Waiting for Toledo’s Tomorrow

Seventy-four years after the opening of an exhibit promising Toledoans a bright, monumental future, the city still awaits its tomorrow. (Cover Image: "Toledo Tomorrow" model, c. 1945. Courtesy of the Toledo–Lucas County Public Library.)

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Home Stories Think Waiting for Toledo's Tomorrow

On July 4, 1945, just two months before the end of the Second World War, hundreds of Toledoans paid 25¢ admission to cram onto elevated platforms inside the Toledo Zoo’s Stratford Theater to catch a glimpse of their future. They peered, some through opera glasses, at the theater’s sole display: a sixty-foot model of the Glass City as it might look in fifty years’ time. The architectural exhibit, called “Toledo Tomorrow,” offered spectators a miniature metropolis gleaming with promise, with prospective parkways and scaled-down skyscrapers circling a multimodal centerpiece: a new transit hub consolidating bus, rail and air travel along the banks of the Maumee. 

Footage courtesy of Critical Past.

Bankrolled by Paul Block, Jr., then-owner of the Toledo Blade, “Toledo Tomorrow” was the Greatest Generation’s attempt to envision a modern, clean, orderly city. Designer Norman Bel Geddes replaced wartime Toledo’s congested streets and smoggy waterfront with sunken superhighways and leafy parks. Residents were awestruck. 

“It’s something that all Toledoans should see,” J. L. Flagg, a Willys-Overland employee, told the Blade. “And they should go away thinking about it.” 

A cross-section of the transit center proposed by “Toledo Tomorrow,” c. 1945. Courtesy of LIFE, September 17, 1945.

Block poured $150,000—over $2 million in today’s dollars—into “Toledo Tomorrow.” And while that price tag may be hefty, it would have taken much more money to implement every proposal in the plan. A new, streamlined train station eventually replaced the city’s 1886 monstrosity, but it came without the planned airport (one of five originally proposed by Bel Geddes that never materialized). New expressways eventually crisscrossed the city, but they came without the promised elimination of traffic. Most of “Toledo Tomorrow” still remains speculative, despite the fact that its far-flung “tomorrow”—1995—is now almost 25 years our yesterday. 

So why don’t we live in a supersized version of Block and Bel Geddes’s model city? The short answer is that deindustrialization, suburbanization and overall regional decline sapped Toledo of the tax dollars needed to execute this sort of vision. But maybe it’s a good thing that we don’t live in their Toledo. Mid-century master planners were, after all, notorious for pursuing their plans with little regard for the everyday residents in their way. Bel Geddes seems to have been no different. Many of his beautifully sloping highway interchanges, along with his grandiose transportation center, would have razed, perhaps purposely, a large number of low-income homes. When the Blade wrote, without a hint of irony, that the exhibit’s expressways “knif[ed] through the heart of Toledo,” that heart was often black, working-class, or both. 

The airport and highway interchanges proposed by “Toledo Tomorrow,” overlaid on an aerial photo of southern Toledo, c. 1945. Courtesy of LIFE, September 17, 1945.

Still, the makers of “Toledo Tomorrow” sought to accomplish something more ephemeral and emotional than the laying out of new expressways. One pamphlet from 1945 describes the exhibit not as a specific blueprint, but as an “inspiration for future living.” Years later, in 1981, Paul Block even called it a “stunt”—a splashy attempt to spark ideas big enough for the coming postwar boom. If he thought the same in 1945, then it makes sense that he hired Bel Geddes, a former theatrical set designer who saw modern cities as “all spiritual enlightenment and visual beauty,” to fashion his dramatically-staged metropolis. Above all, Block hoped to manufacture civic pride in viewers’ minds. With that pride firmly established, he said, “You can bet your life nothing will stop us.” 

