I tumble into town, as I do now, kids in booster seats, the back of my crossover stuffed with noise, a suitcase, sleeping bags, Kindle and iPad to keep the kids occupied for the hours between our home and the place I came of age. We exit just before Youngstown and wind through familiar terrain: the pizza joint that rotates owners. Shutdown. Reopened. Shutdown. The old Book & News is now a consignment shop stocked with used toys and furniture. The bail bonds office has mannequins wearing stripes and chains in its display window. (So, the town now has a quirky bail bondsman.) The kids in back don’t see any of it, their little faces zombified by screen-time.
My hometown no longer feels like home.
We drive along a few smaller roads, pass the library, a field where a schoolhouse once stood, and turn at the corner of my parents’ street. There used to be a two-story home with beige siding on that corner. Now it’s just grass. The house fell into disrepair during the foreclosure crisis. Racoons overtook it. It had to be torn down.
The weather is still warm. It’s a relief. I spend winters now aware that my father shouldn’t be outside shoveling—not with his emphysema—and that the younger generation who once pitched in have all moved on.
There’s an extent to which my parents, whose mortgage predated subprime and was paid off in reasonable chunks before and during the financial crisis, are among the last ones standing. They and their few remaining neighbors were cushioned by the happenstance of settling down when times were bad but not busted, a decade or two before bankers perfected the exploitation of the American dream.
We eye the sign out front warning of their “BAD ASS DOG.” (My son is still naïve enough to believe it’s an error—perhaps PopPop is declaring himself as “bad as [a] dog.”) The house to one side appears to have tenants. I wonder about them. There have been rounds of drug busts. My mom emailed me when a previous neighbor was arrested for trafficking heroin. The landlord, who bought the house for a song, doesn’t appear to do background checks.
We burst into the house with shouts and hellos. My daughter ducks behind my legs, hiding from the dog who wants to lick her face and nearly knocks itself over with the overexertion of its wagging tail. My mom shouts at the dog to simmer down, leans over her walker to hug me. My parents ask if we saw the construction on Interstate 80 that has swallowed their exit in a sea of orange barrels. Outsiders used to only know my town—a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio—as the exit off 80 with the Burger King and hot dog shop. Now, it can’t quite even be that.
There’s neighborhood news: Did we see they’ve finally knocked old Trumpie’s house? I vaguely remember a family named Trumphower or some variant who lived a few houses up the street. (My parents only ever referred to the family’s patriarch as Trumpie.)
“Such a shame. Such a nice man. That name,” my mom says, easing on two feet and one walker back toward the living room where MSNBC is blaring. I try to remember when that family moved away. Or maybe when old Trumpie died? Perhaps a decade or so ago.
Chris Hayes is on TV, his forehead shiny, trying to make sense of the election. We all were. My parents’ district had always been reliably blue, union country, but in 2016, for the first time in my life, the majority of people in my home county voted for a Republican candidate. Trump won them. He won. Across the city line in slightly poorer, far more diverse Youngstown, Clinton won (despite Trump’s claims to the contrary). It wasn’t enough.
“Bob’s house might be next,” my dad informs me, muting the TV. Bob, his friend, a gruff guy who lived further up the street, who perpetually had grease under his nails, stubble on his cheeks, and exuded an air of intolerance for nonsense, became something of a neighborhood legend for rescuing a baby squirrel and keeping a window cracked to his enclosed front porch for years so once the squirrel moved outdoors, it could still visit.
Bob died about a year and a half ago. Cancer, I think.
“The house next door didn’t sell,” Mom tells me. My parents’ sprawling brick house, one of the oldest on the block, is spangled with a row of wind chimes hanging from the porch awning. Their former next-door neighbor, a man in his sixties who couldn’t earn enough as a Walmart greeter, has moved out. After the foreclosure, he squatted in the house for close to a year with the curtains drawn. Living with his daughter didn’t work out. My parents aren’t sure where he is now.
But my dad has inside information: “I had to call the guy selling it because we needed to have that tree out back cut down, and I needed permission to have the crane on their side of the fence in the driveway.” I wonder if the guy he’s referring to is someone from the bank. I don’t get a chance to ask. Dad peers at me like a man with a hot secret and drops his voice. “They had an auction and weren’t going to sell unless they got an offer of at least $18,000—they didn’t. Couldn’t sell the thing. Now it might go, too.”
