Close-knit East Toledo unites behind neighborhood, politics

10/25/2012
BY RONEISHA MULLEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Main Street in East Toledo.
Main Street in East Toledo.

Teresa Williams didn’t mind the steady downpour or the cool fall weather as she sat in the stands of Jack Mollenkopf Stadium at Waite High School on a recent Friday night for a football game.

It was senior night and her son was being recognized. She had to be there.

Teresa Williams blocks the rain with a U.S. Flag umbrella while watching her son play football at Waite High School on senior night.
Teresa Williams blocks the rain with a U.S. Flag umbrella while watching her son play football at Waite High School on senior night.

“I’d be here even if there was snow knee-deep,” said Ms. Williams, 66, of East Toledo. “I’m all he’s got. To disappoint him was not in the picture.”

That same night, the staff at Senor Toros Mexican Cantina was gearing up for yet another fund-raiser. An area family needed to raise money to cover funeral expenses for a loved one who died from complications of diabetes.

Bordered by Rossford to the south and Oregon to the east and separated from the rest of Toledo by the Maumee River, East Toledo has its own blue-collar identity. The area is the kind of place where residents and businesses step up to support their own.

Each year, tens of thousands of people pour out into the streets of East Toledo for the annual Birmingham Ethnic Festival, a celebration of the Birmingham neighborhood and its Hungarian heritage. Despite the dwindling Hungarian population, the festival takes place every year and with much fanfare.

Three miles away from the Birmingham neighborhood, the East Toledo Family Center on Varland Avenue brings the community together with sporting events, family friendly activities, and other community outreach programs.

When it comes to politics, East Toledo residents unite to show their support, generally for Democrats.

“I haven’t paid any attention to Mitt Romney. I know who’s got my vote” said Gary Portillo, owner of Senor Toros. “I work on the line at Ford [Motor Company]. I’ve been there 15 years and I’m really happy Obama did what he did,” Mr. Portillo added, referring to the auto industry bailout.

Mr. Portillo’s job at Ford provided him the opportunity to purchase the restaurant four years ago. When business is slow, it’s that job on the line that keeps the doors to the cantina open, he said.

“Nobody’s helped me with my business. No minority loans or anything else. Nothing. I’ve struggled to keep this place open,” said Mr. Portillo, 48, who lives in South Toledo. “But I’m thankful for what I do have: a job that helps me keep the bills paid.”

DJ Pablo Urbina takes a break from spinning records at  Senor Toros in East Toledo.
DJ Pablo Urbina takes a break from spinning records at Senor Toros in East Toledo.

Pablo Urbina, who is a disc jockey at the cantina a few nights a week, shares Mr. Portillo’s sentiments. Mr. Urbina comes from a long line of auto workers, including his great-grandfather and his mother, who worked for Chrysler Group LLC for almost 30 years.

“Building cars is a major source of money for Toledo. Whether you’re building the engine, a bumper, tires. It’s all related. It’s how we make our living,” Mr. Urbina said. “I’ve been to Flint, Mich. and I see what General Motors pulling out did to that city. I look at it and wonder if that’s where Toledo is headed if the plants close. I take my hat off to [President Obama].”

Political climate

There’s no ambiguity as to which political party commands the loyalty of East Toledo. The district has almost 28,300 registered voters, a majority of whom vote for Democrats.

Ms. Williams said she’s voting for Democrats and is encouraging others to do the same.

“I’m voting for Obama, and I hope my son is too,” said Ms. Williams, a retired factory worker and cosmetologist. “I’m trying to keep quiet and let him make his own decision, but I’m worried Obama might not win.

“It’s already hard to make ends meet; if Romney gets in, it’s going to be even worse, because he’s not for the people,” Ms. Williams said. “He’s for himself.”

While support for the President runs deep throughout the east side, there are still some voters who are unimpressed with the President’s social policies and the progress of economic recovery. At the same time, they aren’t impressed with Mitt Romney’s plans either.

Three debates and hundreds of commercials later, Ashley Levy, 22, said she’s still not sure if either candidate is worthy of her vote.

“They both have so many pros and cons that I don’t see how one is better than the other,” said Ms. Levy of East Toledo. “I don’t think either one of them has earned my vote. I don’t think I’m voting this year.”

This won’t be the first time Ms. Levy opted not to cast a ballot. She didn’t vote during the last presidential election for similar reasons.

