Published November 22, 2011
WARREN, Ohio – Tucked deep behind the flowing yellow cornfields of northern Ohio are the fading shells of former steel plants.
The factories no longer spew black smoke into the sky, there are no employees patrolling behind their high metal fences, the lights inside are permanently off and there's an eerie silence all around.
The buildings stand as large, empty symbols of the industry that used to keep the Mahoning Valley running.
"This was the center of the steel industry, mostly because of the location, halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, halfway between New York and Chicago … that led to a lot of manufacturing," said historian Jim McFarland.
At that time, jobs were abundant. Generations of families worked at the plants and built their lives along the Mahoning and Cayuhoga rivers. It seemed like the prosperity would never end.
"Everyone worked at the steel mill; it was a good paying job," said longtime Ohio resident Timothy Walton, whose father and grandfather worked at the plants.
But then, battered by tough economic times, the steel industry began shutting down.
"Black Monday" came in 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube laid off thousands of employees. It created a domino effect: smaller businesses that relied on the steel plants started closing. People left to seek employment elsewhere, anywhere, and the population was cut nearly in half.
The city and its Rust Belt troubles were immortalized in a song by Bruce Springsteen called "Youngstown."
Years later, the Mahoning Valley is still struggling to recover. Unemployment hovers between 8 and 10 percent. "Its terrible. Every place you go, all positions are filled. You can't find a job to save your life," said John Huria, who now wanders among the empty buildings of downtown Youngstown, asking anyone who passes by to spare some change.
Nearly half the people who live here are below the poverty level, and the region has a significant hunger problem.
"We have such a tremendous need in the valley for people that have lost their jobs with the industrial base that has faded. They're hungry," said attorney Ned Gold, a longtime Warren resident.
So Gold and fellow attorneys John Falgiani and Marty Cohen came up with a musical solution.
They are part of a group called the "Trumbull 100," whose mission is to "embrace and facilitate opportunities by providing resources and leadership to projects that enhance the quality of life for the citizens of Trumbull County," and they created a fundraiser to feed the needy.
They called it Foodstock. Local bands were brought in, at no cost, to belt out rock 'n' roll, jazz and country music. There were even two Elvis impersonators who had women swooning.
The cost of admission was either a donation of cash or cans of food. Many people came through the doors armed with goods from the local grocery.
The goal was to help fill empty shelves at food pantries, burdened by a 200 percent increase in need over the last decade. Second Harvest Food Bank, which collected and distributed the food around the community, oversaw it all.
"This will fill a lot of empty bellies" said Mike Iberis, of Second Harvest. "We have to make sure people get the food they need."
Gold, who is president of Trumbull 100, said Foodstock will help "the haves" realize how important they are to the "have nots."
"This helps bridge the gap so that we get to those jobs that will bring people out of poverty and out of hunger, and it'll happen." he said.
There are rays of hope for the Mahoning Valley economy. There's a Chevrolet plant at full production, and the shale oil industry is evolving.
There's also a small business and technology incubator in downtown Youngstown, not just to support business, but also to get the word out that there are many skilled people in the community eager to get to work.
"You can't find a harder working workforce. These people were brought up with strong work ethics…this area will come back," McFarland said.
But until every family has a breadwinner and every mouth is fed, the people of Warren and Youngstown, Ohio, promise to continue to raise funds, play music and work together to keep their community moving forward.