When entering Steubenville, Ohio from the north, one can view the visible demarcation line that exists where Sunset Boulevard turns into Market Street. This is where the whole architectural geography of the city changes, leaving an explosion of now foreclosed businesses and empty lots as the landscape of this once burgeoning steel town. Steubenville has had a slow burn of struggle for as long as I can remember. I was born here, had family and neighbors that worked in the mills and spent a lot of my teenage years downtown. Even then the economy was suffering. Today nearly 57% of the population can’t afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.
Steubenville serves as the seat of Jefferson County (45 minutes west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) with a population of close to 20,000 people according to the 2010 Census. It has experienced decline in economic and populace growth since the mid-1980s and continues to do so. From the beginning of the 20th Century the area garnered the reputation as a hot spot for criminal and gangland activity, effectively earning the name of Little Chicago. Mafia ties were strong. My grandfather would tell me stories of how the city served as a go-between for gun runners traveling from Chicago to New York. You could stop in the city for a meal and a drink, play the tables, bed a girl and quite possibly hear the crooning of the not-yet-known Dean Martin on one of the speakeasy’s stages in between his stint as a waiter and blackjack dealer.
In recent times the city garnered more negative attention due to the exposure of the Steubenville High School rape case in 2012. A high school aged woman was sexually assaulted by two members of the school’s football team and various employees of the administration were indicted in trying to cover up the matter. This incident became the perfect illustration of the prevalence of rape culture in our society and further blighted a city with no recourse.
This is a shame to those in the know because there is beauty in the community both in its people and structures. Organizations such as the Urban Mission distributes over 869,284 pounds of groceries to low-income families throughout the area and implemented housing initiatives and mortgage assistance programs to those in need. Eastern Gateway Community College has one of the lowest tuition rates in the state of Ohio and was a true blessing when I returned home from losing my job in 2007. The faculty and staff of the college were paramount in me excelling in my courses and finding a new direction. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that support system in place.
Another hidden treasure scattered throughout the city is the work of the mural program. Along with the Little Chicago moniker, Steubenville is known as the City of Murals. The gallery tour consists of 25 murals spread out over the downtown area. When I was in high school and flunking out of my junior year history class, I managed to save my failing grade by creating a short documentary video on the murals. I remember walking the city with my best friend capturing the images on VHS-C tape, eating Dicarlo’s Pizza by the slice and visiting my friend’s grandfather who owned an appliance store on Fourth Street. This is still my favorite memory from downtown.
But as you pass that demarcation line and enter the city all you’ll hear is the deafening singing of crickets. Downtown is barren and ominous. The only thing to shine a light on the proceedings are the murals and their display of elegant craft. It will remind you that beauty can be found anywhere. You just have to look for it.