140 Toledo, OH: It Hasn't Come Back

[Toledo's Terminal]

Though populated by roughly 300,000, Toledo's downtown had the feel of a town defeated--one that had gone through a couple generations of deterioration. The roads were mostly blanched asphalt and potholed. The few good ones led to malls. At the art museum, a guard had told me, "Our downtown, I can't say that they wrecked the downtown, because it wrecked itself actually. But they changed it. They put down pedestrian walkways or malls in the fifties. They closed certain blocks of the streets. They put planters in. They tore down buildings for parking. Now it's no longer as vital as it was. And they thought they were doing the right thing."

As I passed people on the streets in the early morning, each eyed me suspiciously from ten feet before to ten feet after. The man behind the counter at the art museum's store, dark-skinned with a beard accentuating the lines of his pecan-shaped jaw line, nodded vehemently when I asked about isolation in Toledo. "The people around here go out, but by seven o'clock they're home. They block themselves from each other." A film was being made while I was in town had the Hopperesque title, "In the Company of Strangers." I sought someone who would be more amenable to strangers like me.

The woman at the Visitors Information Center was young and blond, with big blue eyes and thick pancake make-up. When I asked what to do in Toledo, her first answer was, "You should check out the art museum. It just turned a hundred and has an excellent collection." When I said that I had already been there, she added, "The Botanical Gardens has one of the largest collections of litho-paints--pieces of glass with the painting in between." When I asked what else Toledo was known for, she sighed, "Automotive support plants."

The commercial development along the Maumee riverfront in downtown Toledo was called Sea Gate. If it's a gate to the seaway, it's a long way from the barn. Across from there stood Fort Industry Square, an early business district in Toledo that had a series of frontier-era storefronts nicely preserved. But it was not that they were preserved, so much as nothing had replaced them.

To overcome isolation, the city sponsored a lunch trolley. For a quarter, it would shuttle me to one of the few remaining downtown restaurants. The Green Lantern Diner (one fit for a Hopper painting) advertised "Hamburgs [sic] and F-Fries." I ducked into the Arcade Building to see the old-time Morris Restaurant, but it was closed. In the lobby, a wiry African American guy about sixty wearing a tattered T-shirt looked at the list of tenants and barked out the list names. A woman in a threadbare jacket and hair askew yelled as she passed me: "Don't yell at me; don't talk to me. I've got to go. I've got too much business to do today."

Oliver House opened in 1859 as Toledo's premiere hotel, using such advances as water closets and mechanical call buttons. It's a brewery and restaurant now. Bernie had told me, "I had a little coffeehouse a long time ago over at the Oliver House hotel. I did the sandblasted glass at the entryway. In fact, those people buy pieces from me. They've been really nice to me. Of course, they threw me out when they bought the place, but it was well understood. They were going to save the building, you know, restore it.

"Our place was called The Lobby. Because it was in this grand old hotel lobby. It was becoming a hub. What we had going on was bringing people to us from up and down the East Coast. We had Leon Russell. We had Richie Havens. And Eric Burden. Geez, we were having a good time. And a lot of good art. It's a shame because it dissipated, and it hasn't come back."

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