Toledo's Historical Blunders: A Plea for Preservation
Bunchs Lunchbox | 01/12/2012 7:00 am
The thing about history is that it's historic. The history of history is it's own cogent appeal for its worthiness to exist. A thing existing for a period of time creates a sense of validity, and the longer the period of time a thing exists, the more valid it becomes. Being valid and being valued do not always go in hand, though, neither monetarily nor morally.
Perhaps this seems fairly obvious, perhaps it's confusing. Regardless, it seems to be a lesson that Toledo, in all it's boozy wisdom, just can't seem to learn – history matters, and tangible evidence of history matters more. Yet, the ill vein running through our local history is one that places great emphasis on destruction, and just a mere shoulder shrug toward preservation. This is more evident no where else than in Downtown Toledo, where the compositional infrastructure is akin to the jagged orifice of a jaw-jacked bum sporting a post-punch in the face smile of broken and lost teeth. It's rough, dirty, full of holes – but it is a bright and endearing smile. The street-scape of a city should never reflect the mouth of its most slovenly inhabitants. But, if you sat Toledo down for a beer and asked for its life story, the poor bastard would be the first to tell you, it's youth was a real bang, a helluva party, damn good times … and then it's just been getting hammer-punched in the face for the last 50 years. Worse, the culprit is altogether sly and unexpected, he does his brutal business right in plain sight, yet no one seems to be the wiser. Or, is too apathetic to care much.
I know my Toledo Cheerleader friends hate to hear me speak ill of the city. And I'll be the first to clarify, what I love about this town is its curmudgeonly, brutal truth. Toledo is about as honest of a city as you could ask for, despite the fact that some downright seedy, dangerous, and dishonest shit goes down pretty regularly right in its womb. Nonetheless, by and large, the town itself is a 10 minute factory smoke break where nothing's off limits, including the flask stashed in your back pocket, and the conversation isn't meant for grannies or babies, but it doesn't really matter if they hear it anyway. I'm in love with and fascinated by the fact that a complete and utter should-be-shit-hole is somehow arguably the most magical, whimsical, and friendly place on Earth (at least from time to time). But there is a dark Twin Peaks-ish current that flows through the sewers here too, a swirling sucking beast that pulls people to the wrong side of the tracks and won't let them free. It's something to be embraced to preserve the ardent gruffness of our culture, but not too closely. If you don't stave it off, the son of a bitch will bite you. Hard.
Toledo's missing teeth are the reflection of this battle, casualties, if you will. Oddly, and Toledo-appropriate, the insurgents are too often its own army. The reason this city has been tossed over, how its greatest triumphs wind up in trash heaps, is that for the later half of the 20th century, those doing the bidding in the city have been business men and women (predominantly and hopelessly white) who've looked at individual city assets antagonistically, justifying the ruin with the ever-imposing Rule of the Bottom Line. What I mean is that Toledo has been plagued with a gross absence of regard for its tangible history for the better part of its existence. Culture, and specifically architecture, in this city has been, and continues to be, abandoned and tossed as casually as soiled rubbers at a frat party. Some of Downtown's most gleaming gems were razed and hauled away without care or thought. In the early 1900s, Toledo's streets looked, in places, almost European, with public fountains and sculptures, round-abouts, and breath-taking stoops pouring elegantly out the front of buildings onto the tree-lined sidewalk. There were historic theatres with marquees that'd make New Yorkblush, and buildings with the smallest of hand-carved details that'd take a lifetime to tally up. Now, in the whole of Downtown Toledo, roughly a 10 square mile area (including Historic East Toledo) there is only one intersection left where the four original buildings put there still stand. This is the corner of Madison and Huron street, where the once-remarkable Nasby Building sits like a haggard lump, covered in some idiot's past vision of the future, which convinced him to glue hideous checkerboard panels over delicately-carved stone, which is rotting and crumbling underneath from where water has leaked in and chewed at the facade for decades.
The Darkness in this city is persistent. As if the past 50-plus years of architectural blunders weren't lesson enough, the dismantling goes on. It's become an absurd and sick part of our local culture. Toledo is a cutter, an awkward teenager stashed in the locker room slashing at her arm for reasons she doesn't understand. She wants to quit, but keeps finding herself with the fucking pen jabbed in her skin. It's a self-serving mutilation, and for those involved, it's like poking a sore tooth, you know you shouldn't, but the pain is weirdly satisfying.
