Weekend Wanderlust: Shaking off the rust in Youngstown

A monthly guide to day trips across Ohio and beyond. This month: Iron Soup ruins in Campbell, near the shuttered Youngstown Sheet and Tube factory

Kevin J. Elliott
Iron Soup in Campbell, Ohio, near Youngstown. The mostly vacant units, built in 1918, once provided affordable on-site housing for workers at the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.

Ruin, abandonment, big empty spaces. Ohio, situated firmly in America’s Rust Belt, is teeming with dead historic buildings, rotting churches and the shells of forgotten industry. And though seekers of such crumbling architecture often attach the nomenclature of “ruin porn,” there should be little pleasure in the exploration of remnants of what once was. A rush of breathtaking awe? Sure. A lesson from history? Of course. A nostalgic twinge of ghostly remembrance? Yup. But we shouldn’t be dancing among it

Outside of a guided Sunday tour, I can’t in good conscience recommend a trip to Iron Soup, which sits mostly desolate in Campbell, Ohio, an industrial suburb in southeast Youngstown. It’s bleak, slightly dangerous and crushingly hopeless, but it’s also quite a site to see.

When you exit the interstate and enter Campbell, it’s hard to get a sense that it was once the bustling company town for the massive Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Nature has won out and is now hiding any semblance that there ever was a boom; the factory, now long gone, employed 27,000 steelworkers at its peak. There’s a strip of condemned bars on the way up the hill from which branches of trees are growing out. The original bank, a beautiful relic built in 1918, sits sedentary among acres of now-wild woods, falling back into the earth brick by brick.

Iron Soup

In the middle of Campbell is Iron Soup, which was built out of necessity. After a violent labor strike in 1918, Youngstown Sheet and Tube built affordable housing for its thousands of workers right across the bridge from the factory. Finished in 1920, the mammoth sprawl of Iron Soup is credited as being the first modern apartment complex and the first prefabricated construction project in America. Made of solid concrete, each of the 248 units (at the time of completion) is a narrow, no-frills, two-bedroom home in which a worker could raise a small family. Each employee got a stove and icebox and an exterior entrance to a basement shower, which was used to wash off the toxic sediment after a long day’s work. It was not luxury, of course — and the company still owned your home, the store and that bank — but at one time it was a thriving community.

Then came Black Monday in 1977. Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed up shop and over 4,000 people in the city lost their jobs. It has never recovered; the “rust” started to form. Iron Soup, however, remained a working-class enclave until about 1995 according to Timothy Sokoloff, the founder and curator of the Iron Soup Historical Preservation Co., now known as Iron Soup Estates Inc. Drug and gang activity, human trafficking and a sharp decline in the upkeep and viability of the neighborhood followed.

Visiting today, it’s hard to picture any kind of future in Iron Soup. Only about 50 residents remain among the mostly condemned and decaying apartments. Roaming the grounds felt like I was engaging in unwanted voyeurism, as some habitable housing, with tenants on their porches, sat quietly next to shanties covered in graffiti and rot. But Sokoloff, who has been slowly buying up abandoned units and raising awareness of the history (and who will most likely be your tour guide should you visit on a Sunday afternoon), holds a vision that Iron Soup can be returned to its former glory or, even better, a new way of life.

“Our goal here is community minded. We want a group of people to come in and revitalize this place,” said Sokoloff. “Our first choice is to house veterans at a low cost, or maybe college students, but we need a communal effort, a group of like-minded people to live here. Problem is everyone thinks my ideas are great, but nobody wants to write the check.”

The interior of a vacant unit at Iron Soup.

Indeed, the task of “revitalization” would come with a hefty price tag. Youngstown is still suffering from a loss of manufacturing jobs and has yet to turn that corner and prosper. But that doesn’t stop Sokoloff from dreaming of a small town full of “envirominiums,” a concept that includes using economical modern designs — think Murphy beds and rooftop gardens — and renewable energies to power the place. Contrary to tearing it all down and gentrifying the area, he can see a place where low-income housing with historical tax credits becomes paramount.

Later in the day I toured the Ohio History Connection’s Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor, where the story of the city’s steel production, union organizing and large influx of Eastern European immigrants coalesced to explain the bond that built Youngstown. Sadly, there was a definite end to the prosperity, as an eerie, sepia-toned video monitor shows the demolition of Sheet and Tube in slow motion. While it may be a simple conclusion that Youngstown hasn’t been the same since Black Monday, and that not much good has risen from those ashes, seeing Iron Soup firsthand and meeting Sokoloff and hearing his ideas provided a glimmer of hope for tangible reinvention. Without it, Ohio is doomed to continue spreading the rust.

There and back

Despite the gloom that pervades Iron Soup, there is some charming local color to be found in Youngstown. The city's food, which boasts arguably the best Italian cuisine in the state, is spearheaded by Jimmy’s Italian Specialties, featuring a full deli, grocery and some insanely delicious subs. On this visit I also tried Brier Hill pizza for the first time at the legendary Wedgewood Fernando’s Pizza. The Brier Hill varietal is specific to Youngstown, brought from the Basilicata region of Italy and first made (and still made every Friday) at St. Anthony’s Church. Brier Hill pizza is best described as a deep-ish dish style with a thick, Sunday sauce, fresh green peppers and a light dusting of Romano cheese.

Mill Creek Park

Mill Creek Park is the undisputed gem of Youngstown. It was established in 1891 and was partially designed by legendary American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The park’s 2,900 acres run the length of the city and include miles of hiking trails, nature preserves and, at its heart, Lanterman’s Mill, the oldest structure in the city, replete with a picturesque waterfall.

Leetonia Beehive Coke Ovens

You can continue exploring the history of Ohio’s place in the steel industry at the Cherry Valley Beehive Coke Ovens in nearby Leetonia. Built in 1866, there were over 200 of these ovens constructed to transform hard coal into coke, a substance used to fuel the blast furnaces in the surrounding area. Now overgrown and abandoned, the ovens create an almost extra-terrestrial landscape to roam. 

Exploring the remains of Iron Soup is not recommended without an official guide. The Iron Soup Estates Inc. website also appears to be offline, so head to the Facebook page to schedule one of the Sunday tours.