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!

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?”

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

  1. How many generations do you think it’ll take until folks in the rust belt just feel American, rather than Italian American or Polish American etc. I find it all really interesting how people still have such strong links to their old country after a couple of generations.

    With regards to what is in a name…my family just found out that we have the wrong name! My dad is researching our family tree, so my parents visited France to find out more…It turns out my great-great grandfather took a friend’s name and emigrated with his identity! It’s all really exciting so I can’t wait to find out more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find that it happens in Canada but much, much more so in the US- I find it odd given that the Colonies fought so hard to establish their Independence haha! I find it feels particularly odd to say to an Irishman “I’m Irish” when they were actually born and live there. What an interesting question to ask!!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I hear the term “plastic Paddy” to describe Americans who are of Irish descent who pretend to be Irish. Really, our “melting pot” never really melted, everywhere–and people like to distinguish themselves from their neighbors (for good and ill.)


      2. I’d never heard the term plastic paddy, but I’ve met quite a few folks like that. I do think it is kind of cool that they have such a strong-feeling connection to their roots.

        I met a bloke in Japan who told me he was Irish (he’d never been to Ireland, neither had his parents) but he still thought he was more Irish than me (I spent all my summers there growing up, but don’t have any blood-ties to the land)

        Liked by 1 person

    2. We found that my grandfather was illegitimate, born 18 months after his dad died. He used his brothers’ surname all his life and so it was only discovered recently that we’ve been tracking the wrong name and family!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wow Ruth! That is really similar to my grandfather! We are having to start again with quite a lot of family tree research. It’d be amazing to find out more about why people decide to do that!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Regarding your name–just wow! I am curious as to why your g-g grandfather took a friend’s name in the first place, what his real name was. How interesting! It’s so easy to think of ancestry as written in stone, amazing to find out that family trees can have hidden or even missing branches.

    And you post a good question about thinking of one’s self as simply American. My guess is, so long as there are longstanding neighborhoods that are known as Polish or Hungarian or Croatian, which are anchored by a church (and with it the festivals and ritual foods, of course) and–in the case of Pittsburgh, PA, especially–a civic club devoted to that ethnic group, it could take a long time before people consider themselves just Americans. Of course, cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland have seen quite a lot of church closures in recent years–some turned into breweries, condos, etc. Certainly in neighborhoods where there’s been a loss of institutions like churches and/or a gain of new business–and with it a resurgence of young people moving in–I imagine the ethnic identities might not remain as strong there.


  3. This has made me think. I am British – European- British again but living in New Zealand. A name is never talked about, class though, that’s another matter. The questions are asked but cloaked and stations pegged upon the answers. I did not realise this until I came here to NZ where people ask ‘What are you doing at the weekend?’ and ‘which team do you support Allblacks or Lions?’ I have to remember that this is a new country, it is strangely comforting to not belong to a group, side or name. Pretty cool to think about it, thanks for the spark.


  4. Here in the UK we have the North/South divide – culturally, economically, traditionally.

    My name can be traced back to the glens of Scotland and one of the old clans up there. They migrated south in search of work some hundreds of years ago and settled in the North-East of England – so I come from Durham coal mining stock.

    We’re a modest, straightforward kind of people.

    Not sure what my ancestors would make of the idea of a blog!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes! I remember my friend from London and her friend from the North ribbing each other. “Southern softie” (and other choice insults). I wonder if you’ve been to Scotland. Yeah, blogging: luxurious stuff, this. Thanks for reading!


  6. I was never one to ask “what name is that?”, although a lot (most?) people seem to be.
    I found that people sometimes have names they don’t identify as. Why have pre-conceived notions about them based on their names. The more generations, the less likely for the person to know their language/ anything about that country, so I choose not to embarrass them too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s always safe, though there are Americans who hang on very tightly to their ethnic identities–food, language, etc. Where I’m from in Ohio, there was at one time the largest Hungarian population outside Hungary. I suppose if you feel like you’ve been driven out of your homeland, you might want to remain connected to people you think may share your native place–in your new place. A familiar last name could be a tell-tale sign. But, you’re right, incorrect assumptions can be made by judging by names (or any other outward sign of heritage). As for names, in the U.S., think of all the African-Americans who were stripped of their real names and assigned names by their masters. Thanks for this interesting discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My mum’s family arrived in Liverpool from Ireland, in later life she started to tell people she was Irish as she associated herself with her parents and older brothers. The reality is, she’s English! But I suppose I can understand as when I visited Ireland I felt a real affinity to the area where her family was from. It felt comfortable, like home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s understandable–when you still have people in a place and feel a special connection (even if the English/Irish divide is fraught with a lot of bad blood and history). I have yet to travel to England but I have to Ireland, and I was certainly enamored of the place! Thanks for having this blog party–best one I’ve participated in yet!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! I was unsure of how it would be received, epsecially as I don’t have a huge amount of followers, but it’s been great focussing on the blogs and bloggers that are participating. I’m really enjoying it, too! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. My husband always asked people about their name and I have always thought that it was because of his love of history. Now I realize that it may also have to do with that fact that he grew up in a small town south of Cleveland.
    I really enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Your husband is my kind of people! I was intrigued by your Welcome post on your site–your MI farm is beautiful. And I can attest to the undiscriminating palette of deer–they devoured a vegetable garden of ours, down to the spicy peppers!

      Liked by 1 person

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