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In The Box: Youngstown/Steel Town

Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio Curator

Mon, Feb 10, 2020

A dual-projection image of a steel worker and a street scene with a low brick building and a paved road with sidewalk, from the film Youngstown/Steel Town by William E. Jones

"Youngstown’s story is America’s story."—John Russo, The Atlantic, 2015

"Industry, which has called them [workers] together, only lets them live while it needs them, and as soon as it can get rid of them it abandons them without the slightest scruple."—Eugène Buret, On the Misery of the Working Classes in England and France, 1834

On September 19, 1977, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works closed its doors, taking away the jobs of 5,000 steelworkers. Known as “Black Monday,” the mill’s abrupt closure marked a period of sharp decline in Youngstown with over 50,000 people losing their jobs in the Mahoning Valley in the ensuing five years. While some larger rust belt cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland have made comebacks through diversifying economies, Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley comm-unities, a generation later, have never fully recovered from deindustrialization. 

Youngstown / Steel Town, made by artist, experimental film-maker, and writer William E. Jones, explores the history and legacy of this once-booming industrial town. Born and raised in northeastern Ohio, Jones, who now lives in Los Angeles, often appropriates and recontextualizes historical and archival imagery, from foreign currencies to Works Project Administration-era photographs to industry and propaganda films. In Youngstown / Steel Town Jones draws from a 15-minute documentary, Steel Town, which was produced in Youngstown by the US Government in 1944. The film portrays a strong and vibrant city, whose heart—the steel mills—fed the city’s economy, values, and identity. Jones takes a formalist approach to the archival film, creating sonic and visual rhythms through editing and setting it alongside his own contemplative footage of contemporary Youngstown, a city now marked by “For Lease” signs, empty streets, and boarded-up buildings. Toward the end of the video, Jones creates a modern-day refrain from a line in the 1944 film that fore-shadows some of the labor disputes that would come: “the street full of men, angry, questioning, wondering.” 

Jones’ juxtaposition of historical propaganda film with documentation of the current city brings a basic question into sharp relief: how does a community whose culture and identity were so strongly defined by its industry move forward and create an equally robust postindustrial identity? Youngstown steel built modern America and played a central role in America’s success in two world wars. Remnants of that industry—the mills and giant furnaces—that once defined the city’s landscape and community are now dilapidated reminders of its decline. This tension came full circle in 1997 with the demolition of the iconic Jeannette Blast Furnace, the “Jenny” immortalized in Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown” (1995): 

From the Monongahela valley to the Mesabi iron range, 

To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story's always the same 

Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world's changed 

Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name 

And Youngstown, and Youngstown 

My sweet Jenny I'm sinkin' down 

Here darlin' in Youngstown 

"Jones’ juxtaposition of historical propaganda film with documentation of the current city brings a basic question into sharp relief: how does a community whose culture and identity were so strongly defined by its industry move forward and create an equally robust postindustrial identity?"

About the filmmaker

William E. Jones (b. 1962) grew up in Ohio and now lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has been shown at the Cinémathèque Française, Palais de Tokyo, and Musée du Louvre, Paris; International Film Festival Rotterdam; Sundance Film Festival; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. His films and videos have been the subject of several retrospectives at such venues as Tate Modern, London, in 2005; Anthology Film Archives, New York, in 2010; and the Austrian Film Museum, Vienna, and the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany, 2011. Jones was included in the 1993 and 2008 Whitney Biennials in New York, and he has published a number of books including Flesh and the Cosmos (2014), True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell (2016), and, most recently, his first novel, I’m Open to Anything (2019).

 

Youngstown / Steel Town was made with the support of the Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio. 

William E. Jones, Youngstown/Steel Town, 2016

6 mins., HD video