“Go”—meaning this one too might be demolished.
Something heavy and unspoken sinks inside my chest. There is no way my parents will ever make what they should on their house if they try to move. Not in this neighborhood. Last time we were here, they mentioned that another house in the neighborhood was for sale for $8,000 from the county land bank—$6,000 if the buyer was willing to live in it while fixing it up.
I start trying to calculate how we could afford a second mortgage if we tried to buy them a house closer to us, far away from this place. Even if they can sell their house, it wouldn’t be enough for a down payment elsewhere. But they can’t stay in this big, aging house, full of stairs, my mom on a walker and my dad with his breathing. They manage, through the sheer force of my father’s will, his insistence on taking care of them both. But I see no other way to get them out. I’ve asked. They refuse.
“Did your mom tell you about her visit from Tan Man?” Dad asks, starting to chuckle. They’ve always done this, indulged in nicknames for characters around the neighborhood. A guy down the street who lounges drunk and shirtless in his front yard gathering sun all summer is typical fodder for a good story.
I drift while listening. I can’t get in on the bit—stories about the neighborhood used to feel so alive, so connected, a soap opera set among the mostly unemployed with a junk truck circling in the background and a single mom with a crush wandering over daily to ask my dad for puffs on his cigarettes and his albuterol inhaler, depending on her mood. I can’t tell if it all feels distant and contrived because the neighborhood is now so full of absences or because I’m now so detached from what’s left. This used to be my world, too. It’s all just fragments.
When I left home for college in 1998, it was with a laundry basket and an Army bag jammed with folded clothes. I’d bought some instant cappuccino (what I suspected would be the drink of choice for college students) and pushed a mix tape I’d made into my Ford Escort’s cassette player. It consisted almost entirely of the Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces on repeat.
Back then, I felt suffocated by our small town. Most people had never heard of it. I moved progressively farther and farther away, and learned to shorthand and tell people “I’m from Youngstown,” the city around which my suburb was built, a metropolis with a heart that collapsed when its steel skeleton died. Its atrophy had begun in the years around when I was born.
People who didn’t know my town knew about steel; my people were Rust Belt people, I was told. Those words were supposed to encapsulate the decay, the abandoned workplaces, the rampant unemployment. We were seen by outsiders as wasted people, rotting with disuse.
But Rust Belt never captured the layers of parents, of neighbors, who were always home with us because there was often nowhere else for them to go. Frustration lived in the air we breathed as the smokestacks went dead. There was always someone yelling—at their kids, or the dog—or just yelling to yell. People were in and out of their houses, scrambling, angling and gambling to pay bills. They loaned food and food stamps and leaned together, because that’s all you can do when everyone is wanting for something.
I rarely dared say it, but Rust Belt was wrong. It seemed to signify a kind of death. What I witnessed was survival, which is an acute form of living. We were not some kind of industrial Pompeii of workers frozen in lost time.
Still, as soon as I could, I moved away. I made it clear that’s where I was from but that I had no plans to go back. I was doing what my mother had coached me to do my entire life: I was getting out. I graduated college, moved to Washington, D.C., then Chicago, then Cleveland, then Washington, D.C., again. My links to the old neighborhood loosened. I listened with horror while my mother described the death of a neighbor, the mother of friends, who had stopped breathing. City revenue had fallen so much that the ambulances were outsourced from a nearby town, and the driver couldn’t find our street. She hadn’t been breathing for some time when they finally arrived.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to lose my mother to poverty—because that’s really what killed our neighbor—then realized the same thing could happen to my mother easily. I tried not to think about it.
When friends’ parents succumbed to preventable diseases, I never thought to blame poverty for the check-ups and scans they never had. An old pal had a run-in with the law. Another, out of work, maybe drinking too much, maybe not, died in a car accident.
I didn’t observe it directly, but what my parents described in calls and emails over those years was the disappearance of my generation from their neighborhood—off we went to college, jail, death. I’d get emails with two-word subject lines from my mother, a schoolmate’s name, then I’d hover before clicking, wondering which fate befell them.
