Editor's note: The videos discussed in this article have been made private on YouTube since the article's publication.
A search for Toledo on YouTube is not exactly a marketer’s dream, in large part because of one anonymous critic of the city.
Of the top 10 results for a “Toledo Ohio” search on the video sharing Web site, five are by EconCat88, a man who seems to take particular joy in filming Toledo at its worst. Videos include abandoned buildings, empty downtown streets, and boarded up homes. The first search result is an EconCat88 video called “Toledo, Ohio — Welcome to America’s 11th most-miserable city.”
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There’s also the sarcastically titled “Welcome to Downtown Toledo Ohio’s fabulous nightlife,” “Welcome to Toledo, Ohio — America’s 8th most-miserable city and economic collapse headquarters,” followed by “Downtown Toledo, Ohio — believe it or not, nearly 300,000 people live here,” and “Welcome to Downtown Toledo, Ohio — renaissance or fool’s gold?”
“I’m not sure what you gain from dumping on your city,” said Jeff Schaaf, brand manager for the Toledo Brand Initiative project.
True, Toledo has been through tough times. There are boarded up buildings, closed businesses, and at times questionable governmental decisions. But there are nice parts too and people working hard to change its perception as a distressed city. That the first thing a casual Internet searcher would find about Toledo is so overtly negative doesn’t help.
It’s unknown what impact videos such as EconCat88’s will have on the city’s economic development efforts, said city spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei, but they could have a negative impact on a family planning a trip to watch a baseball game in the Midwest that didn’t know much about Toledo. Maybe they’d go elsewhere after seeing Econcat88’s work, she said.
“That is an economic impact,” Ms. Sorgenfrei said. “They are also not going to spend money on a hotel or restaurant.”
Negative perceptions of a city in media aren’t new, or limited to the entrance-barrier-breaking world of social media. For instance, EconCat88 has the first search result on YouTube, but the second is a Blade-produced video called “Battle Lines: Gangs of Toledo Defining Boundaries,” a short documentary that was part of an investigative series into the city’s gangs.
But sites such as YouTube and Twitter make it ever easier to torpedo months of marketing work by a city to promote its best features with only a video camera, a point of view, and spare time. Whether that’s good or bad is subjective.
It’s not clear who is behind EconCat88. He’s made videos for the past four years in Toledo, Detroit, Kentucky, Florida, and even China, with mostly the same themes. He says in his videos that his family is from Toledo and that his parents went to Scott High School.
The videos mostly consist of him either walking or driving around a building or neighborhood, while he narrates with biting remarks about the area and the city’s poor economic condition. Some have only a few hundred views. Others have more than 10,000.
There’s a long American tradition of anonymous criticism and commentary of both governments and society. The Federalist Papers, a series of essays in support of ratification of the U.S. Constitution, were published under the pen name Publius, though they were written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. Even The Blade has a role in the tradition. David Ross Locke wrote his famous Nasby Letters under the pseudonym Petroleum V. Nasby.
“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission, in which the court struck down an Ohio ban on anonymous political or campaign literature.
It’s also not exactly clear, Mr. Schaaf said, what EconCat88 hopes to gain from the videos. His posts are similar in some ways to ruin porn, a style of photography focused on urban decay, but his videos go beyond aesthetic affinity for deterioration and come with a healthy dose of contempt. Some have a clear political perspective, opposing government-run building projects or grants to private developers. Others just seem to point out poverty and businesses that have hit hard times.
EconCat88 responded once to messages to his YouTube account asking for a summary of what a reporter wanted to talk to him about.
“Thanks for watching my videos. It has been a fun journey with this youtube page,” he wrote.
He did not respond to a follow-up message.
Matter of context
It could be argued that what EconCat88 does is not fundamentally different than traditional journalism. He documents what he feels are things that should be changed in a community in order to create awareness. And, to be fair, it’s not the media’s job to make a city look good. The Blade was criticized by, among others, Mayor Mike Bell, for its gang series, which he said hurt the city’s reputation.
But any good journalism or social commentary should provide context and try to inform, not mislead. Many of the EconCat88’s videos have an obvious slant, occasional misinformation, and lack any pretext of context. Of course, the same arguments are often made about mainstream journalists.
For instance, a video posted Aug. 20, called “Welcome to dying Toledo, Ohio,” involves him driving around the now closed Liberty Nursing Center of Toledo at 2005 Ashland Ave.
He questions why the building is vacant, citing the city’s and country’s aging demographics, and says he hasn’t heard much about the building in the media. Market forces didn’t close the business, The Blade has reported. Instead, it shut down in the winter after it faced the the loss of its state license for several instances in which staff allegedly failed to prevent and respond to alleged abuse.
He then tours part of the Collingwood Springs neighborhood around Ashland Avenue, driving from Woodruff Avenue to Ashland, then to Fulton Street, along Prescott Street, onto Horton Street, and then onto Floyd Street.
“This neighborhood has kind of a Detroit feel to it,” he says. “Just every other lot is empty, and a lot of garbage sitting around.”
But someone familiar with the area would know the man — incidentally or on purpose — routes through depressed streets while avoiding other nearby developed areas.
If he’d gone west on Floyd, he would have quickly driven into the heart of the Old West End. Homes just a block west are some of the nicest in the area, and nearly all are occupied. There’s an open nursing home at Floyd Street and Collingwood Boulevard run by Liberty Health Care Corp., and an apartment complex for low-income seniors on Parkwood Avenue just off Floyd Street.
Someone viewing the video wouldn’t know that he’s chosen a particularly downtrodden few blocks, while renovated homes sit just a block away.
To be fair, EconCat88 did post a video from the Old West End a year prior, saying it was a departure from his normal doom and gloom and speaking generally favorably of the neighborhood. Maybe his context isn’t within individual videos, but his entire oeuvre.
It’s not easy to combat social media posts that put a city down, said Mike Horning, an assistant professor of journalism and public relations at Bowling Green State University. And, he said, social media has allowed citizens to hold city officials accountable in ways they haven’t in the past.
“In one sense it is a positive thing, because it helps a person take an active role in their community,” Mr. Horning said.
There’s not much Toledo officials can do about EconCat88’s videos. It’s free speech, and he has the right to post videos, no matter how biased. His videos probably appear so highly in searches because of how he labels them, a smart use of search engine optimization.
What the city should do, Mr. Horning said, is push its own message.
“You have to fight speech with more speech,” he said.
That’s exactly what Mr. Schaaf said is the plan. He said he doesn’t want to get into a “pissing match” with negative commentators but instead would like to focus on the positive in the region. The Toledo Brand Initiative plans to do a video similar to one done by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance.
And while social media makes it easy for anyone to trash a city, it also makes it easy for residents to post their own positive messages about a city they love. There are Instagram accounts devoted to photographing beautiful parts of the region, for instance.
But just as valuable, Ms. Sorgenfrei said, is one-on-one conversations about the city. Social media is just the digital form of word-of-mouth, and while the city has started a more active social media presence in recent months, it’s just as important to put the city’s best-foot-forward to each individual person.
Then, they’d have no reason to make videos dumping on the city.