City of practical visionaries

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  • Writers and academics are always in danger of falling in love with their own concepts. But I really like the concept of the “practical visionary,” because it epitomizes the special asset that Toledo has — the people who have built and will build the city.


    The practical visionary is a person of large scope, and moral imagination, who can also operate in the real world. He, or she, is a poet who is also a person of action.


    The thing about Toledo is that we have an extraordinary number of these people, especially for a city our size. We have talked about a few of them in this space: former mayor and current Councilman Jack Ford, civil rights and union leader Baldemar Velasquez, Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Romules Durant, north end community organizer Terry Glazer, pastor and scholar Fr. Jim Bacik, member of Congress and ultimate Toledo booster Marcy Kaptur — extraordinary people. And to me it is extraordinary that there are so many.

    I think we have reached a tipping point. And I am not the only one who feels this way. Everywhere I go, people say that they feel, somehow, that the city is on the verge of something — a breakthrough; an opening to a time of forward motion, growth, and national recognition.

    Part of what is going on, I think, is the coming together of practical talent and vision — a sort of critical mass in leadership.

    I'll give you an example: I was getting a tour around the old Macomber School building from the president of Cherry Street Mission, Dan Rogers. He is a practical visionary, if ever there was one. Talk about a pragmatic prophet. He has plans for a food court in which homeless people would be able to use something like a cash card given to them by Cherry Street. They would exchange labor or education hours for food choice. What makes you get out of bed in the morning, he asks. His answer: access and choice. He wants homeless people to have access and choice. He also envisions a residential area in in the new building in which people graduating from the program could move toward a private room. Macomber's beautiful, old auditorium, he says, could be in constant use for music, lectures, theater, and church meetings. Practical vision.

    And critical mass.

    Mr. Rogers opened a door to a snow-covered parking lot on a windy day and described to me his vision of an urban garden for that lot, including livestock. Sound crazy? Not when you talk to Mr. Rogers and you know what he has already accomplished.

    As the wind was blasting though that door he asked me if I knew Bryan Ellis, Toledo’s premier urban farmer. As it happens, I do. Mr. Ellis is a visionary with his hands in the soil. He is a scientist, an inventor, a man who raises plants and fish in this arctic winter and uses virtually no gas or electric energy to so. He is a man who makes his own coal, raises ducks, and grows food on what used to be parking lots — an absolutely amazing one-of-a-kind human being. He has moved from the Oneida Garden to the University Church garden, where his mission is the same — green, fresh food for the poor. What an asset he is to this city.

    I’ll give you two more practical visionaries: Ken Leslie, one of the city’s most fearless advocates for the homeless and the best friend a homeless veteran ever had. He runs a national charity, 1Matters, that has been able to enlist the aid of people like John Mellencamp. And he’s ours; he’s here.

    As is Carty Finkbeiner. He’s all ours and he’s still here; still in there pitching. These days he works as a volunteer for boards and organizations that he thinks can do some good — like Family House, or the ad hoc committee he has founded with Mr. Velasquez to combat youth poverty, which he calls “The Organizers.” The other day he dropped off a study on children in poverty in the United States. There are more than twice as many (roughly 23 percent of our kids) as in France, England, Germany, or Canada. And Carty was enraged. Enraged.

    I know some people don’t like him. But how many mayors or politicians, of his age, are still so passionate and engaged? My friend Robert Z. Kaplan says Carty’s love for this city is not only admirable, but so excessive as to be inexplicable.

    We are a city of practical visionaries. You could argue that the current president and immediate past president of UT, Lloyd Jacobs and Dan Johnson, also fall into this category. Certainly Randy Oostra and James Hoffman, of ProMedica and KeyBank, who have just done the greatest thing done for downtown Toledo in 30 years, are practical visionaries. The city, and the city government, needs to back them 100 percent.

    We are rich in human capital. Now we must both pool and leverage it. We are wastrels and fools if we do not. In reality, our future, our opportunity, is limitless.

    Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

    Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.