Take a walk in downtown Toledo and you may be reminded of a Detroit or Cleveland of 10 or 15 years ago: empty warehouses, broken glass window panes and the occasional rumble of a car rolling down a side street. But you’ll also hear the beeping of construction vehicles, the doorbell of a small coffee shop and chatter from a pedestrian or two—unmistakable signs of life that are beginning to inhabit a long-emptied industrial infrastructure.
When it comes to the power of industry within Ohio, Toledo has one of the most storied and highly documented histories. It is a city built on grit and innovation, from its origins as a swamp repurposed for farming and agriculture, to its rich connections to the nation’s railroads, to the boom of the glass industry. To this day, Toledo remains a large presence within Ohio, but its impact and influence have waned, especially within the last fifty years, as urban centers like Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati keep hold on the spotlight.
Toledo hit its population peak in 1970, with 383,818 people living in the city at the time. The city’s success had been riding on the coattails of major city founders and industrial tycoons such as Michael Owens, Edward Ford and Edward D. Libbey, whose contributions in both glass manufacturing and the sociocultural infrastructure of the city set Toledo up to be what one of its founders had prophesied it to become: the “future great city of the world,” an urban hub rivaled only by New York City itself. It helped, of course, that the city was built upon prime real estate, positioned to be a key access point for trading and shipping by both water and rail.
With an increased demand for military-grade glass for World War II in the 1940s, Toledo’s industries experienced unprecedented wartime research, innovation, manufacturing and sales producing glass buttons, aircraft windshields, bent aircraft nose cones, bullet-proof glass (plexiglass) and more. With peacetime in the 50s onward, Toledo’s industrial giants improved their products to meet a victorious postwar America, with new technologies producing television picture tubes, architectural picture windows, lightweight glass bottles, glass fiber, automobile windshields and colored war-time SafeEdge glassware for tableware.
But as in the age-old story of the post-industrial city, the impacts of globalization and deindustrialization hit hard in the last decades of the 20th century. As industries lost power, downtown Toledo lost population, a 20% decrease from 1980 to 2007 alone. Much of the population left to the suburbs, and by the ’80s, even suburban population growth had become stagnant.
But the city’s post-industrial decline wasn’t all at once and even as the population declined, industries many sectors found (and continue to find) ways to innovate. Massive companies like Libbey, Chrysler and Jeep remained in the city, and the railroad, automotive, and manufacturing industries were still booming—in large part due to downsized workforces and automation, giving Toledo one of the most highly automated manufacturing sectors of any American metro area.
In terms of products, however, the glass industrial giants of the last century took on distinct new shapes, with glass technology tackling modern problems of building, manufacturing and solar energy at new scales in the form of fiberglass, thin glass displays, lenses, conductive glass film and more. Mergers, offshoots and takeovers abounded, hence the coexistence of names like the Libbey Glass Company, the Libbey-Owens-Ford Company, Owens-Illinois Glass Company and Owens Corning, to name just a few. Some are quiet global mergers sitting in the background of the city (think NSG-Pilkington, whose parent company is the NSG “Nippon Sheet Glass” Group of Japan). Others would make their home and identity in the city, such Owens Corning, which commissioned architect Cesar Pelli to build a 450,000 square-foot campus-style world headquarters along the Maumee River in 1994.
In 2005, just after the turn of the century, the median household income for the city was around $42,000 a year, the unemployment rate was only around 7.4% and the population was comfortably over 300,000 people. Less than 15 years later, , many of those numbers have steadily worsened. Toledo’s population had dropped by around 30,000 people as of 2019. The city still boasts a large industry presence, including multiple healthcare, manufacturing and automotive companies, but between 2014 and 2018, the median income dropped to $37,100, and currently around a fourth of the city lives in poverty.
Paul Toth, president of ConnecToledo and former president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and Elizabeth Ellis, the studio manager at the Toledo Design Collective, both point to the loss of population and the rush to the suburbs as a core problem behind Toledo’s troubles, particularly in the downtown area.
“You had people moving out, and you had an oversupply of homes and an under-demand which forced values down for the homes,” Toth said. “As the homes got cheaper and cheaper, people stopped investing in them. It’s kind of been a downward vortex [and] we went through this very painful period of time where we saw the downtown and the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown go through a fifty-year period of devaluing and disinvestment.”
As more people moved out of post-industrial neighborhoods and into the suburbs beginning around the 1970s, those who were left behind increasingly had to take care of their crumbling neighborhoods on their own. This led to more problems in quality of life for remaining residents.
During her work in Toledo neighborhoods, Ellis has heard many people voice concerns over a lack of access to fresh and affordable food, a struggling public transportation system and insufficient public cleaning and upkeep.
The city has also faced difficulties drawing businesses to reside in the downtown area. Toth said that, according to a 2005-2006 internal study, 85% of companies looking to move into a city are looking for an existing building, something Toledo often lacked due to outdated or nonexistent office space. Companies also did not have much incentive to build within the city, since Toth pointed out that while rental rates are inexpensive in Toledo—around $1 per square foot per month—construction prices are higher than other similarly sized cities, influenced by the massive presence of labor unions in the city.
And there remains another problem for Toledo residents aside from structural issues: how residents see themselves in the first place.
“One of Toledo’s biggest problems is our own self esteem,” Toth said. “We need to feel better about ourselves and our community. It’s gotten dramatically better in the last fifteen years, but Toledo was its own worst enemy for a long time.”
Toth does see plenty of hope, however, particularly in the last decade. He sees positive rebuilding downtown, especially in the presence of stadiums and other entertainment opportunities to bring life and business back to the area, as well as more residential properties.
Specifically, he points to the Toledo Port Authority working to clean up old industrial sites, and Toth estimates that through this work they have created over a billion dollars of investment and a few thousand jobs for the city. Furthermore, Metroparks Toledo recently released plans to overhaul the waterfront, a scene the city has neglected to take advantage of for years.
Ellis also sees more positive efforts within individual neighborhoods, especially once planning organizations are able to get community input when thinking about the future. She sees community and connection as a vital part of her job, since residents often have experience of what the city really needs—sometimes even more so than higher-up administrators making those decisions.
“In today’s world, it’s been criticized that planning is from a top-down approach, meaning you have planners and city officials determining what they think the future of the neighborhood should be, instead of the community from a ground-up approach,” Ellis said. “When we continue our [public engagement] conversations with them, we eventually see how [community members] see their neighborhood in 10 years.”
Not only are long-time residents starting to see Toledo in a better light, but Toth sees another hidden secret of bolstering the local positivity and community of Toledo: the city’s transplants.
“The people that love Toledo the most are people that lived somewhere else and relocated to Toledo,” Toth said. “Almost without question, those people become our biggest cheerleaders and tell us we don’t know what we have here.”
While Toledo’s certainly not alone in its “post-industry” problems and its efforts to regain momentum—Toth commented that it is “pretty typical of Midwestern cities that have gone through the same thing”—it has shown both difficulty in enacting lasting progress and resilience in the face of naysayers and hardships. As other post-industrial cities like Detroit and Cleveland have had some success reshaping and redefining their post-industrial identity, making them hubs for new businesses, startups and young people, Toledo’s just begun. But Toledoans have never been ones to give up easily, repurposing swamp for agriculture, the glass industry for wartime and challenges for opportunities.
“I think the future of Toledo is extremely bright,” Toth said.