SOME time ago as I was walking out of the Spitzer Building in downtown where I work, I came across John Spitzer just outside the front door. He was leaning against the building's corner, waiting for his nightly ride home.
Mr. Spitzer was, at that time, 89 years old. The building was completed 113 years ago.
“Hi, Mr. Spitzer,” I said, then asked, “I wonder if you're holding the building up or if your building's holding you up?”
He gave that gentle laugh of his and quickly said, “Indeed, I sometimes wonder the very same thing.”
There's been a lot of talk around Toledo the past several years about “brain drain.” Frankly, the subject's a bit tired, or at least the ways in which it's typically discussed. And this opinion comes from one who, after spending seven years away, returned home to drain. I live only blocks from where I was born. Not only that, but I have worked in the same profession as my father and grandfather and in the very same building.
But I am no municipal apologist.
We all know, of course, that many around the country look down upon us. A national magazine said this about Toledo eight years ago: “Residents of Toledo tend to apologize for their city. They'll describe the job or school that brought them to this northwestern Ohio town as if it's a fact beyond their control. Or they'll explain that they were born here; who can help that? … Not much happens in Toledo that the rest of the country would consider worth the trip.”
And from their lofty vantage, they're probably right. For if you measure a place by the number of Starbucks on each block or the number of cloud-free days each year, then it's true — we are provincial, not cosmopolitan and, thus measured, hardly worthy of civic envy.
It would be easy enough now to move this essay along toward conclusion by writing about all the things that people here say they like about Toledo and why others should too. But you've read about them all a hundred times before: think Toledo Zoo, the art museum, the metroparks, affordable housing, great place to raise a family, and proximity to Ann Arbor (my personal favorite).
But rather than write about these so-called “quality of life” points, I'd rather this be about what matters most — the people — and how people can inform our appreciation of place. To do this, I'll give you a short list of personal likes that have nothing to do with places to go and things to do.
I like living in a place where a 30-year-old can get elected as a county commissioner. That's progressive. A place where the mayor is willing to make a citizen's arrest upon a speeding driver on the Anthony Wayne Trail. Now that's dedication.
It's a place with a newspaper that has recently won both a Pulitzer Prize and been a finalist. For a city our size, that's extraordinary. The very same paper is also gifted to cover the local Democrats, who so outnumber the Republicans, that they have divided themselves in two, the ever-confusing “A” and “B,” thereby allowing many of their common opponents to win at the polls. (This one's actually dim-witted, but it does make for compelling reading.)
Finally, it's a place which allowed its local sports arena — which was a dump 30 years ago when I was a kid — to endure long past its heyday because it was our dump.
In the end, though, what matters most is this: We're here together. Some of us live here by choice; some by happenstance. Many complain fiercely; others not so much.
For me, though, I can't think of Toledo without thinking about the Spitzer Building. The building's a perfect representation of the city in which it sits. Indeed, at those times when I contemplate how it might have been nice to have drained my brain elsewhere, I think this: How lucky to be in a building and a city with so many really smart, really well-meaning, and really crazy (but in a good way) people.
By this set of standards, I always conclude this is surely a place worth being.
And I apologize to you, Mr. Spitzer, if you think I've called you crazy. You're not. You are, sir, however, the only thing in your building that moves more slowly than your elevators.
But I want you to know that there is no other lobby, in any other building, in any other city, where I would rather spend endless amounts of time waiting. Waiting, while every elevator sits motionless 10 floors above, minute after excruciating minute, no matter how many times I smash the button. For when an elevator finally makes its way down — if for no other reason than gravity — and the doors slowly pull open, there's a better than average chance that a Toledoan will emerge.
Samuel Z. Kaplan is a Toledo attorney. His beloved Spitzer Building has been put up for sale.
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