I am always truly amazed by the reactions from people, where ever I may travel in this country. Mention you're from the Youngstown, Ohio Area and usually they say,"Murder town USA" or "Is it still ran by the Mafia?" Old mystiques die hard. I moved away from Struthers, a Youngstown suburb, twenty five years ago. As soon as people hear I came from there, a comment ALWAYS follows.
I guess a little history is in order to give you a background why Youngstown became so notorious. The steel industry put Youngstown on the map. At one time, the area had twenty three miles of steel mills along the Mahoning River. It required a huge labor force to work at the hot, back-braking jobs that paid very well in a union environment. Thousands of immigrants flooded Youngstown and settled into neighborhoods usually of the same ethnic persuasion.
Just like in much larger cities like New York City or Chicago, "Turf Wars" often broke out with rival ethnic groups fighting over who controlled a certain part of town. After World War II, things settled down considerably. Tensions now were often directed towards individual "Families", especially those of Italian decent. Allegiance to "Families" stretched far and wide with one group loyal to their main family from New York and maybe another representing a family from Chicago.
Growing up there, it was second nature to know somebody that was in or connected to a mob. They had their hands into anything and everything to make a buck on. The mob touched every part of people's lives in Youngstown, whether they knew it or not. Many labor unions were controlled by "Wise Guys" with their hand in the coffers of the working men. Another business they took over was vending machines, Juke Boxes, and amusement games. Many merchants didn't have a choice but to put a machine in ran by a mobster, if he knew what was good for them.
The "Murder Town USA" acronym came from a survey that determined more murders per capita were committed in Youngstown than any other city in the country. Mob violence spilled over into the streets and gangland-type murders and bombings were frequent in the 1950's and 60's. One car bombing in the 60's took place in downtown Youngstown with a rival mobster's leg being found on top of the Lustig's Shoe Building. This generated many jokes for months to come just to show you how calloused people became to the violence.
Yes, many communities were controlled by The Mob. Many politicians had to answer to some mobster. It's amazing how deep they had their hooks into every facet of government,too. So many people are still in denial about the influence of criminals on communities. I assume these are the same folks who bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of trouble.
My first direct contact with a local Wise Guy was as a young teenager at my friend's apartment. This guy had a typical platinum-blond bimbo girlfriend that lived next door to my buddy. Seeing us outside the complex one Thanksgiving night, he insisted we come in and eat dinner with them. We protested to him that we just finished eating at our own homes. Wise Guy said he didn't care as he filled our plates with turkey and mashed potatoes with all the trimmings. "Eat!", he bellowed and we wolfed down the food as quick as we could.
After dinner, my friend and I just looked at each other and rolled our eyes, not believing what we just had to do. Wise Guy wanted to play around with us now and started to throw soft slap punches at us in the living room. He said, "Let's see how tough you are. Punch me in the stomach." I hit him without much force and he glared at me. "I said PUNCH ME!", he growled. I cranked up and hit him with my best fourteen-year-old Haymaker. He never even flinched. I sprained my wrist and it hurt for a month. Now I see how he got his reputation, tough as nails.
I was fortunate to come in first on the Civil Service Exam for Fireman in my home town and received the appointment. Right after the Swearing-in Ceremony, one of the older firemen told me to consider myself lucky. I asked why and he replied that I was the first Fireman appointed that wasn't approached to pay for his job. He said the going rate was $500. I let him know it would have been a cold day before I would have paid a dime. Maybe they knew that or the Wise Guy I knew just let me slide. I never said I was smart, but I did have honor.
I don't really know who gets the credit for it, but by the mid-80's, The Mob was all but eliminated in the Youngstown area. Some say it was the FBI. Some say it was a new breed of politicians. Some think it was just a poor economy after the steel mills closed. After all, It was pretty hard for the mob to function with so many businesses gone or struggling. I do know that the Wise Guy I knew disappeared, just like Jimmy Hoffa. Rumors ran rampant for years to come, but apparently he's still sleeping with the fishes. I think of him every time I get indigestion.