barriers blocking our path are far more daunting, but that building is a microcosm of the greater choices we have to make.
We have to either decide to save this place and figure out what kind of city we want, or we need to close up shop and get the hell out.In his essay “The Taj Mahal,” from The Hard Way on Purpose, David Giffels asks this question about the Rust Belt: “Is it something beyond salvation or something to be saved?”
There’s no middle ground in the answer to that question as it applies to Youngstown and cities like it. We have to either decide to save this place and figure out what kind of city we want, or we need to close up shop and get the hell out.
Every one of us has that choice to make. The students I see graduate each year, having made the decision to leave and go someplace that provides more opportunity for them to live the best versions of her lives is admirable, because they know what they want. And people like Phil Kidd and Sean Posey and Dominic Marchionda and Brad Miller and Daniel Rauschenbach and Paul Hagman who could go anywhere but stay here are so essential to Youngstown because they see what’s possible and they know that this place needs them.
It’s easy to complain that there’s nothing to do in Youngstown, to say you’re “stuck in Ohio,” and it’s easy for us to write off the people who say those things. It’s easy for us to come to a place like this and sit amongst other stakeholders and feel proud of how far we’ve come. And it’s easy for those of us from the suburbs who curiously venture into Youngstown and then go back with new stories to tell of how we went to that hotdog place or that cute little candy store, never to return again.
But if we decide that this place is something to be saved, then we can’t be those people. We can’t do it the easy way. Each of us has to find a place in this complicated, messy machinery and help make the gears move so a devoted few aren’t forced to shoulder it all!
So where do we go from here?
How much time do we spend looking back on something lost?
How much can we afford to bet on a possibility? How much of ourselves do we give?
As we sit in these sanctuaries amidst the rubble after the world’s end, we have to choose for ourselves.When I was in college, I worked at WDUQ and then WYSU, the public radio affiliates of Duquesne University and Youngstown State University. In radio, the clock is always ticking. There are clocks everywhere in the studio. Firing a promo one second late or early can throw off an entire day’s programming. There’s no such thing as “right now” — there’s only the next second, and the one after that. I have dreams all the time that I’m working there, but that I’ve woken up late and missed my shift. I dream about the digits on the clock ticking away — cold and red, like HAL’s eye in 2001: A Space Odyssey, if he could blink. In those dreams, time is pressing against me, and I feel the weight of it. The weight of what comes next. And when I wake up, it stays with me.
Thinking that way means that I don’t think about the past as much as I could or even should. But doing this here tonight has forced me to think about the past. The music of my childhood. That concert. My ineptitude when it came to dealing with girls that only got worse as the years went on. And I like thinking about those things. The nostalgia of it is like a warm blanket, even the parts that — at the time — were humiliating and painful. So many of us living in places like this are coaxed into that warmth. We usually do it to ourselves. But we spend so much time longing for “the way things were” that we don’t know what to do once it all fades away.
It’s easy to use nostalgia as a shield to deflect the hard work that must be done if we choose to save this place.
The end has already happened, but we’re still here. So what’s next?
Is it something beyond salvation or something to be saved?
This essay was initially written for and presented at a Lit Youngstown event on March 7, 2016.
Chris Jennings currently teaches English at Youngstown’s Canfield High School, where he also advises the journalism program, the student council, and is a Speech & Debate coach. Jennings was a speaker at TEDx Youngstown in 2015 and currently serves on the committee for TEDx Youngstown. Jennings has been teaching for nine years and is currently a resident of downtown Youngstown.