Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas occupies a grand old building in the center of Youngstown, Ohio, an old steel center that keeps one foot in its reinventing present and the other in its union past.
At the clerk’s counter, my eyes lit up when I saw a wooden box sitting on the counter titled “Civil Cases.” It held new cases that had just come across the counter. “Old school access,” I said to my companions. The helpful and energetic court worker OK’d a photo of the box.
There was more, though. Journalists could walk behind the counter to ask for filings that are being docketed, and there were desks for journalists to use in the records room next door.
And indeed that space was occupied by a denizen from the old world, a white-haired, former radio reporter who wore suspenders, heavy work shoes, told stories nonstop, and seemed to know everybody in the courthouse.
But I had caught a court right at the moment of transition, like the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, except in reverse. The court had mandated electronic filing a few weeks earlier. I asked a supervisor if the new electronic filings appeared on the terminals immediately as the paper filings did in the wood box on the counter.
He said they did not. He said that had been one of the options but the county chose against it. So access to the electronic filings was being withheld while they were reviewed and docketed by clerks.
To make up for that, the staff was printing out the new e-filed cases as soon as they came in and putting them on the counter. I figured that accommodation was likely to be axed in some efficiency review sooner or later. And then, like a number of other state courts, the beautiful thing that is a traditionally open clerk’s office would, in the name of technology, enfold itself into a caterpillar of degraded access.
But the trips to review press access are generally accompanied by a brief exploration of the town, in destinations I would never seek out as a tourist. And like its court, Youngstown is in a time of transition.
An old commercial building in the very center of town, a block from the state courthouse, across the street from the new federal courthouse, had been refurbished by the Hilton chain. They had done a lovely job of it and the restaurant at street level had a nice menu and a good choice of beers. It seemed to double as the main restaurant in town.
Among other signs of life, I was genuinely shocked as we were driving into this old steel town to see what looked like a healthy local paper, The Vindicator, housed in an Art Deco building with a few delivery trucks pulled up to the loading docks outside its press building. The paper was being read by the hotel’s parking lot attendant, a gregarious, middle-aged black man, as we drove in.
“That will be thirty-five dollars!” he sang out, before smiling. The $10 fee was paid as part of the hotel bill.
The hotel building is at the main intersection in town, an oval of trees and grass that split Market Street into two one-way streets, which are intersected by Federal Street.
The main shopping and walking street is Federal with a few bars and restaurants. None of the storefronts were boarded up, my main indicator of an ailing city.
Early the next morning, I took a walk around the city center. Like many towns in the region, a college provides much of the town’s energy and business. Youngstown State University spreads across a rise next to downtown.
Next to the school is a big Catholic church and directly across from the church is a memorial put up by the Ohio Historical Society that commemorates the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when 20,000 steel workers went out on strike against a group of small steel companies.
Two strikers were killed in a chaotic battle between the workers and local police allied with private guards firing shotguns. The governor called out the national guard to end the strike.
“This marker commemorates those workers who gave their last full measure of devotion so that all workers would have a right to bargain for their labor,” said the plaque.
I walked past The Vindicator’s press building, and rounding out my morning tour I went back by the court of common pleas. A crowd was gathered outside, reflecting the biosphere of the courthouse. There were young court workers in neat shirts and slacks next to lawyers in suits and ties, including one very large fellow with white hair, a pink face, enormous girth and a bellowing voice. He was dressed in a dark, chalk-striped suit above shiny white sneakers.
Then a guard came down the steps to announce that the court was closed all day, due to an electrical failure.
With that, I returned to the hotel, got a cup of coffee-to-go from the restaurant, and headed out of town with bureau chief Ryan Abbott, towards Western Pennsylvania.
Later returning to California, I found a letter online from The Vindicator’s general manager, posted two days after I left, noting that the paper had just turned 150 years old.
“Regrettably, after four generations of Maag-Brown family ownership, The Vindicator will not have much of a birthday celebration. With a deep sense of sadness and tremendous dismay, we notified our employees yesterday that The Vindicator would cease publication in 60 days.”
Youngtown’s renaissance, if it is to come, will be too late for the local paper.