From Princeton to Toledo: Reflections from Three Young Travelers

Through a partnership with Princeton University, Midstory hosts students each year for a week during their winter break. Most have never been to Toledo, and after their brief but compact time in our city, they reflect on their experiences. In 2020, Midstory hosted three freshmen, all of whom left with changed perspectives and a desire to return to Toledo and the Midwest in the future. The reflections below are creative and personal in nature and should be read as such.

I.   SOUNDS 

I was not sure what I expected when I landed in Toledo other than perhaps the negative-degree weather that I anticipated from back home in Detroit. What I got was… silence.

Perhaps my brain has become accustomed to the sounds of a city that signal to me that I am never alone. Living near a freeway meant there were always cars rolling down my street with their windows down, blaring the most popular rap song of the week. The people and their footsteps, the jingle of keys, the bumps and clunks as tires struggle to pass over underfunded roads—they make me feel safe in a “dangerous” part of the country.

I was in downtown Toledo on a weekday afternoon and heard the wind in my ears. I didn’t fear the dilapidated buildings, the “shadier” parts of town, the gutted retail shops. Those were familiar—comforting even—but what struck me was not just empty space. I stepped outside and it felt still. The most commotion I felt was when I was by the Baker Building, where swarms of cars rushed out of the city, onto I-75, onto the next place.

I thought about the audible energy of Detroit’s downtown, where the new Q-Line train zips up and down Woodward Avenue. Ambulances blare their horns as they race to the Medical Center, students walk into the Wayne State University bookstore and young professionals walk into the Secretary of State building. Research has shown that urban sounds can contribute to social interactions and a sense of belonging, making a city much more than just its skyscrapers or tourist attractions. 

Despite Toledo’s historical reputation as “Little Detroit,” a name intended more to have negative connotations than positive ones, the city seems to be in waiting, catching only glimpses of the hustle and bustle Detroit has rapidly picked up in the last few years.

Of course, Detroit’s overall population and density exceeds Toledo’s, although they are both sprawling urban centers. But a key difference also stems from two inverted but closely-related phenomena: “white flight” and gentrification. Toledo’s white population decreased from 66.5% in 2010 to an estimated 62.8% in 2018. Neighboring suburb Perrysburg’s population tangentially rose from 93.5% white to 96.4% white within that same time frame. Detroit has experienced the exact opposite phenomenon. Its population has grown from being only 10.6% white to 14.6%, while neighboring suburban Dearborn’s racial makeup has essentially remained the same. 

These statistics imply that, within the last ten years, Toledo has experienced white flight, or the process by which white members of an urban community relocate to the surrounding suburbs. Detroit, however, has reversed the white flight it once experienced, exchanging it for what some would call gentrification. Educated white professionals have become attracted to its gritty, industrial ambiance and brought with them Starbucks and Whole Foods. I can hear the hum of their energy-efficient car engines as they find parking spaces downtown.

While these demographic changes are indeed problematic, other signs of movement, life and energy make themselves apparent in Detroit. City natives have begun to reembrace their hometown, most notably through the prominence of the artistic renaissance, in which young creatives get a platform to share their love with the city. There are also the sounds of construction as corporations try to attract mainstream attention to an area still in desperate need of revitalization, with the most recent and notable accomplishment being the opening of the Little Caesars Arena.

I see that movement, life and energy beginning here in Toledo. I see the passion assuredly, the love for a city with a rich history and the dedication to a people who want their city to get the recognition it deserves. But few seem to have taken notice of Toledo’s voice.

“Princeterns” Auhjanae McGee and Annie Phun enjoy the newly-renovated downtown branch of the library.

To me, the lack of noise is a somber reminder of Toledo’s history and its unrecognized potential. Perhaps I would hear its voice more if the rest of the country heard it more, like it hears the waves crashing against Los Angeles beaches or the train bells of a New York City subway. It deserves the same voice that has grown out of Detroit in recent years. Especially because, when I stop and focus, I do hear the sounds of Toledo.

I hear a mom playfully chiding her elementary schooler as they walk into the library, I hear the dejected sighs of tourists who missed out on a ticket to see a world-renowned exhibit at the art museum. I hear the tales of innovation and community engagement in an abandoned train station, the fruits of imaginative ambition and hard labor. I hear my voice reverberated against an interactive children’s display at the Imagination Station. And, I am at ease again. My hope for Toledo is for its voice to be heard beyond its city limits, so that when I return—and I have no excuse not to, as I am legitimately only 58 minutes away—I can feel enthralled by the loud stomps of a city marching back into the limelight.

Auhjanae is a Detroit native, and is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree at Princeton University in English (or maybe Anthropology). She is involved with the Daily Princetonian as an editor for the “Prospect” (arts and culture section) and aspires to be the founder and editor-in-chief of her own arts and culture magazine. She enjoys listening to 2010’s pop and R&B, watching YouTube videos and doing yoga in her spare time.


II.   CONVERSATIONS

Annie Phun explores Promenade Park.

