The Grass is Greener on Toledo’s East Side

East Toledo has suffered decades of disinvestment and blight. But in recent years, Metroparks Toledo and the City of Toledo have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to bring green spaces to the riverfront. For residents of East Toledo, the completion of phase one of the Glass City Metropark offers hope for the community’s overall nourishment amid a history of neglect. Article by Emily Fischer and Jason Mecchi. Video by the Midstory team.

For years, East Toledoans have watched the once-thriving eastern bank of the Maumee River decay. Throughout the 2000s, the ghosts of the Toledo Sports Arena and the Edison Acme Power Plant haunted the grounds near the Cherry Street Bridge; nearby Waite High School looked onto a dusty plain and abandoned Acme smokestacks. In the 2010s, while the lands west of the river hosted some of the most major developments for downtown Toledo in decades, East Toledo saw promises of revitalization come and go. When Metroparks first announced plans in 2017 for a metropark on the riverfront site, it seemed too good to be true.

Currently in its second phase of development, the 20-acre Glass City Metropark envelops extensive lawns, a glass pavilion, trails, play structures and a boat dock.  

“Every week we have more and more individuals who live in East Toledo and community partners supporting the revitalization of East Toledo. We’re at, I think, the best time period that we’ve been in decades here,” Gary Lenhart said. “Now, people are believing.” 

Lenhart advocates for his fellow residents through the East Toledo Family Center as ‘One Voice for East Toledo.’ He said a personal highlight is walking his dog Daisy through the park at sunset. 

Image by Midstory.

The introduction of new green spaces to East Toledo has manifested beyond the City and Metroparks’ current partnership. Mary Wilson, a lifetime resident of East Toledo’s Ironwood neighborhood, helps sustain a community garden to revitalize green areas and nature’s healing. Wilson said she sees similar elements in the Glass City Metropark. 

“With the right snacks, you’d sit here all day. I could go down at that picnic table and bring my dinner down here, my grandchildren. And they would play all day, and get along,” said Wilson. “That’s the sense that you get from beautiful, well-taken green space. That’s what I remember. And we lost it, we’ve lost a lot of it.” 

The Metroparks have also made progress in reforesting East Toledo, similar to the ‘emerald necklace’ in Cleveland, said Mike Young. A member of the Toledo Design Collective, Young said long-term maintenance and respect of new forests is key to combat disinvestment in areas like Toledo’s Garfield neighborhood. Within the next year, about $700,000 will be dedicated to tree planting in Toledo via the U.S. Forest Service and COVID-19 relief. In Garfield, the money should translate to 2000 trees, which is a small start according to Young.

Image by Midstory.

While the Glass City Metropark symbolizes a new era for East Toledo, the site’s location reflects a long and rich history that makes its current redevelopment all the more significant. 

In the late 19th century, East Toledo’s industry thrived, and its population grew with a large influx of immigrant workers. The Maumee River and local railroad network provided transportation for many companies operating iron works, shipyards, paper factories, flour mills and more in the area. The future park site was underwater until it was increasingly reclaimed as industrial lands, housing a variety of operations at the turn of the 20th century ranging from the Maumee Rolling Mills to refineries and railroad stockyards.

Buildings on and near the site included a tin shop, a bicycle repair store and a horse shed, all near the corner of Front and Main. In 1918, Toledo Edison built their Acme Power Plant along Front Street, creating a landmark of East Toledo industry. 

In the early 20th century, companies like the Toledo Mattress Company, Toledo Cartage Company and Save Electric Corporation continued to build up Front Street as an industrial center, far from the green space abutting the road now. During the Great Depression, this part of the East Side saw Hoovervilles pop up along the shores, as the poor and unhoused flocked together to survive economic hardship.

Acme Power Plant, Toledo, Ohio, c. 1950. Image courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library via Ohio Memory.

Part of Glass City Metropark rests on the site of the former Toledo Sports Arena. Located just off the Cherry Street Bridge, this venue had residents from all over the greater Toledo region flocking to East Toledo for a variety of events, including circuses, wrestling matches and concerts. Although it opened in 1947, the arena is mostly remembered as the home of the Toledo Storm East Coast Hockey League team, which began playing there in 1991. 

The Sports Arena made memories for East Toledoans and the world as an inspiration for English rock band Yes’ “Our Song,” written after the group had a particularly memorable performance when the arena’s interior temperature reached 126 F.

“It was a completely intimate venue for sports and felt like everybody knew everybody when you walked in there — and that went all the way to the announcer and the officials,” Joe Boyle, a social studies teacher at Waite High School, said. “It was the kind of atmosphere you don’t have in sports anymore.”

Toledo Sports Arena, 1980. Image courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library via Ohio Memory.

Circus inside the Toledo Sports Arena, 1960s. Image courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library via Ohio Memory.

