Farewell, Toledo.

On May 25 I arrived in Toledo,  Ohio, a city where I knew no one and didn’t remotely know my way around.  On August 12 I left, knowing the city more intimately than I could have imagined, but not coming close to feeling like it was “home.”

From the rooftop of my apartment building in Toledo. Photo courtesy of Enoch Wu.

When I first arrived in Toledo I had a difficult time getting a sense for the city. I saw oversized banks, tall buildings, and wide streets. I saw litter rolling through the roads and candy wrappers melting into the tar. I saw crooked “For Sale” signs hanging in dusty windows.

I did not see people.

I soon realized that downtown Toledo is a divided area. People who arrive in suits at 9 a.m. are privileged. People hanging out at the bus stops, on benches or in front of the library are not. The downtown empties out after 6 p.m. — the suits file into their cars, turn down the road and go off to their respective suburbs. In an hour, the banks are just looming, vacant towers, too big and strong for the city. The parking lots are open spaces filled with broken glass — like no one was ever there.

Parking lot between The Blade and my apartment building.

Since my apartment was downtown, I straddled the boundary between those who work in Toledo and those who actually live there. Sometimes after working a late shift I’d walk the two blocks home, past people with ripped backpacks sitting indefinitely on bus stop benches. I walked briskly but couldn’t escape the stares — my pencil skirt and heels gave me away from the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk. It was pretty clear what “side” I was on.

Here are some things I didn’t expect from Toledo:

Safety issuesBefore coming to Toledo I knew it wasn’t the safest of places. My mom had done her fair share of research and her fair share of worrying. But I knew I wasn’t as naive as she thought — as long as I was careful everything would be fine.

While everything was fine, and I lived in the nicer area of downtown, I didn’t expect to have to be on guard every time I was walking alone after dusk or early in the morning. I’ve lived in places with crime before, but I usually felt safe as long as there were people around. The lack of people in Toledo was pretty unsettling.

A major street in downtown Toledo at 8 p.m. No cars in sight.

For some time my roommate would go on runs outside our apartment — in broad daylight during the work day — until a complete stranger approached her in the apartment elevator and told her to stop. It was too dangerous. We were pretty shocked the woman had gone out of her way to say that. After that we rarely walked anywhere within a few blocks of our apartment, and definitely did not walk around at night.

No grocery stores. I lived in the downtown, the center of the city, and there was not a single grocery store within walking distance. The closest things were little shops that sell candy, soda, bread, and canned goods.  These mini marts don’t have meat, produce, eggs, or milk, are only open during weekdays, and have kind of irregular hours.

“Real” grocery stores (Walmart, Meijer, Kroger, and Target) are all a fifteen minute drive away.

The mini mart across the street from my apartment.

While living in Toledo I saw firsthand the irony of  “food deserts,” or areas lacking healthy, affordable food. Northwest Ohio is one of the agricultural centers of the country, yet some Toledoans living just miles from the farms had no access to fresh food, surviving off high calorie, processed foods and 95 cent Burger King burgers. At 29.6%, Ohio has the 13th highest obesity rate in the country, according to an annual report put out by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Food deserts like Toledo’s certainly don’t help that situation.

Boredom. My definition of “bored” is not being busy. I don’t think I understood what true boredom was until I had to drive through poorer parts of Toledo, where I saw that boredom wasn’t a state of mind but a state of being. People live for each day because there isn’t a future . The swimming pools in Toledo were closed a few years ago to prevent gang violence, but now young people have nowhere to go in the thick of the summer. Instead they drink outside mini marts and walk leisurely right in front of cars. They sit on their front porches in silence, shirtless and shoeless, watching the sky change from blue to gray to black.

Taken while on assignment at an arson fire in Toledo. Arson flared up in East Toledo this summer but also has spread to other neighborhoods.

In the newsroom, the scanner day after day called out shootings, robberies, and arson fires. The cops reporter was constantly running in and out of the office. There were 27 shootings during the month of June alone.

It’s been a hot summer. There are no jobs. Sweat and boredom are a deadly mix.

So much news. Toledo may feel like a small city but there was always something going on. Working for the City Desk I covered a range of stories, including robberies and shootings, a poetry festival, car show, gay pride march, controversial city investments and school board meetings. My job took me through bad areas, nice areas, to beautiful islands, the shores of Lake Erie, and sleepy towns I’d never heard of. I drove through miles and miles of  flat land and cornfields. I got lost, but my GPS always took me back.

I may have been out of my comfort zone, but that only made me a better reporter. I was homesick but would never trade the experience.

Sunset from the rooftop of my apartment building.

On May 25 I arrived. On August 12 I left. Lots of articles, interviews, coffee, crime, heat, hamburger joints, farmland, and a pretty cool newspaper experience in between.

Thanks to all the wonderful people I met along the way — you’ve given me a lot to write about.

You can check out my Toledo Blade story archive here.

5 thoughts on “Farewell, Toledo.

  1. Oooo nice theme change! Looking more like a writer’s blog. Its interesting to read your perspective of Toledo having lived so close to it for a few years now for college and now work.