As a low-income Asian immigrant who grew up in Los Angeles, my knowledge of the United States only expanded to outside of California when I decided to attend college at Princeton University. So when I received the news that I had gotten an internship in Toledo, Ohio, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I read the organization’s mission statement on their website, but I never comprehended what it meant to take part in the revitalization and rebirth of a city in an on-the-ground, truly grassroots way.

A couple months later, as my week at Midstory comes to a close, I’ve come to see that I had more to gain than a mere boost in writing skills. My interactions with people crafted my impression of Toledo just as much as the sights and the activities. I had thought that I generally interact with a diverse crowd of people through journalism and creative writing, but the conversations I had with the citizens of Toledo were unlike any I’ve ever had before. When they realized I wasn’t a native Toledoan, their interest in what I was doing here grew exponentially. In the end, they always asked the question: “Do you like it here?”

Carlton, my Uber driver, was a chatty old African-American grandpa who drove me to the University of Toledo on my first day. He asked me what I was doing here, and I responded “an internship.” He glanced at the Princeton sweatshirt I wore.

“I don’t need the money,” Carlton stated, referring to his job with Uber. “I’m saving up for a car for my grandson.” 

“He’s a good kid, just lazy. I mean, not lazy, just not motivated.” He corrected himself, turning to give me an unsure smile. “Do you like jazz?” 

“Sure.” 

He switched radio stations and raised the volume, completing the rest of the ride in silence. I was too nervous about being in a new city to think much of it. 

Toledo was the first city that made me privy to a policeman’s home. I met an Uber driver who doubled as a first-aid responder. She came out of retirement—not because she needed money, but because she was “bored.” She asked me why I was in Toledo before telling me about her grandson who graduated from the police academy. 

“He lives nearby,” she said. “Take this exit, turn right, and his place is two houses down.” 

One person I met was an older, Middle-Eastern man with white hair.  

“We used to have retail stores, restaurants, and even a department store around here before the institutions bought all the land and pushed them out,” he said, frowning. “Where were you going again?” 

“I’m here on an internship.”

She nodded in understanding.

“You’re gonna mark Toledo off your list of places you’re going after college now, right?” She laughed, prompting me to do so as well. 

“If you follow this road, you’ll hit downtown,” she said, answering my question from earlier, “but I don’t know why you would wanna go there.” Another laugh.

On occasion, I asked Uber drivers for recommendations on places to visit while in town. Most said the same: the museum or the zoo. One driver in particular, Alicia, seemed to be grasping for straws. 

“There’s Packo’s. Real ones started by Tony Packo, not the spin-off on Secor. One downtown and one on the east side,” she paused. “Hot dogs…” Shifting in her seat, she let out a long “uh” before continuing. “The church is beautiful. I once drove a couple twice and took them there after mass was over.” 

“Cool.” 

“There’s that homeless guy in the corner again,” she said as she pulled into the hotel parking lot. “Saw him last summer with ripped jeans and brand new shiny white socks that look like they came right out of the packet.” 

I had just grown used to Toledo’s talkative nature when I encountered my first silent driver. I sat in the passenger seat, made eye contact, and even waited a minute before putting on my earphones. Nothing. She didn’t speak a word the entire ride. As she drove to the front entrance of the hotel, I gathered my stuff and unbuckled my seatbelt. 

“You’re awfully quiet,” she stated as I opened the door to leave. 

Spoke too soon.

Annie is a resident of California and is pursuing her undergraduate degree at Princeton University with an intended major in Classics. She is working on a memoir about her experiences of assimilation into American society as an Asian immigrant. 


III.    SAUNTERINGS

“He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, 
but the saunterer—in the good sense—is no more vagrant than the meandering river, 
which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”
– Henry David Thoreau

I’ve always lived next to I-75.

It was the traffic lifeline of my childhood, a three-minute drive from garage to highway. Getting onto 75 meant leaving Bradenton and often promised an adventure. Seven years later, 1,200 miles north of my sunny Florida home, I found the other side of 75 in Toledo.

In the modern day cycle of GPS, task-driven travel and every-day routine, the act of simply aimlessly walking has been cut out of schedules. Walking without purpose is out of place in the daily bustle, and this seems to be especially true in Downtown Toledo. Outside of rush hour, the streets see a car or two zoom by and the odd pedestrian crossing the street. Travel always seems to be destination-oriented. No one hesitates. Employees go from work to home, and they seem to be the only people in downtown on a typical day. 

Psychogeography, a term coined in the fifties, marks the intersection of psychology and geography. This interaction relays memory, emotion and experience to location and allows for the forgotten to be discovered again through wandering. Situationists, who latched onto this idea in the 50s, wandered to celebrate the urban landscape without any intention but to appreciate it. This exploration has since become a study for urban planners and associates the histories of cities with, as Thoreau called it, sauntering

The students’ wandering path through downtown. Graphic by Mina Quesen and Ruth Chang for Midstory.