Like many places in the Midwest, the area changed as industry slowed down. In the 1960s and 1970s, people moved out due to the advent of suburbs and highways. Several industries slowed employment or closed entirely, leaving fewer jobs for residents that stayed. Local businesses were also muscled out by larger chains. The Acme Power Plant closed its doors in 1993 and was later demolished in 2013.

To the dismay of locals, the Sports Arena closed in 2007 and was demolished in the same year. No major entertainment venue or comparable cultural institution has replaced it. The loss made way for the Huntington Center across the river. The Storm changed their name to the Walleye and made their West Toledo debut in 2009. 

East Toledoans found themselves left with significantly fewer jobs, shops and recreation facilities after a few decades of change.

“There were hopeful moments when the old sports arena was removed from this location in 2007. That was a bitter pill for most East Toledoans. I think the city didn’t know for sure what would happen or where the new convention and/or arena would be built, but East Toledoans sort of had the opinion or feeling that it was promised to be here. But that never happened,” Lenhart said.

Toledo Sports Arena after closing in 2007. Image courtesy of Nik via Wikimedia Commons.

In the meantime, fewer jobs, less cultural enrichment and a lack of investment have bred urban blight in East Toledo. While its neighborhoods have historically been a haven for the working class, they have financially struggled and visibly decayed for years. 

Shortly after the sports arena was demolished, the Marina District was sold in 2011 for $3.8 million to Chinese investors, who ultimately failed to deliver on the promise of redevelopment of the area — yet another letdown to residents and business owners. 

It wasn’t until 2014 that the century-old, crumbling ACME plant and its towering smokestacks — a sore spot along the riverfront — was demolished, signaling the long-awaited cleanup of the industrial site. In 2016, ProMedica bought the parcel for $3.8 million with plans to sell it to Metroparks for green development. 

Even with — or perhaps because of — such a tumultuous history, East Toledoans remain firm in their community pride and sense of belonging. They welcome the development, but also know there’s more work to be done. 

“You’re proud of where you come from, and I think we had to get that we’re proud,” Jodi Gross, executive director of the East Toledo Family Center, said. “The big thing is: you just have to care, and East Toledoans care. They’re a family.”

Image by Midstory.

While Gross said some residents have concerns about whether the Glass City Metropark was built to bring outsiders to their neighborhoods, she sees it as a unique opportunity for East Toledoans to be very close to a dynamic green space. Smaller green space attractions are important too, Gross said, like pocket parks in each neighborhood. 

The Glass City Riverwalk, currently in development, aims to invest in general infrastructure as well as camping areas, an ice-skating feature, rock climbing equipment and bridges along more of the east river bank and across in downtown Toledo. Based on Phase 1, residents are excited to see what more greenery means. Julia Hernandez, asset manager for Lucas County Land Bank, said the mere size of lawns at the park brings many possibilities.

“I’m thinking about Promenade Park [in West Toledo], and how every summer you already expect that they’re gonna have concerts, that they’re gonna have outdoor movies for kids. So I could see a sort of replication of that out here. I know that there’ve been a few musical events, and kind of tying that in possibly with the schools in the area, that would be really cool to see,” Hernandez said.

Image by Midstory.

Connecting communities on both sides of the Maumee River, the Riverwalk will result in over 30,000 Toledo residents being within one mile of a large, clean park. According to Metroparks Toledo, it also aims to attract businesses and talent to the riverfront while uplifting the strong existing communities. 

Locals hope that Glass City Metropark will have a deep community impact, improving East Toledo’s environment, health and safety.

In terms of physical improvement, Young said that green spaces have proven health and economic benefits. Trees and other vegetation provide carbon dioxide, stormwater management and shade – which can lower the average temperature of heat islands and bring down utility costs in homes, according to Young. Additionally, Young said the combination of neighborhood disinvestment and poor tree canopy produces higher rates of stress and asthma that carry through generations of residents. 

Beyond the improvement of residents’ physical environment, Pastor Kenneth Dantzler said green spaces can heal the soul. Mental health issues and drug addiction afflict the community of East Toledo, said Dantzler, who serves Salem and Clark Street United Methodist Churches and runs programs that target addiction and mental health for local residents. Dantzler said hope goes hand in hand with an appreciation for nature.

“Creating safe places in nature within the community, I believe, would go a long way to helping the overall state of East Toledo…to even get away from yourself and what burdens you’re facing,” Dantzler said. 

Image by Midstory.

Mary Wilson said, too, that young kids in East Toledo need somewhere to go as a safe haven. When she sees kids at the playground across from her house late at night, she doesn’t call the police because she knows they are probably safer there than anywhere else, Wilson said. 

Little boys in her neighborhood are eager to join the beautification team, cutting grass with her lawnmowers, but she doesn’t always have enough supervision. Wilson said she just wants them to have somewhere to go to do positive things in a positive environment. 

“We don’t want this to begin and end right here [with the Glass City Metropark], because there’s too much work that needs to be done — Main Street and backwards, in order for this to really mean something. So we just hope and believe that they have us in mind when this is completed,” Wilson said.


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