Barbara Rubinstein sells tickets to fans at the Waite High School football game against Start High School on senior night on October 20.
Barbara Rubinstein sells tickets to fans at the Waite High School football game against Start High School on senior night on October 20.

Barbara Rubinstein, a lifelong resident of East Toledo, works the ticket booth on Friday nights for Waite football games. She graduated from the school in 1971 and volunteers there regularly. She prides herself on giving back and supporting her community, but on Election Day she plans to steer clear of the polls.

“I’m not voting for either one of them,” said Ms. Rubinstein, 58. “Mitt Romney is for the wealthy, and Barack Obama, I understand he’s only one person, but this country is in such bad shape. I think he’s trying, but I don’t think he’s trying hard enough.”

Diane Yenrick, who works the booth with Ms. Rubinstein said she plans to vote, but she said she hasn’t decided on a candidate. Mrs. Yenrick said she can better relate to Mr. Obama but doesn’t agree with his social views.

“Mitt, he doesn’t have an idea of what we’re going through down here on the bottom. He doesn’t care about smaller classrooms, teachers, or unions. He’s had money all his life. He doesn’t have a clue,” said Mrs. Yenrick, a paraprofessional. “Barack, he has more of an idea, but I don’t believe in the things he’s changed, like ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I’m not saying I’m against gay people, but don’t push it on me.”

Michael Armstrong has operated Michael’s Cafe and Bakery for 32 years. The shop has been in its Main Street location for the last 20 years. During his career, he has seen numerous presidents and several economic climates. He doesn’t spend much time thinking about which candidate will best represent him as a businessman.

“We play the hand we’re dealt. I worry about what I can control, like quality of food and service,” said Mr. Armstrong, who said his sales have increased 15 to 20 percent from the same quarter last year. He also saw health-care costs for his employees rise 10 percent this year. “Politically, I don’t know if there is an answer. Whoever is sitting in that chair, I don’t know that they’re going to be able to keep our health-care costs reasonable.”

Community loyalty

The prevailing opinion of East Toledo is that the area has declined in recent years because of an uptick in crime. According to a survey released in 2012 by the Birmingham Development Corporation, East Toledo Family Center, and the Neighborhood Housing Services of Toledo, one out of every four people in the Birmingham neighborhood has been a victim of crime.

To counter this image, the Family Center has put in place programs to help deter youth from illegal activities and provide them with enriching opportunities. The center started a midnight basketball league for older youth and young adults. The program is aimed at keeping them focused on positive behaviors and out of the streets.

The center recently held its annual World Series Chili Cook-off, a fund-raiser for the center’s programs. Despite the perception of violence, Kim Partin, executive director of the East Toledo Family Center, said the area’s residents are loyal to their community.

“They like living in East Toledo. They love their neighborhoods, but they wish the conditions were different,” Mrs. Partin said.

In addition to safety concerns, residents are worried about “Social Security, Medicare, jobs. Those are some of the things on people’s minds in East Toledo,” Mrs. Partin said. “They’re going to be voting, thinking about their children’s education and their futures.”

Julia Bertalan, left, and her husband Dylan Wilson, right, in their East Toledo home.
Julia Bertalan, left, and her husband Dylan Wilson, right, in their East Toledo home.

In preparation for her future as a pastor, Julia Bertalan, who lives in the Birmingham neighborhood, is interning at Calvin United Church of Christ on Bakewell Street and as a chaplain at a hospital. She’s also working as a field organizer for ethnic communities.

Ms. Bertalan, who recently returned to Toledo after spending time in Hungary, accumulated $90,000 in student loan debt while earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in divinity. The newlywed and her husband, who installs countertops, struggled to pay the $800 monthly loan repayment charges.

“There’s no way we could afford that right now,” said Dylan Wilson, Ms. Bertalan’s husband. “But you have to go to school, because if you don’t, you end up in a position like me, sweating it out for a position you can live off of.”

Student debt reform policies qualified Ms. Bertalan for the income-based-repayment plan, which reduced her monthly payments to $0, but she’s encouraged to pay something toward her debt. Such policies, have made the couple a fan of Mr. Obama.

“I’m a strong Obama supporter. He seems to really try to relate to everyday people and the people who are struggling the most,” Ms. Bertalan, 27 said. “I can’t relate to [Romney] in any way. He doesn’t see the richness in the poor people of our country.”

Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: rmullen@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.