    The thought of security never passed through my mind when I thought of Toledo, but thats because when I was actually in the city, it was day time. Given, I have been there for several evening assignments but never straying far from privileged areas/folk

    The lack of people can be unsettling, especially at night. There was one evening when I was driving alone to see a friend from high school perform at a Mickey Finn’s (I hadn’t seen him for 5 years) I got there around 10PM, parked out back and walked around the block to the entrance. At the corner diagonal from me, there was one of those odd “mini marts”. I glanced briefly over to see a blacked out Cadillac from the 90’s with ridiculous rims and knew this was certainly not my neighborhood. The advice I got from the bar was that there were many robberies in the area too especially in the back parking lot.

    So in my better interest, I stealth-ed back to my car carrying my camera equipment thinking that any moment, someone could come out of the dark and slit my throat. Since then, I always try to ride up with a buddy.

    I guess there aren’t many instances where I have to enter the city. Rather, I do a lot in the surrounding suburbs (i.e. Perrysburg, Maumee, Sylvania)

    Life outside the epicenter is much better. In the fields and on those small towns, you can walk or run at any hour and feel safe.

    (To be continued. as I realize that coffee shop employees are glaring at us because they are closed. Oops. Time to walk home)

  2. (Continued from Comment 1)

    Ooo as I just discovered, this theme has a nice iPad interface. Content and commenting is great. Small things matter.

    If you thought Toledo was bad then consider Detroit. If it wasn’t for sports that city would be, if not already dead. I was actually up there for the first time in my life to photograph Sir Paul McCartney during his short North American tour. I passed through an industrial wasteland for what seemed like miles, followed by views of the city from the highway as I was trapped in traffic — it looked desperate and bleak even with the heightened amount of people coming in for the concert.

    I had to find parking since they didn’t provide any for me, despite being media. So I was forced with what seemed to be the only available option – $35-$55 parking. Luckily I was able to find a random street peddler who was smart and charging people $20 to park illegally in large enough droves that it was impossible to tow anyone. Perfect, it was 5 minutes from where I needed to be. He only accepted cash though, so I ended up driving around Detroit to find an ATM. Talk about empty streets. It was eerie seeing nice buildings next to overgrown yards and dilapidated houses. Then there were the once gradure buildings stripped down to the brick structure, some left half standing and half imploded.

    That is the story of the Midwest. Once the automobile industry flourished, now it doesn’t. Detroit was the center of it all. Toledo was where all the glass was made (thus it’s nickname as the Glass City). Akron was where the tyres were made. Cleveland had the steel.

    Which goes to say, you shouldn’t stick all your pennies in one pot. Had the city looked forward to diversifying the types of industry and had auto companies kept on the cutting edge, the story of the Midwest might have been different.

    The same goes for the world of print journalism. Many players in the industry have put all their pennies into paper, thinking that a 100 year old business model would somehow compete with the Internet. Yet, in a frantic realization that that 100 year old model is collapsing, pennies have been put into other pot without much thought about the future and without an understanding of what they are spending their pennies on.

    But I digress, so is the mystery of human decisions and why we would rather choose to beat a dead horse over learning from the past and nurturing the future. So is the downfall of things once great things.

    So it is important to always be on the tips of your toes, eager to learn about the world around you while being mindful of where you and others around you have been — to take from the experiences of those around you and to improve on them. Life is always about learning, we can never stop learning. Once we fall complacent with our surroundings, decay begins.

    That is the lesson for the once great cities of the Midwest.

    Not to say that it’s bad to be complacent with our surroundings but we must always look to improve our surroundings one small step at a time.

    A design flaw in the comment editing window does not allow me to go back and edit my statement, but a thought just came up. Think of Toledo and the automobile industry in comparison to the ghost towns of the West to the gold rush.

    It’s like the Pixar movie ‘Cars’

    1. Thanks for your comments! I think what struck me most about Toledo was the overwhelming sense of past– so much of its identity lies in what it once was. I thought the architecture was beautiful, but with so many vacant buildings and “for sale” signs, that’s easily overlooked. I loved that the city was along the Maumee River, but people don’t really take advantage of it as much as they should, despite nice places like Promenade Park. I could tell the city had potential, but as you said, the decline of the automotive industry (and probably white flight epidemic as well) really left it deflated. Toledo is just another depressed Midwest city. It’s sad they all have to be grouped together like that.

      I’ve heard so much about the decline of Detroit in different classes– I think Detroit is sort of the “face” of these Midwest cities since it’s the largest and has fallen the hardest. I’ve never actually been there; I can only imagine what the “industrial wasteland” would look like though. And I totally know what you mean about it seeming desperate, even when thousands of people arrive for an event, because those people don’t really belong there. They were just planted there temporarily.

      I guess the forward-looking thinking is easier said than done, both for cities and for journalism. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to change or anticipate the future when things are so successful in the moment. Although print journalism doesn’t have a choice now, unless it wants to end up the “Detroit” of the media world…

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