How the Steel Valley Touches the Lives of Northeast Ohioans

Restauranteur Bernie Sokolowski has some historic pictures from the days when his parents and grandparents served local steelworkers (Photo: DCB)

by David C. Barnett

Iron and steel helped build modern Cleveland.  Steel is at the heart of much city progress.  But, those factories, clustered throughout the Cuyahoga River valley, also touched the daily lives of people who worked there or lived nearby. As part of a reporting series with The Plain Dealer, called "Heart of Steel", we've got some stories from the hills on both sides of the mills.

Standing outside his popular Cleveland restaurant in the Tremont neighborhood, Bernie Sokolowski has a panoramic view of the city’s industrial valley.  Since 1923, Sokolowski’s has fed several generations of steelworkers. And the landscape here, in front of Bernie, has some strong connections to his family history.  

"The mill was not that far from here," he recalls. "It was great, because not everybody had a car, so you could just walk down to work; that’s what my uncles did."

As a kid, he and his buddies secretly caught rides on some of the Nickel Plate railroad cars that carried loads to and from the factories.  After high school, Sokolowski went to college, but many of his friends chose to stay behind and make good money in the steel mills.

"I often wondered, why am I going to college?  All my buddies, they got nice cars, they got jobs and you’re able to buy a house early and get married.  But, it worked out."

Historian Ed Pershey says many European immigrants settled into their own neighborhoods on either side of the Valley, lured by the promise of jobs that didn’t require local language skills.

"So, immigrants coming that didn’t know English, it didn’t matter too much," he says,  "because you’d show by hands-on --- this is how you do it.  They’d have to show you how to do it.  You couldn’t hear yourself talk anyway.  So, that kind of leveled the playing field."

But, in another sense, some industry employment practices at the time, helped promote discrimination. Factory foremen wielded great influence in the hiring of workers.

"If the foreman happened to be Polish, there’s a good chance that a lot of the people working in his department were Polish.  It was “who do you know?” that could get you a job in the mill.  We’d call it segregation, now." 

Another level of discrimination was felt by African Americans who came to Northeast Ohio in the Great Migration from the South, between 1910 and 1970.  George Banks recalls that black workers were often given the worst jobs, until civil rights actions pressured companies to change.

"When they hired me," he says, "they were not concerned about my skills in any department. They selected where I should go."  

And Joe Cofield says that often meant enduring the searing heat of the blast furnace or shoveling endless piles of noxious coke dust.

"Most of the production in the blast furnace and coke plant were black."
For decades, homeowners, black or white, living on both sides of the river shared the burden of air and water pollution.  Retired journalist Dick Feagler wrote a number of columns based on the experiences of his Aunt Emma, who lived in the neighborhood now known as Slavic Village.  Feagler has strong memories of her laundry hanging in the backyard --- often coated with an orange dust that floated over from the factories.

"She took it as a matter of life," he says.  "This was what happens --- hang something on a clothes line, it’s going to get dirty.  Everybody had the same problem.  We just put up with it."

Things improved, in part because of state and federal environmental regulations in the early 1970s.  Many local factories shutting down also helped.

"The river was bad, as a kid," says Bernie Sokolowski. "Now, they’ve got fish in there; it’s clean --- cleaner than it ever has been."

New housing has also come to Bernie Sokolowski’s neighborhood. An influx of people who work downtown want to live close to their jobs --- just like those steelworkers of previous generations, who settled here so that they could walk to the mills, a few minutes away.  

Find more reporting in our Heart of Steel series here.

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