Farewell, Toledo.

LIFE, NEWS

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.

#realworld

LIFE

Many of you have been asking to see my apartment…so, here it is!  It’s huge, which I wasn’t expecting — I pretty much gasped when I opened the door for the first time. It’s probably twice the size of my flat in London, and for only two people.

Then again, this isn’t London, so there’s a tradeoff.

My building used to be an 11-floor Macy’s store, so the apartment is a converted loft style with exposed piping. It’s not decorated at all right now, but I really love the high ceilings — I think they’re what make the space so conducive to writing. I usually feel too cramped and distracted to write in my own room, but I’ve been so focused here.

City of the Past

CREATIVE WRITING, LIFE

More Toledo Then & Now posts to come. For now, I want you to get a sense of the emptiness in Toledo that I mentioned in my last post, the contrast between tall buildings and beautiful architecture, and “For Sale” signs in just about every other shop window. I don’t want to create the impression that Toledo is a terrible city to live in, because it’s not. Just like with South Bend, if you open up to it, there are things to do in Toledo. And there is definitely history.

It’s just that Toledo’s past seems to hover over every street, over every building that was once “grand” and isn’t anymore. The past is so present; elderly people smile and shake their heads at the thought of the “old days.” It’s really unsettling to watch a Walmart bag roll for a mile down a major street, never passing a car or another person. Because this is not a rural town, this is a city.

Which has made me question the definition of “city”–what even makes a city a city? Is it the big buildings? The arts scene? The people? Can a city ever lose its “cityness?”

I get the sense Toledo has lost something that can never be recovered.  That’s what I want to pinpoint through these posts.

Sometimes I’ll take a walk around my apartment after work hours or on a weekend, and literally pass no one on the streets.

See slideshow below:

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From London to Toledo

CREATIVE WRITING, LIFE, NYC

Credit: Toledo Lucas County Public Library

Above: Madison Avenue, Toledo, OH, circa 1918.

I’m spending the summer working for the Toledo Blade in Toledo, Ohio as a reporting intern. Friends and family keep asking me, “From London to Toledo–why?” and I can honestly say that although Toledo’s no London, no New York, I like it here. I get to write every day and work with amazing people. I’m getting solid reporting experience, and am finding out a lot about the city while doing it.

It was Memorial Day Weekend when my parents helped me move in to my new apartment (which is HUGE, by  the way). When we drove up to the parking lot in our Target-stuffed Suburban, dusk just starting to fall, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. The building didn’t look all that nice from the outside. And there was absolutely nothing going on, absolutely no one on the streets, which was kind of eerie. The city is somewhat of a ghost town– when business people leave at 6 p.m., the downtown empties out. After work hours, it becomes nearly impossible to find a place to eat, except for a handful of scattered restaurants and bars. Sundays are just a lost cause.

There’s not much socially going on in Toledo, but there is always news.

Toledo is a depressed city. Once bustling and prosperous, the decline of the automotive industry and the white flight epidemic left it deflated. But everywhere, still, you see remnants of the past– beautiful Victorian houses from the 1900s, a grand theater, even hot dog joints that were opened in the 20s and haven’t changed much since. It’s interesting seeing the juxtaposition of majestic architecture and spreading urban decay, and I’m intrigued by this idea of what Toledo used to be.

I’ve been scrolling through the Toledo Library‘s archives of old photos just to get a sense of it. Pictured above is a street right in the downtown, Madison Avenue. It’s hard to imagine so many people once crowded these streets, because today they’re almost always empty.

I’ll be posting more “then and now” pictures later.



This is the same street pictured above, Madison Avenue, today.

Keep Cool and Carry On

DESIGN, FOOD & DRINK

If last week’s scorching temperatures keep up this summer, there will be some nights you just want to stay in and avoid the heat. At least in Toledo last week it was just too hot to even leave the apartment and go walking around the area. Solution? Throw a cocktail party at your place. Admittedly, though, staying in can get to be the same old thing.

What other way to change things up than to switch the oversize, dollar bags of ice from Stop and Shop for custom-made cubes?

This is just ridiculous, but I have to admit I would totally have a “gin and titonic party.” It’s definitely one of those cases when girls would say “Oh my God, that’s so cute!” and guys would say, “That stupid titonic takes up way too much room in my cup– give me more gin.” Oh well, if it’s my party you’re getting the boat-shaped chunk of ice.


49 days until Shark Week. Get ready with these fin-shaped ice trays.

Pi-shaped ice cubes? I’m not sure if this is socially acceptable. Then again, none of these are, really.