Whose side are you on, anyway? What’s in a name?

 

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The Cuyahoga River, flowing into Lake Erie, divides Cleveland into East and West sides. Photo credit: Kenneth Sponsler/Shutterstock

Does your town take sides? Take names?

Growing up in the Cleveland, Ohio, area of the U.S., the first question asked of a new acquaintance was: “What side of the city are you from—East Side or West Side?” Once that was settled (if you were still talking) and you exchanged surnames, then came the second question: “What kind of name is that?”

There’s a lot to the East Side/West Side rivalry this article delves into if you’re interested. But today I’m talking—and taking—names. What’s in a name? If you’re a Rust Belt native, a lot.

My husband, not a Rust Belt native, thinks the name question is gauche (okay, he doesn’t say gauche, but that’s what he means: tacky, uncouth, even rude.) I wouldn’t ask the question of my neighbors in the Maryland town where we now live, a town that was established in the 1600s. Here, talk of family names and countries of origin quickly gets really old—literally. (Of course, there are many exceptions—newer immigrants and many “come here’s,” like me, from other American places.) Still, for many longstanding Maryland natives, the Old Country—with its telling surnames—is a distant memory. They are Marylanders, plain and simple.

Being from the Rust Belt is a little more complicated. On a recent trip back to the Belt—the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area to be specific—I made it my mission to have pizza. (Maryland is known for blue crab, not pizza, for good reason.) It’s true, Beaver, Pennsylvania, doesn’t have a particularly Italian ring, but it has a lot of Italians—who, thankfully, know their pizza. The next town over still had their banners flying for a Serbian food festival. The local grocery store featured homemade pierogies from a purveyor in town. Okay, we’ve established that the way to my head is through my stomach. But, really, the Old Country feels a little less distant in the Rust Belt.

On that trip back to the Belt, I visited with cousins and an aunt, and we talked about old times. We looked at black and white family photos shot in the 40s and 50s. “Looks like the Old Country,” said my husband of photos of barely-clad kids splashing in a tin tub in their Cleveland yard. We also talked about names: Polish names in my family’s Buffalo, New York, area towns; Italian names in a cousin’s new Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area town; a lot of German names in my Ohio hometown.

Me? I am the granddaughter of a Rossenbach and a Heineman. Next year, my most famous (or infamous, depending on how you like your wine) German-extracted relations, will celebrate 130 years of Heineman’s: Ohio’s oldest family owned and operated winery. The Old Country making it big in the New Country!

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My paternal grandmother, born Martina Heineman, at left. My dad, the pouty boy, at top right.

Whether examined through the lens of food and drink or neighborhood or family name, we are—to a large extent—who we came from. And who you are matters a lot to me, a writer, curious to a fault.

So, I’m not apologizing before asking you, “What kind of name is that?”