Wednesday, Oct 24, 2018
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Culture

Sister Cities program fosters ties between Lucas County and the world

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    Szeged, one of Toledo's numerous international sister cities.

    Marton Koczka

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    During an interview in his Toledo home, James Hartung, vice president of the Board of Trustees of Toledo Sister Cities International, talks about the organization.

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    During an interview in his Toledo home, James Hartung, vice president of the Board of Trustees of Toledo Sister Cities International, talks about the organization.

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    International artifacts bought as souvenirs by James Hartung, vice president of the Board of Trustees of Toledo Sister Cities International.

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    Szeged, one of Toledo's numerous international sister cities.

    Marton Koczka

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Starting Tuesday, and monthly thereafter, The Blade food page will spotlight a recipe from each of Toledo’s sister cities. 

What’s the connection between Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain?

In some ways, very little. When Ohioans adopted the name in the 1800s, a nod to the medieval city in Spain, it’s believed to have come at the suggestion of someone who ran across the name in a book. There were no real ties between the two, as evidenced even today by Toledo, Ohio’s negligible number of residents of Spanish heritage.

In other ways, the two cities share quite a strong connection: Ohioans and Castile-La Manchans forged what’s believed to be the world’s first-ever sister city relationship in 1931, a long-standing model of the sort of interactions that cities around the globe routinely share today.

“Our sister city connection is the very first one in the world,” said Dagmar Varela, president of the Association of Two Toledos, a nonprofit that facilitates communication between the two name-sharing cities. She regularly exchanges emails with her counterpart in Spain.

In fact, with the exception of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, when official communication dropped off but residents of each city maintained personal correspondences, she said the two cities “have been in contact constantly.”

Toledo, Spain, today represents one of the strongest sister city relationships that Toledo, Ohio, maintains through student exchanges, delegate visits, and more. Since setting a precedent for such interactions in the 1930s, sitting mayors have formalized still-active relationships with cities in 10 countries, including Qinhuangdao, China (1989); Szeged, Hungary (1990); Poznan, Poland (1991); Toyohashi, Japan (2000); Tanga, Tanzania (2001); Delmenhorst, Germany (2002); Coimbatore, India (2010); and Hyderabad, Pakistan (2011).

The Ninth Congressional District is connected to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon by way of a regional agreement, and Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson most recently brought Coburg, Germany, into the mix, signing a friendship agreement in late December.

A friendship agreement is considered a forerunner to full sister-city status and comes after earlier established contact with Delmenhorst fell dormant.

Sister cities are established through mayor-to-mayor agreements, which are signed with an eye toward fostering positive relationships between residents of foreign countries. The broader goal, as described by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who founded Sister Cities International in 1956, well after Toledo connected with its Spanish counterpart, is to promote world peace — “one individual, one community at a time.”

It’s a lofty goal, and James Hartung doesn’t approach it with any Pollyanna-ish expectations. He’s president of Toledo Sister Cities International, a nonprofit that supports and serves as an umbrella organization for the committees that interact with each of Toledo’s sister cities.

Incorporated in 1993, Toledo Sister Cities International celebrates 25 years this year.

“I have no presumption that world peace is going to be achieved in my lifetime,” Mr. Hartung said. “But becoming actively involved in the process of seeking world peace is important.”

Toledo’s relationship with each of its sister cities is different, a reflection of the committees on each side of the relationship that arrange educational, cultural, and economic interactions. Mr. Hartung said that some relationships, perhaps naturally, are more active than others.

Toledo Sister Cities International backs two initiatives each year in which each sister city is invited to participate: One is the Toledo Sister Cities International Festival, which this year will be held at the Seagate Convention Centre on April 14. The other is the International Youth Academy, a two-week summertime program that invites high school students from Toledo and each of its sister cities to spend time together at the University of Toledo.

Toledo tends to share some commonalities with each of its sister cities, said Hans Ersepke, a board member who has seen Toledo sign agreements with several sister cities. A city with a port or a strong university presence, for example, tends to make for a good match.

Or maybe it’s a reputation for glass art, as Toledo and Coburg share. The German city is home to the European Museum of Modern Glass.

Often the cities share cultural ties, too. Sister Ann Francis Klimkowski, a Sylvania Franciscan who has been involved in Toledo Sister Cities International since the ’90s, said she sees the international relationships reflecting the multi ethnic heritage of the local community.

“If you look at the sister cities,” she said, “they very much mirror the ethnic diversity that you find in this city.”

The exception, culturally speaking, is Toledo, Spain, where Ms. Varela said the impetus for a high school language teacher to initially reach out was the shared name. Of the 67 members she counts in the Association of Two Toledos, she said that just two are Spanish by heritage.

Yet the Toledo-Toledo connection — Ms. Varela distinguishes the Spanish city with a Spanish pronunciation, a hard “o” and a hard “a” for the first two vowels — is a clear example of the sort of cultural exchanges that each group, to varying degrees, might plan throughout the year.

Toledo, Ohio, recently welcomed a visiting director from Spain in the fall; his visit prompted plans for an exchange of actors between the two cities that’s still in the works.

The association is working to send a choir to Spain in 2021, in line with the 95th anniversary of the relationship, and plans are in the works to bring a Spanish artist to Ohio to work with a local artist on a glass sculpture.

The sculpture will be positioned in the Toledo Spain Plaza, near the Toledo Museum of Art.

While exchanges of language, culture, art, and music are important in sister city relationships, Mr. Hartung said the local organization is also increasingly seeing a role for itself in the “soft side” of economic development. The idea, he explained, is that the global relationships that Toledoans build with their sister cities will lead to business interactions, too.

“It’s kind of creating the environment where international business can happen,” said Chris Weisfelder, a longtime board member who echoed the sentiment. “We’re really good at making people feel at home in Toledo.”

That, too, can advance the big-picture world-peace goal of sister city relationships. Mr. Hartung, Ms. Weisfelder. and others said it’s all related.

“Somebody once said that when trade crosses borders, armies don’t,” Mr. Hartung said. “So perhaps the scheme of creating a mechanism through which people-to-people diplomacy occurs, and commercial ties occur, that’s the vehicle through which we can achieve world peace.”

He recalled fondly, for example, a visit from a Polish jazz band, that, because of its sister city ties to Toledo, stopped en route to a festival on the West Coast several years ago. Mr. Hartung hosted a reception for the band in his Toledo home, he said, and was delighted to have them start up an impromptu jam session right there in his living room.

“That’s the kind of relationships we have,” he said. “Those are the kind of ties that we want to be able to create.”

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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