To date, we've lost the massive Paramount Theatre, the magnificent Federal Building which housed the Downtown Post Office, Tiedtke's, the former Produce Exchange building, the original stone fortress of the Public Library, the stunning lobby of the Hotel Secor (thankfully the building still stands and is being redeveloped), and countless other mansions that once connected Downtown to the Old West End (where, despite preservation efforts, even more homes have been lost or fallen into disrepair) … not to mention the paving of both the Erie Canal and the entire city's trolley line. Those are gone, they are not coming back, and now, we can add Libbey High School – and just about every other namesake historic school in the city – to that list too … plus the Bijou Theatre, one of the last original movie houses in the entire city, crushed to build the new arena on top of (had they built the arena one block east, they could have torn down an unremarkable '80s parking structure and preserved the Bijou and its entire block of historic buildings) … and, well, I won't bother going on. The list is far too long. But the point is, it shows no sign of slowing down. Just as the wrecking balls are wreaking havoc on more irreplaceable gems, Deputy Mayor Tom Crothers was quoted in an article in the January 11th edition of The Blade, calling for the moving or dismantling of the Washington Street Bridge, claiming it an eyesore too expensive to maintain. The Rule of The Bottom Line rears its snarling, idiot head again.
Businessmen (predominantly and hopelessly white) love the Bottom Line. They love it because it is calculable, and if you're of a decidedly pre-evolutionary mindset and lack the cognitive presence to consider validity not in terms of monetary value, then the Bottom Line is a very helpful guide for life decisions. It's kind of like how people who know they are too lazy to own children buy those weird leashes for their kids. They don't really consciously consider “Yes, this is absurd, but I am lazy,” something in them just knows they aren't smart or motivated, and so they buy the kid a leash, never considering the mental impact they're passing on to the restrained child. This is how Toledo's historic blunders have come to root out and work against the very thing that makes it livable. Mr. Crothers' silly (and, I suspect fabricated) numbers are justified as so: 1. We are broke, 2. This is a little bit expensive for potentially a long time, 3. It should go away. Nevermind the fact that dismantling and/or moving the bridge will be massively expensive, costing five-to-ten years worth of the proposed annual maintenance fee, and forget that the bridge was built right here in Toledo, has been in the same place since 1920, and has a historical connection to the Middlegrounds land that Owens Corning now occupies. For nearly 100 years, countless Toledoans have crossed over or under that same hunk of odd steel, to me, that's important. You can't buy or build a connection to your city like that. It has to be worn in, and earned. And forget too the fact that it's an interesting aesthetic element in one of the last decent bastions of downtown that quickly gives way to decrepit deterioration just a quick clip south of where the bridge sits.
This is the part that sets absolute fire to every bit of contemptible love I have for this shaggy old bitch of a city. Not one of these miraculously ambidextrous numbskulls considers the historic or cultural value of keeping the damn thing, or any of these bits of golden architecture. They don't know how to punch in on their calculators the fact that the reason the city is broke is because the city broke its own cultural integrity. They don't understand the priceless value of keeping a thing, that you can't calculate the historical worth or cultural validity of something that simply continues to exist. These structures are points of civic pride, the legacy of our heritage, yet, they're nixed with deplorable carelessness. People have moved away from and abandoned this self-doomed dump for just this reason. I'm not ignorant to the many factors involved in our not-unique post-industrial Rust Belt conundrum, but the truth is, bad, idiotic and regrettable decisions are a healthy heap of the mess.
For those of us who've committed to sticking it out here and trying to reshape the hunk of broken shit our deficiently industrious city forefathers left us, news like this is debilitating. There is a lot of progress happening in Downtown Toledo, and there is a selfless group of people sworn to revitalizing the city, there is even some substantial redevelopment and revitalization eaking back into the picture, but this obsession with removal makes me, and I'm sure many others, wonder, Why am I so committed to something that has no commitment to itself?
Why do I want to live in a place where the city government – who should be championing preservationand cultural and aesthetic vitality and integrity more fiercely than a stray East Side Pit Bull – is dumbly and willingly selling off and destroying itself. For Christ's sake, I'm in love with a suicidal prostitute. My friends in other cities are screaming, “Get out! Get out! She's bad news for you, man. She's not gonna change!” … But dammit, I love her, and I know she's better than this ... It's wildly frustrating shit. Gnawing on the goddamn bone of living in this town is hard enough at times, and news like this is a sucker punch right jab that splits your fucking lip open. Go ahead, spit that blood out, there's another knocked-out tooth in there. Another one lost, and Toledo just keeps smiling like the drunk old ugly loveable son-of-a-bitch it is.
We can't afford to lose anymore of what we were, this vapid tradition of historical blunders has to stop. I implore, why not now?
Check out more historic photos of Toledo at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library's Images in Time online photo archive.
Images used in this article, top to bottom:
1. Nasby Building, Madison at Huron, circa 1900
2. Paramount Theatre Marquee, 1931
3. Paramount Theatre, Adams at Huron, 1940
4. Madison Avenue, looking at Huron, circa 1905
5. The former Toledo Club, 1905
6. Intersection of St. Clair and Summit Streets at Orange Street, General Steadman Monument, circa early 1900s
7. The Federal Building Post Office, 1905
8. Washington Street Bridge, 1921
9. Former Downtown Library, circa 1900
10. Hotel Secor Lobby, circa early 1900s
12. Paramount Theatre interior, circa early1900s
11. Pantheon Theatre, St. Clair Street, circa 1950s
13. Paramount Theatre demolition, 1965
14. Paramount Theatre demolition, 1965