Brain drain became part of local parlance as I saw in articles my mom clipped from the newspaper and mailed me. Attempts were made by city officials and redevelopment officers to draw boomerangs—young professional talent—home from nearby Cleveland and Pittsburgh for less pay but an incredibly low cost of living. Some were attracted to the idea of resettling, upcycling the city’s abandonment, flipping brownfields into urban farms, launching businesses in a place starved for new industry.
It’s a natural phenomenon in neighborhoods all over the country: a young crop moves out, folks about to start raising their own kids come home—and some did. I’d visit from grad school, on long weekends planning my wedding, and see bikes in yards, a trampoline outside one house up the street.
But then the market crashed.
The first sign that something was terribly amiss was when a big, yellow banner went up on a tiny house up the street. It stretched between the slants of the two sides of the roof. It was on sale for $12,000. I’d never seen a house with a price tag—and certainly not one so low—pinned directly to the facade.
Then I got an email from my mother about the house around the corner exploding.
She described walking through their front hall, then being surprised by a sonic boom that blasted the door open. The dog was scared. Mom, steadier on her feet a few years ago, managed not to fall. Later, the police would discover what happened: As houses went vacant, it had become common for folks to sneak into the basement and cut out the copper pipes to sell as valuable scrap. Some boneheaded thief had cut a gas line in a house, only to discover the gas was still on.
“Who does a thing like that? Who doesn’t have the decency to even make an anonymous call to the police to have them turn off the gas? Someone could have been killed. Kids live right next door.” My mom was disgusted. Fortunately, miraculously, no one was seriously injured.
Blasts and rattling became more common, though. Fracking arrived with the promise of new jobs. Steel mills reopened to make pipe for the fracking industry. There was a sheen of hope, of promises, finally, to be fulfilled. Then the earth began to rattle. A local injection well was dug incorrectly—that is, directly into a fault line—and over a year, in quiet northeast Ohio, there were a dozen earthquakes. Plaster in my parents’ walls buckled. Fissures tricked up the walls and became cracks. I became convinced their house would fall down around them. My husband, more practical in these matters, started putting in new drywall during our every-few-months visits. We didn’t come enough.
Last fall my father was constantly irritated by his ringing phone. Election-related robocalls had grown incessant. I commiserated. In 2013, we’d moved back to Ohio, finally, but at the opposite edge of the state. Still, with our swing-state area code, we got the calls too.
While I was growing up, my home turf was precious in presidential election years. Candidates would come and promise practically anything—manufacturing jobs, prison jobs, any flavor of jobs—in exchange for a little faith, one good vote. We’d be coached to hope, then the election would end, and all the fanfare and interest in improving our lot would evaporate.
With a sinking feeling, I began to see myself in this barnstorming light, sweeping in occasionally, wanting to fix things, make it all better, and then disappearing again into my far-off, more comfortable place as soon as I’d had my necessary visit. The people this place needs don’t seem to stay put.
After he vented about his ringing phone, I mentioned to my dad how surprised I was to see Trump signs cropping up in our own neighborhood, a tidy suburb of Cincinnati. I knew I lived in the red part of our purple state. Still, I thought Cincinnatians were Kasich-Republicans. Our Clinton sign was stolen.
I caught glimpses of Trump’s Youngstown on my parents’ TV, the mesh hats, the crowd in equal parts rage and delight. I listened to the anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-woman slurs, and saw locals excuse it in TV interviews, on social media. Trump didn’t mean it like that . He was perceived as good because he saw them, their need for jobs, for survival. That someone finally appeared to take them seriously seemed to erase and make forgivable all else he did. He saw their rage. That was enough. They’d been waiting for their city’s recovery for the span of a generation, and Trump fervor made it seem as though their turn had come. To all else, they were willing to make themselves blind.
Last time I swept into town, it was just me and my daughter stopping through. She likes to hear stories from my childhood, likes when I point out my old school, places where I was once small like she is now. As we cruised onto my parents’ street, it became harder to define for her where I once fit. The neighborhood had become gap-toothed—with yawning absences that once held houses.
