It’s not every day that we see Toledo in the national news, and it often seems that we only make it in moments of crisis—the toxic algae in Lake Erie or the FBI’s discovery of terrorist threats, to name just a couple. Over the last couple of weeks, however, Toledo has been enjoying significant national coverage—and this time, it’s positive. Bloomberg says that more than two-thirds of our new residents are millennials (Who wouldn’t love our trendy post-industrial aesthetic?). Thrillist says that we are an underrated Midwestern weekend getaway (We’re glad the cat is finally out of the bag!). The New York Times says that if you don’t have a college degree and you are looking for a good job, Toledo is the place to be (Eat your heart out, Silicon Valley!).

It’s hard not to be proud that others are starting to take note of what we already know: our city has a lot to offer.

But does our view of ourselves depend on validation from outside, and how do we effectively add local context and insight to informative national musings? While coastal voices are telling us when we are nationally significant and when we aren’t, where is our own perspective and our own voice? We believe our everyday realities matter locally, but also that they can inform and speak to issues facing the entire nation. National news may give us a shout-out here and there, but what is our reality and how can we voice our story ourselves? A good place to start might be gaining a deeper and more contextualized understanding of the unspoken undercurrent running through all of these seemingly positive national articles: our city continues to struggle with population loss.

Both the Thrillist travel article and the New York Times job market analysis show major positives: 1) Toledo is an underrated but up-and-coming location for short-term travel and visits (world-renowned museum and zoo, anyone?), and 2) Toledo is a powerhouse for industrial, vocational, technical and trade jobs (aka ‘opportunity jobs’). First off—it’s great to see Toledo being recognized for what we’ve known for a long time. But we also have to ask: 1) Are we retaining long-term residents, and 2) If so many jobs are open, why aren’t they being filled, and what about other sectors of the job market?

Perhaps what the recent Bloomberg article, “Where Millenials are Moving Most” (in which Toledo is ranked #8) does —or does not—tell us can help us to dig into these questions. While it’s great that Toledoans have been sharing this article and basking in the positive light we are getting nationally (finally!), Bloomberg’s somewhat detached study could also have an unintended impact on communities like ours—specifically how we view the continuing issue of depopulation and what many call “brain drain.” Both the title and a key phrase—“The largest share of arrivals among millennials”—imply that Toledo is the 8th-most popular city for millennial arrivals. In other words, our worries about retaining and attracting young people are ending.

But are they? The good things happening in the cities on this list may very well be true, and many of them may be gaining young people. In fact, 54% of movers nationwide already are millennials. But a generalization cannot be made about every city on that list, and Toledo is a poignant example of the danger of trusting general overarching or even misleading statements like this one. If read carefully, the data actually only show a higher-than-average percentage of millenials within the population of new arrivals into a city, even if the overall population and overall number of millennials in that city could be decreasing.

For example, Toledo may only have 10 new residents moving in, and if 7 of those are millennials, you’ll see Toledo at the top of the list at 70%. By comparison, New York City could have 100,000 new residents moving in, and if only 40,000 of those are millennials, you won’t even see NYC on the list at 40%. Not to mention, the article doesn’t tell us about retention or the overall net change, so we have to ask: Are those who move in even staying, and do the millennials leaving outnumber those arriving? And for Toledo, that’s the case. But all these numbers are just examples, so let’s look at the actual census data.

A few points stick out as particularly relevant to the Midwestern and Toledo conversation around “brain drain” and depopulation:

1) Of the 18 metropolitan statistical areas on the Bloomberg list, Toledo is one of four that suffered net population decreases. Between 2010 and 2018 Toledo lost over 7,000 residents.

Comparing the net millennial migrations from 2010-2018 for the metropolitan statistical areas examined in the Bloomberg article (Midstory, 2019).

Furthermore, taking into account millennials* moving both in and out…

2) The city of Toledo lost over 2,600 millennials between 2012 and 2017.

3) Lucas County lost over 1,600 millennials between 2012 and 2017.