It’s unclear whether “Toledo Tomorrow” managed to spark that pride. Driving down I-75 or walking by the mostly unused Union Station doesn’t exactly inspire one to salute the municipal flag. A huge, $2 million speculative master plan, even seen through rose-colored opera glasses, wasn’t enough to fully reshape Toledoans’ idea of themselves or to prevent economic decline. The exhibit stayed just that: an exhibit.

“Five People Working on Model for Toledo Plan,” c. 1945. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin. 

But Toledo didn’t stop there. In the 1980s, another expansive vision for Toledo arrived on the scene, this one even grander, both geographically and conceptually, than “Toledo Tomorrow.” The brainchild of local professors and business executives, Lake Erie West (LEW) was both an idea and a nonprofit corporation. Its name rebrands northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan as one cohesive economic entity, emphasizing shared biotech and educational resources from Detroit to Findlay. 

“It’s a concept where you eliminate state lines and boundaries, and you work together as a regional entity,” Richard Micka, former president of LEW and vice president of La-Z-Boy, Inc., told the Toledo City Paper in 2000.

LEW, like “Toledo Tomorrow,” aimed to transform the way local residents—and the rest of the world—perceived this region. A consciously chosen identity, a name like “Lake Erie West” had the potential to make the “Rust Belt image disappea[r],” as University of Toledo professor and LEW mastermind Jerry Jakes told the City Paper. “People start being a little more proud about where they are, instead of asking everybody who comes in here, ‘Why would you want to come to a godforsaken place like Toledo?’”

It’s near-impossible to judge the success of an idea like LEW. If you define it simply by whether Toledoans actually refer to their region as “Lake Erie West,” then, beyond the odd mention in a real estate magazine, it’s hasn’t exactly been a winner. But daring to think regionally—to realize the need for cooperation among corporations and universities and city halls that all share one future—is laudably bold. Nevertheless, LEW never took hold as the “global address” its proponents intended it to be.

Courtesy of Jerry Jakes and the Toledo Official Visitors Guide, 1995.

“Toledo Tomorrow” and Lake Erie West lacked neither scope of vision nor scale of ambition. And yet vision and ambition were not enough to see the initiatives to fruition. Each proposal was put forth by hotshot designers or business executives who were important community leaders and visionaries, to be sure. But in Norman Bel Geddes’ case, perhaps his vision wasn’t quite representative of or feasible for the neighborhoods he tried to redefine—a mostly working-class city as much in need of the reality as of the vision. Lake Erie West saw and addressed the need for a cohesive and inclusive regional identity, yet the beautiful picture the rebranding campaign painted never left the page.

But just being practical doesn’t necessarily produce a good result, either, when there lacks a vision. When Robert Seyfang, architect and founder of the Toledo Design Center, observed Toledo throughout the 70s and 80s, he became frustrated by the shortsightedness he saw in Toledo’s urban planning.

“I saw a lot of mediocrity creeping into the area. I saw a lot of projects that were accepted just because they appeared to be good for economic development, rather than good design and good planning,” he said. 

So where does vision hit the ground? Where does the ideal meet reality? Perhaps prescriptive models or branding campaigns aren’t the way forward for Toledo; perhaps Toledo has seen and discussed too many “opportunities” and dreams without ever seeing the reality. A city is made up of its citizens—a group of people who have chosen to call this place home. And so maybe we start there: with the many individuals and stories that make our city and region meaningful to us and to one another. Good urban planning needs both the vision and the everyday, lived experience to have longevity and lasting impact. Both “Toledo Tomorrow” and Lake Erie West are inspiring, to be sure. What inspires us today?

Seyfang has asked Toledoans that very question.

“I said [to a good friend of mine], ‘What’s the biggest thing that isn’t happening in Toledo?’ And his response was—and it’s stuck with me ever since—it was, ‘We never say what’s next.’”

Perhaps that’s a question only we, as everyday citizens, can answer. So what’s tomorrow, Toledo? Or, even better, what’s today? ♦

Watch the video below to learn more about “Toledo Tomorrow.”

Video by Stephanie Martzaklis for Midstory.

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