History of Italian Americans in the Steel Valley
The Mahoning Valley in Northeastern Ohio is, in many ways, unique. It is a former steel town slowly recovering from the process of deindustrialization and seeking new sources of vitality and inspiration. One of its strongest assets in this process has been its various and varied ethnic communities. As a consequence, the Steel Valley’s Italian American communities have played a significant role in that revitalization.
According to the census of 1880 there were no Italian immigrants in either Mahoning or Trumbull counties. Other sources suggest that a few, no more than several dozen, had made their ways across Pennsylvania into the valley. The first documented Italian immigrants to the area were recruited by the Brown-Bonnell Iron Company in 1872 to work in the Church Hill coal mines. Similarly, Trumbull County officials reported to the state that by 1880 seven Italians had taken up residence. That quickly changed and by 1910 nearly 6500 called Trumbull and Mahoning counties their home. By 1920, that number reached over 10,000. The magnet that drew these immigrants to the region was the burgeoning iron and steel industries. While many were unskilled laborers many filled specific niches – such as the construction (brick and stone) trades, the local ceramics industries, as well as in the mills.
Italian immigrants and their offspring settled in small neighborhoods usually within walking distance from the places where they worked. Similar to most patterns of American immigration the initial settlements were predominately male. Eventually, however, they were joined by their wives and families. The enclaves they created in Brier Hill and Smoky Hollow in Youngstown, Parkwood in Girard, and Mason Street in Niles gave birth to a broad range of service industries. “Corner” groceries, tailor shops, cobblers, and dry goods shops were run by and catered to their Italian and eventually Italian American clienteles. By 1920 Italians and Italian Americans also established cultural institutions such as the Societa Fraterna , the Colombo and the Sons of Italy. The growing Italian community also produced an Italian language newspaper, Il Cittidano Americano, published in Youngstown but responsive to the large valley.
Another area in which Italians made their presence felt was religious organizations. As early as 1898, Italians in Brier Hill had petitioned Bishop Horstmann for permission to establish a separate congregation and Saint Anthony of Padua resulted. By the 1920s several other neighborhoods had spawned similar parishes: Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Youngstown and in Niles and Holy Rosary in Lowellville.
Over a century later the cultural, economic, and social effects of Italian immigration to the region are still quite evident. In spite of the immigration quotas passed during the 1920s which greatly curtailed new immigration and the push for “Americanization,” Italian Americans in the Steel Valley have remained visible and viable presences. They add to the local round of summer festivals and ethnic celebrations. The local cuisine has incorporated dishes that hearken back to the earliest days in the valley. Brier Hill Pizza and Wedding Soup are characteristic and iconic, and virtually every restaurant in the area serves some version of pasta. Italian Americans have also moved beyond the mills and occupy positions in every aspect of the valley’s life. They are elected officials, teacher and administrators, and entrepreneurs, as well as doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Martha Pallante, YSU Department of History