Give “EconCat88” this much: His narrated videos of Toledo on YouTube, many of them portraying an urban wasteland, have done more to spark discussion of the city’s image than all the work of a branding initiative formed in 2009.
Until this weekend, of the top 10 results for a “Toledo, Ohio” search on the video-sharing Web site YouTube, five were by EconCat88. Among them: “Welcome to America’s 11th most miserable city” and “Downtown Toledo, Ohio — believe it or not, nearly 300,000 people live here.” With more than 1.1 million views, his videos have local politicians and promoters stressing about T-Town’s image.
Such obsessions aren’t unusual for older medium-sized and large cities. Just ask our neighbor to the north, Detroit, which has struggled with the negative perceptions of outsiders for decades.
Part of Toledo’s problem is that it doesn’t have a strong image or brand. Most people around the country don’t quite know what to think about Toledo, if they think about it at all. EconCat88 has at least put Toledo on the digital map.
Some perspective is needed. The videos, which disappeared from public access on YouTube this week, are both accurate and untrue. They’re accurate because the urban decay they portray wasn’t made up.
It’s real — as anyone who lives in Toledo’s impoverished neighborhoods knows — though hardly unique to Toledo. The city’s leaders, and cheerleaders, should stop carping and fix the problems.
But the videos are also twisted and untrue as a portrayal of the entire city. Toledo is much more than empty or abandoned public spaces, such as the Marina District, or boarded-up buildings.
For starters, Toledo has affordable housing, good schools, relatively low crime rates, and a vibrant arts scene. You don’t have to live here to know that there’s more than meets the YouTube eye.
Any thinking person could deduce that the videos paint a narrow and distorted picture of a reasonably appealing city. Still, even a city’s rough spots can contribute to a marketable brand.
Some people like grit. Tens of thousands of young professionals have moved to Detroit in the past decade, mainly in the downtown area, looking for an urban experience that differs from the suburbs in which they grew up. Even lofts, with their exposed pipes and blemished concrete walls, reflect the appetite for an edgier environment.
That doesn’t mean Toledo politicians and planners should tolerate blight. Local leaders should take advantage of the YouTube buzz to bring members of this community together, including young artists, to define and brand their city.
City Councilman Steven Steel, who knows EconCat88, has a solid idea: Encourage everyday people to create alternative videos that portray the positives of Toledo, and have them posted and viewed on a video-hosting Web site created by The Blade or another outlet.
As for Toledo’s branding committee, maybe it should find the reclusive man behind “EconCat88” — and hire him.