This suggests that the bulk of the millennial population loss in the metropolitan area is occurring in the city of Toledo proper. It really doesn’t matter how you slice it: we are facing a serious depopulation problem and the city of Toledo is at its heart.

Many of us may ask: So what if we are only looking on the bright side, or if a national audience is finally seeing something good for once about the city we know and love? While the Bloomberg article, and Toledo’s brief mention in it,  is just a blip in the rest of the nation’s morning news digest, national news has a huge impact on how we view ourselves, and consuming it without getting hands-on to know our own community can have fatal effects on our power to understand and change our reality and the narrative we tell about ourselves. The danger of relying on national musings for our view of our own city is that snapshots never tell the full story, and no remote, albeit positive analysis will solve our own identity crisis or the reality of our problems.

For shrinking Rust Belt cities like Toledo, articles like the most recent in Bloomberg, Thrillist, or the New York Times do not mean that we have reversed the decades long trend of population loss and brain drain. Only one month ago, Toledo’s mayor said that “… educated young people [are] Ohio’s number one export. We continue to lose population compared to the rest of the country….” These problems are still with us. We have not yet solved them. Rather, demographic data in these articles suggests that if we are to reverse the trend of loss in our communities, we must focus on courting, retaining, and investing in millennials. And that’s not a negative thing—in fact, we find it hopeful.

That is why Midstory is embarking upon the Toledo Demography Project—to unearth an in-depth picture of what is going on in our community, beginning with the issue of millennial population loss. Our core team of researchers, writers, and dreamers, along with two dedicated statisticians from the University of Toledo and the University of Michigan, have embarked on this project because of our own experiences in and love for our hometown, especially with the 2020 census on the horizon. Here are our key takeaways for the road ahead:

Graphic by Bethany Morgan and Ruth Chang for Midstory.

(Untempered) Pride Cometh Before The Fall

Pride in one’s city is natural and important. We feel pride every time that we hear something positive about Toledo in the national news. This is to be expected; we love our city and we want to share this feeling with others. But, to be responsible, our excitement and pride must be accompanied by a relentless pursuit to piece together the full picture. Pride plays a vital role in the health of the community, but untempered pride and reliance on external validation are harmful as they don’t allow us to see the full scope of the complexities in our community.

The Devil Is In The (Lack Of) Details

National news allows us to learn about the shared and unique experiences of local communities across the country, noteworthy federal happenings and important occurrences in core population centers. Local news must dig into the contextual details of local realities. National news is a powerful tool in uniting us, but we must make sure to filter national narratives about our community through a local sieve, filling out information produced at a national level with local intelligence. It is these distilled insights that must serve as fuel for local decision-making. Relying upon national perspectives alone is a danger to clear-headed community thinking and action, but using our local experience and real data to substantiate and explain national trends can trigger change from the ground up.

Midwest Infocoastia

There is a troubling pattern occurring in the Midwest that many have described, but that has, to this date, remained uncoined: midwest infocoastia. The term describes not only the reality that much of the news about the Midwest is produced on the coasts of our nation (73% of Internet publishing jobs are on the coasts, and another 5% in Chicago alone), but also the troubling psychology that has accompanied this reality. When our community looks itself in the mirror, we find it hard to see what is truly there, and instead see ourselves through the eyes of our coastal compatriots—waiting for national news to validate both our successes and failures, and looking for our story to be told by the voices that “matter.” And yes, there is much to learn from how you are seen by others—but our community must regain its own vision and voice while gleaning valuable insights from others, never forgetting that our most powerful storytellers should be ourselves.

More soon.

-The Midstory Team


* Defining “millennial” isn’t as easy as looking at what social media platforms someone uses or how many houseplants they own. Bloomberg used the National Association of Realtors methodology, which defines millennials as 19 – 37 years old. Given that the Census reports age in ranges and not discrete values representing each age (35 – 39, and not 35, 36, 37, 38, 39), we are not able to completely match the age range used by Bloomberg. Instead, we chose the closest values represented in the Census data: 20 – 39 year-olds.

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