Saturday, January 18, 2014

Visiting Toledo

Ohio is embroidered into most of my fiction, largely because it is so much of who I am. This is probably why I haven't been able to stop thinking about my recent trip to downtown Toledo, Ohio (my grandmother's hometown) at the end of 2013.

In a brand new Ford Edge, my upgraded rental car (thanks to a lengthy wait at the rental agency), I drove the twenty minutes from the airport to my grandmother's home. The flight had gone well, and the smooth drive (especially when compared to my 2001 Honda with the tricky clutch) put me in a sort of daze. As did Toledo itself. The quiet of it, the empty of it. I marveled at the lack of drivers on the road and changed lanes seamlessly and without having to be strategic. It was nice in a way but also unsettling.

After visiting my grandmother and dining at a Chinese buffet that served mushy food that probably ate some of my stomach lining since, my husband and I settled into a hotel downtown. We went down to the bar/restaurant near the lobby and noticed that we were the only ones there. We took our seats and said hello to the tender, who immediately honed in on my husband's OSU shirt and said, "Ugh, Buckeyes." He was a fan of Michigan, and so a seemingly endless discussion on football began.

As I sipped a drink and looked around. Even outside, on a Saturday night mid-downtown, there was no one in sight. We were in a ghost town. I asked the man (probably rudely and probably interrupting more football talk) if it was always this empty downtown. He nodded, said something near: "Unless something major's happening downtown, it's slow." He said that there had been a comedy act here, the guy with the puppets, a few weeks prior, which brought in a few people, but usually it's more like this. "I close early a lot."

He said something about finishing school and finding a job elsewhere. He said he lived in Michigan and drove here for the work. He said a single business man owns five of the restaurants and many of the hotels downtown and that new investors are coming in because the property is so incredibly cheap, but for now there's nothing going on. When I did some research, I found a lot of the downtown properties came back to a single company, Dashing Pacific Group Ltd., which seems to have done a lot of press in 2011 speaking of big plans for the marina district that are supposed to begin soon.

In the moment, as we discussed it beside a window showing no downtown commotion, no groups of people walking by, all I could think of was the slightly more alive version of Toledo I remembered. "It's sad," I said. He agreed, said that though Detroit gets a bad rap, he figured Toledo was in a similar boat.

On Sunday, my husband and I walked against the icy winds coming off the river, and we stopped at the Imagination Station, a science center and museum that has two parabolic dishes outside to display the way sound can be focused and transmitted distances. I stood at one end and said, "It's cold," and my husband, 20+ feet away agreed in a whisper that I heard perfectly. I imagined being a kid, coming here and awed by the magic of science. It was early in the morning, and the science center was not yet open, but I wondered at its visitor rates.

The population of Toledo was 284,012 in 2012. This is down from 383,818 in 1970. The glass industry in the city, which includes companies like Libbey Glass, Pilkington, and Owens Corning, has long-defined it as The Glass City, and this seems to be more apt a title than ever. There's something fragile about the economy. The house depicted here neighbors my grandmother's home. Her near-downtown neighborhood is full of abandoned homes like this and eroding businesses that are covered in graffiti and poised for demolition.

Why am I blogging on this? Well, since being a kid and going to The Toledo Zoo, where I found magic in the holiday light displays and the care with which the community holds up its amazing art museum to the feeling of abandonment I felt at the end of 2013 (see the 2nd picture above. The skyscraper was completely gutted), I have become rather obsessed with the city as an entity. I want to write on it, to research it more if only for personal consumption. The Glass City has always and still does intrigue me as an observer and writer. Maybe nothing will come of it, maybe it will just feed my fiction, but there are definite stories to tell here, from personal accounts--such as my grandmother's--to the larger story of the city's manufacturing boom and bust and potential for resurgence.

We'll see where this goes, but one thing is for sure, this city will never leave my writing trajectory. The city has a story that needs told.

Speaking of stories, I have new fiction, "The Shape of a Star," in Connotation Press this month. It doesn't necessarily take place in Toledo, but I answered the interview questions from my hotel room that night as I looked out on the river. Incidentally, the incomparable Meg Tuite asked me to come up with a micro piece for this interview that came out quite odd. I wonder if it reflects my headspace that day. Enjoy, and have a wonderful week!


Here are some items of interest on downtown Toledo plans/history of The Glass City: Investing/CNN Money; Toledo Museum of Art; News on the Marina Project:


  1. Hi Jen! My name is Cameron and I had a question about your blog! :-) I can be reached at my email below. Thanks so much!

  2. I don't seen an email, Cameron. Feel free to email me here though.


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