He had never seen a sky so vast and ashen with empty fury; had never heard such dire ceaseless rumblings and deafening wails. It was as if misery, the most human of states, had taken on the dimensions of an existence apart from humanity; for it was not any sense of human misery he perceived here, nor any misery of the heavens — there were no heavens — but rather a misery of the elements themselves, of the earth and the coal-fires and the dampness of the air.
Well, hot damn. Those lines, smoking with all that hellfire and brimstone, belong to one of America’s best working wordsmiths, Nick Tosches. Here, the famed punk rock writer (well known for saying modern rock ‘n roll was about as exciting as Paul Shaffer’s bald spot) is sitting behind the eyeballs of an off-the-boat Italian immigrant at the shallow end of the 20th century getting his first look at Steubenville, Ohio. The passage is out of Dino, Tosches’ 1992 biography of Dean Martin, the famed first son of that inauspicious rust belt burg on the very eastern edge of the state’s midsection. The book spends its early chapters hanging around the town, offering up tidbits on the historical relevance of a place that, like so many smaller Ohio cities that could once flex their own economic muscle, today is little more than a footnote in the bios of the people who got out.
But now, for those of us who thought Steubenville had long ago slipped the banks of the Whateveritis River, Governor John Kasich has thoughtfully found a way to remind us the city is still there — gutted and boarded, the foundries cold, and sporting an average income of $26,516, but standing still.
Today, in an unorthodox move, the governor will deliver his second State of the State address at Wells Academy in Steubenville. This is the first time the address will be given outside Columbus. The move has more than one state legislator grumbling. Kasich, usually so careful to listen to the concerns and cares of others, has been deaf to all complaint, maintaining he wants to throw a little spotlight-love at the top-ranked elementary school in the state.
With Steubenville getting so much attention today in the statewide news-cycle, we decided to jump into the town’s history and drag to light the oddball facts. Turns out, it's not all Tosches’ visions of industrial hell. We've broken down the notables into easily digestible water-cooler factoids. The art we were hoping to mangle together proved to be too ambitious for Photoshop, so just close your eyes and image Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Dean Martin shooting craps in a backroom casino, while porn queen Traci Lords teaches a group of bruiser cops to slow dance to the remnants of the Minutemen jamming out the back catalog. Welcome to Steubenville . . .
Iron: This was the industrial Big Mama back in the day for Steubenville, that all-hours, coal-chugging shop keeping the city on its feet and then some. For you young folk, an iron works is like a software company, expect the only algorithm you need to wrap your head around to work there is shoveling + 14 hours shifts + black lung = America. The iron industry is the main reason Italian immigrants flooded Steubenville from 1900 onward. By that year, the city’s steel production was the highest in the state.
Dean Martin: These smooth pipes belted out their first lungful of air on June 7, 1917, when Dino Paul Crocetti came wailing into the world. The son of Italian immigrants brought to Steubenville by the promise of coal jobs, Martin’s early years were filled with idle singing and skirt chasing, according to Tosches' account. Martin eventually skipped out for the big city — Cleveland. In our fair land, he lived on Mayfield Road, chased more skirt through the ballrooms of long-gone downtown hotels, and mingled with the East Side criminal element, all before heading to NYC and an enviable career being drunk on national television.
Gambling: Before the Mob set up shop in Las Vegas after WWII, Steubenville was one of organized crime’s largest hubs for games of chance. Operating with a wink-wink from local police and politicos, a regular system of gambling was run in the the back rooms of clubs and restaurants. When the bosses shifted their gaming interests to the desert, the operators of new Vegas casinos dredged Steubenville for talented table workers; the first couple generations of Vegas dealers, pit bosses and backroom guys were all from Steubenville. The area’s industry eventually died out against the glam of Nevada. See, even back in the 50s, the smart money knew people would rather opt to go west for gambling than sit in a room in Ohio pulling slots . . . hmmm . . .
Traci Lords: The porno video vixen — who basically single-handedly (ha.) brought the industry to its knees (again. jesus, we’re on a role) when it was revealed in the mid-80s that the Ohio girl who hotfooted to California and away from an abusive home life was actually not technically strictly-speaking 18-year-old yet when she posed for skin mags like Penhouse and starred in more than a hundred adult films, a revelations that landed a lot of producers and co-stars in the legal hot seat, not to mention occasioned an industry-wide crack down by the federal government, but still allowed the star to springboard into a mainstream career in B movies — was born in Steubenville in 1968.
Police Brutality: Back in the 80s and 90s, Steubenville wasn’t the place to get mouthy at a traffic stop. Sure, those weren’t really the heyday for civil rights at a lot of police departments, but the Ohio city was unique. Over 20 years, the city was forced to pony up in 48 civil rights lawsuits alleging police misconduct and brutality. Between 1990 and 1996 alone, the town handed over $400,000 in settlement money, says Wikipedia. Things got so bad, the Department of Justice stepped in and forced the Steubenville PD to sign a consent agreement that re-organized how officers were trained and observed — only the second police force in the country to do so at the time.
Ed Crawford: For music nerds, this guy is a savior. Born and raised in Steubenville, Crawford headed to Ohio State University, where, like a lot of other dorm room dorks, he became completely wrapped up in the music of California-based post-punk gods, The Minutemen. When the three-piece’s frontman D. Boon was killed at 27 in a car accident, a heartbroken and 22-year-old Crawford hopped in a car and drove from Ohio to San Pedro to console remaining members, Mike Watt and George Hurley. He eventually offered to front a new band with the pair, putting back to work the best rhythm section ever caught on vinyl. The result was fIREHOSE, a steady presence on 90s college radio.
Population Decline: Sad to say, the last 30 years haven’t been kind to S-ville. Between 1980 to 2000, the metro area’s population nose dived quicker than any other region in the entire country.
Wu-Tang Clan: Hip-hop’s only bizarro ninja crew has many links to the area, mostly thanks to RZA, who was born here. At the height of their celebrity, the Clan members had a “compound” in the area and were affiliated with a lot of (horrible) rap groups coming off the by-then very mean streets of Steubenville. But according to recently released FBI files, those links often had more to do with gang loyalty than musical taste. The group, which was monitored by the feds for years, was allegedly involved in gun-running activities, drug sales, and occasional hits; many of those alleged offenses led back to Steubenville.
That wraps up out guide to the history of Steubenville. We'll let Ed and fIREHOSE take it from here . . .
We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.
Email us at [email protected].
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.