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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2002

My turn: It has its imperfections, but Toledo is still home

About 25 years ago, Roberta de Boer explored life in bigger cities, but she always came back home. About 25 years ago, Roberta de Boer explored life in bigger cities, but she always came back home.
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Oh, how I wish I'd written this yesterday.

I felt a lot better about Toledo yesterday than I do today. Ah, but that's how it so often goes for me.

One day, I love the place.

The next, I wonder why I ever stayed.

This love-hate relationship with my hometown suspends me in a constant state of conflict. I am forever uneasy in Toledo, where calling someone ”different“ is an insult and not a compliment.

The place pinches.

But at least I'm evolving.

Toledo pinches, all right, but in such a different way than it did 25 years ago. Back then, I was a young twenty-something hoping for a little excitement in an old person's town. All that was wrong with Toledo was easily summed up in one sentence: There was simply nothing to do.

From the vantage point of middle age, the place still strikes me as an old person's town. My chief complaint about Toledo during these adult years has still been easy to summarize: The people running the town simply weren't doing enough.

Like young people in a lot of places, I was dying to flee the know-nothing stasis of my hometown, certain I'd completely outgrown Toledo. The itch of youth and all that.

Now, after having fled and returned more than once, I've been back so long this time that (however much I still have days of wishing to flee) I've become vested in Toledo in all the important ways.

Turns out I care when they raze yet another downtown building. Turns out I care about city schools. Turns out I care about the kind of public policy we make for the city's poorest people. Turns out I care about the way we're too inclined to let ourselves be the playground of developers.

In my experience, it's pretty hard to take the measure of a place unless you leave it.

Otherwise, what would you use as a yardstick?

A quarter century ago, I gulped air from other, bigger cities in much the same way someone near drowning finally reaches the surface of the lake. But a funny thing happened during middle age - Toledo now looks good to my eye.

Well, not aesthetically speaking. No, we're still cursed with a landscape of mini-malls and 7-Elevens and look-alike subdivisions. We are Anywhere and Everywhere, U.S.A., and what we've allowed to be done to ourselves ain't always pretty.

But to my eye, the endlessly flat landscape beyond the ugliness now reveals a hidden beauty. It is quiet, unassuming. You have to look. It's not for the unobservant.

My mother, when she first came here, was soothed by that same linear quality. Born in Indonesia, she and my Dutch father came here by way of Amsterdam. To her eye, when northwest Ohio unfolded itself mile after mile, flat as a bed sheet, she might have been in the Dutch countryside. Even the dank, gray light of winter reminded her of the pewter-skied country she left.

The immigrant experience, of course, made this city what it is, just as it made this country what it is.

Toledo was long a place where shaking hands meant feeling calluses. We were a place that attracted people who knew how to use their hands, how to use their backs.

We make things here - or we did, back when everyone enjoyed an economy based on the production of things.

People don't make as many things anymore.

They make money, or they have ideas. Things seem anachronistic.

Things are what come to us from Mexico, from China and the United Arab Emirates, from Guatemala and Taiwan, and, yes, Indonesia.

Oh, sure, we still make Jeeps here. But we think about it differently now. We see a Jeep and we think "eggs," we think "one basket," we think, "not good," we think, "uh-oh, careful there!"

And so we're floundering a little here as we stand by the sidelines, not quite knowing what to do with our hands as we wait to catch an economic wave we don't yet quite see.

In the meantime, though, Toledo still provides much of what, on my good days, makes me grateful to be here.

If Toledo doesn't always offer all that much to do (and I would now dispute that), well, neither does it demand much.

It is easy to live here.

Effortless.

You can find a lovely old house and spend well below the national average to buy it. You can live in a place where it's still socially acceptable to chat with the supermarket cashier. You can gripe about "traffic jams" and only mean waiting through two red lights, not one. You can still feel pretty safe here.

You can, in other words, love this place even in spite of itself - and if you think about it, that's a high compliment indeed.



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