On our first day in Toledo (my first day in the Midwest, actually) my colleagues and I were sent into the city to explore and be inspired—to do some sauntering of our own. This outing was unguided and set entirely by our own curiosity and goals; we set out on our own psychogeographic expedition and uncovered Toledo on foot.

 “Where should we go?”

“Your best bet is to walk to the river.”

Our expedition began at Rustbelt Coffee. The advice was to beeline to the Maumee. Despite this, we unknowingly went in the opposite direction to the library we had visited earlier. The Toledo Lucas-County Public Library was unlike any other I’d ever been too. It was alive with people of all ages and the recent renovations created a space available for almost any purpose, even for the souvenir shopping we came for in the artisan gift store.

After taking a few turns in the red top-like chairs, we left the library and headed straight as instructed before. Although, going straight didn’t lead us to the river. Only when we reached the Bakery Building and the I-75 exit did we consider perhaps this was the wrong way. To our left, we saw the blue peaks of a bridge familiar from our car rides, the Anthony Wayne Bridge. 

This was the first turning point in our wandering. From following the initial directions to following curiosity, we became more interested in our surroundings and searched for things both new and familiar. Murals and public sculptures caught my attention and became the center pieces of photos. As we stopped for photography, we often took to standing in the middle of streets, which were barren of any traffic. It seemed we had all of downtown to ourselves. 

By Mina Quesen for Midstory.

Sidewalks were often cleared of snow but blocked by construction or giant obstacles associated with the promise of new growth. There were no signs to point to the river or to any upcoming streets. Our landmarks became the Spaghetti Warehouse (or what we lovingly called the “Spaghett Are House” because of the missing letters from the painted sign) and the Home Slice Pizzeria we were attracted to because of the lights hanging in the patio, lit even in the daylight. We found Fifth Third Field and spotted Owens Corning’s red facade. An hour from our start, we at last could see the river.

Stopped by various blocked sidewalks, we found an unmarked but paved path by the river. This walk, which seems to be the skeleton of a riverwalk, gave an elevated path along the Maumee with a view of the eastside riverside restaurants starting to light up with the setting sun. Here too we were alone, save for a single biker. 

After a photoshoot with the river, we proceeded along the path until we found Promenade Park. This was yet another space that seemed prime for other visitors, but we were only met by occasional ProMedica workers crossing the park to the adjoining parking garage. We explored Promenade and the neighboring Imagination Station, pointing at distant structures, asking what they were, then proceeding to answer our own questions. 

The oddity of wandering in Toledo became especially clear when we came to North Summit Street. We strolled across grass patches up to sculptures just as the rush of Owens Corning employees going home began. With the wave of traffic suddenly upon the city, I became aware of just how open and visible we were to anyone who happened to see us—and how alone we were as pedestrians. 

Princeton student Mina Quesen at the downtown Toledo waterfront.

Reflecting on our wandering a few days later, I’m reminded of a similar-sized city in my memory that looks completely different. Orlando, just about two hours from my hometown, has a similar population size: in 2017 Orlando’s population was about 280,000 and Toledo’s was about 276,000. Toledo is actually denser with 3,500 people per square mile while Orlando sits at 2,300 per square mile. 

While they have similar populations, from my experience spending summers and winter vacations in Orlando, walking around downtown is a totally different experience. It is impossible to go anywhere in Orlando and be alone. Streets, coffee shops, riverwalk, theme parks, malls—all of it is booming with people, cars and life, even if it’s always transitory: in 2018 alone, Orlando brought in 68 million tourists. Orlando is absolutely a destination city.

While Toledo may not be the go-to tourist city, I experienced it as a tourist and saw so much potential in its infrastructure. For example, the Toledo Zoo and the Toledo Museum of Art together bring in 1.7 million visitors annually, and the Mud Hens and Walleye draw 750,000 to 800,000 people to downtown every year. Thinking about what halted my meanderings downtown—the library’s new infrastructure, the public art, the architecture both old and new(ish)—reminds me how much potential there is in what already exists, let alone what the future holds. The city is waiting to be revived. 

I enjoyed my afternoon sauntering in the city and finding beauty in Toledo. The art museum and libraries rival those across the nation in their beauty and accessibility, but just as influential were the seemingly random landmarks we found along the way: painted signs with letters missing, forgotten pathways between buildings or along the river, the silence in the streets and the unidirectional rush of cars at 5pm. And because of those, I’d never want Toledo to be an Orlando, a Princeton or a New York. There’s something special in the saunter—the aimless wandering. And while I-75 may be a straight-shot from my home, on the other side I found a place brimming with echoes of history and inklings of new life—a place almost better explored without a destination in mind. 

Mina is a Florida native and is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree at Princeton University in English. She is involved in the Nassau Weekly, Arch and Arrow Literary Collective and the Princeton University Figure Skating Club. While she hopes to continue writing, she aspires to become an editor. In her free time, she enjoys fiction writing and photography.

Princeton students Auhjanae, Annie and Mina with the Midstory Team.

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