My parents were among a generation that got lost in the shuffle of steel’s collapse, who lived in neighborhoods where everyone was broke but still had faith in some restoration. They voted like there could be a return, if not to glory, to stability, a steady paycheck. Their friends and neighbors were union Democrats, even after union jobs left. Maybe eventually there’d be enough opportunity to give their kids a decent start just down the street.
They’ve always believed their America could be great, which was once a statement of optimism, not necessarily exclusion. And for my parents—old liberals newly outnumbered—this new idea of “greatness” is a horror right outside their walls.
I wonder how many other pockets of surviving-but-not-thriving there are in this country. I’ve watched my childhood neighborhood erased by proxy, but I'm not living the erasure. My parents are aging in it, without the natural support and kindness of neighbors. I used to think the decline in my hometown was Rust Belt-specific, but now wonder how many neighborhoods in collapse it takes for a country to lose its sense of self. How many people with their Fox News and isolated towns—poor, jobless, kids grown and gone—it takes to create a population so separated they start to see financially stable, diverse, metropolitan communities as the enemy. I bet I could find many of them on a map that bled red last November.
The neighborhood grocery store just closed down. My mother tells me, “Now we’re a, oh, what’s it called, when you don’t have a grocery store for so many miles, a—” her eyes search my face for the term. I picture neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit.
“A food desert?”
“Yes. We’re living in a food desert.”
I think of all the commentary on these poor, white neighborhoods: They’re the misunderstood working class; they’re white laborers who jealously insist they should do better than their black or brown neighbors; they’re brainwashed by Fox News; they’re somehow more culpable than the wealthier whites who also voted for Trump. They’ve become another caste we hypothesize about in generalizations, and my parents are trapped here.
While my daughter was inside regaling my father with the many attributes of her baby doll, I stood in the yard, looking at the house, considering what else needed to be fixed. The air was warm, and grass stretched up from their yard, hoping to grow. Across the street, where a fussy and terrifying Husky used to live, there are no more dogs. Bricks hold down tarps that cover holes in the roof. The same old junk truck that clunked through my childhood is parked alongside the house near a couple of half-dead trees. The house next door: empty. The house next to my parents’: empty. My eyes tracked all the hollowed-out spaces between the remaining houses and considered how, as a kid, we would have made the yawning open lots a baseball field, a freeze tag zone, a wealth of playgrounds in a space with too many kids.
The quiet of the street then, just breeze through trees, punctuated what was missing.
With every departure, I feel worse, like I’m layering on abandonment. I consider stories I’ve read lately, that the Democrats have not learned what they should from those elusive, poor, white Trump voters. Thanks to the weird defenses of Trump I saw posted by one old classmate on Facebook after Charlottesville, I’m tempted to say forget them . But it would mean forgetting my family too. They didn’t vote for this, wanted none of this.
In this country, we’re relearning how to face America’s living history of racism. But tangled in with the overtly racist, anti-Muslim, anti-woman Trump supporters are the why should I still vote Democrat, nothing ever changes people whose poverty left them alienated enough they felt justified looking the other way about the rest. It was a vote, not full-fledged support. It wasn’t right. But sequestering them isn’t either—especially not for people like my parents who don’t agree with any of it but are just stuck. (Financial freedom gives people the power to choose their neighbors. Poverty does not.)
Much as we’ve spent generations trying to deny America’s inherent racism, we’ve also always been eager to forget the poor. Our classism is yet another original sin.
The place feels upside-down, turned out, empty, but also as if nothing has changed. This place has for my entire life been an election day priority and a next day afterthought. I wonder if part of voters’ red shift here is a measure of who is left in this place to vote. I see posts and tweets every day from their grown children in cities all over the country bemoaning Trumpism from homes in progressive districts. I wonder if for their parents, sentimentalizing the past is emphasized daily by present abandonment. I wonder if some of us had stayed, the election would have gone differently here.
Soon, it’s time to pack up and leave again. We hug, say goodbye. I’m told to call when we get home. As we pull away, driving up my parents’ street, I notice the tiny house up the street has sold. There, in the tangle of overgrown hedges out front, a sign is still on display, far too late, for Trump. Even with as much less as there is to see here, I hadn’t noticed it before.