Update: Steel tables ‘Joe Wicks Way’ decision; activist Scott threatens June 1 protest marchWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE: In reaction to what he called an unanticipated “vitriol and divisive” reaction, Councilman Steve Steel says he plans to table the ordinance he proposed May 8 to rename a Downtown intersection in honor of Joe Wicks.
Steel made the proposal as a way to honor Wicks’ activism the early 1990’s in which he promoted AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment.
The response of downtown business owners, however, was quick and harsh, as Councilman Steve Sarantou received 23 emails in protest of the intersection renaming proposal in the first 15 hours following the City Council meeting. Business owners took intense issue with what they all referred to as Wicks’ failure to maintain his property at Caesar’s Show Lounge, formerly located at 725 Jefferson Ave.
Lair Scott, the gay activist who approached Steel with the intersection renaming proposal, says he’s not at all surprised with what he called “a homophobic overreaction to honoring Toledo’s gay icon.”
On the same day Barack Obama became the first United States president to endorse same-sex marriage, an activist accused the City of Toledo of being unresponsive to the gay community.
Gay rights activist Lair Scott warned City Council members that if they don’t approve the naming of a Downtown intersection in honor of the late Joe Wicks, “the people of Toledo will hear the voices of the gay community screaming at the top of their lungs.”
Scott’s warning comes in response to City Council’s May 8 decision to postpone a vote to name the intersection at the 100 block of Erie Street, which lies between Monroe Street and Jefferson Avenue, as “Joe Wicks Way.”
Wicks owned Caesar’s Show Bar, located at 725 Jefferson Ave. Caesar’s was known nationally as a gay bar and lounge with nightly performances by female impersonators.
Scott said he is “forewarning” City Council that a protest in which he has “invited thousands of gay and lesbian people from around the country” to participate is planned for noon, June 1 at One Government Center [located at 640 Jackson St.].
Scott said he chose the “Joe Wicks Way” proposal as a vehicle through which he could advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] Toledoans.
Councilman Steve Steel, who introduced the resolution at the City Council meeting, said he doesn’t “personally believe Lair Scott came to me to get his march started. I believe it’s more coincidental than that.”
Other Council members said they are neither disturbed nor threatened by Scott’s warning.
“I’m not concerned that this may have been a nefarious act,” Councilman Tom Waniewski said. “I’m more concerned about how we run the government. This never should have seen the light of day. The naming of a street should be a fun, positive thing, and this situation just brings embarrassment to the City of Toledo.”
Councilman George Sarantou said opposition to the naming of the intersection has primarily come from Downtown business owners who tell him that recognizing Wicks “in this way is a slap in the face” for Downtown business owners.
Waniewski said business owners accuse Wicks of not maintaining his property, thereby lowering the property value of their businesses.
“The uproar from the business people has been overwhelming,” Waniewski said. “They say he was rude to people, that he didn’t keep up his property, and that he wouldn’t get involved in the association of Downtown business people.”
The uproar Waniewski references are 23 emails Sarantou had received as of 2:30 p.m. May 9.
In response to an open records request from Toledo Free Press, Sarantou provided copies of 23 emails he received from business owners in the 15 hours following council’s decision to not vote on renaming the intersection (see sidebar, at bottom of page).
The correspondence was directed to Sarantou after Bill Thomas contacted the councilman with concerns over the reaction he was hearing.
Thomas, chief operating officer of the Downtown Toledo Development Corporation and executive director of the Downtown Toledo Improvement District, said that after his discussion with Sarantou, he sent an email to business owners encouraging them to voice their opinions, either pro or con, in emails to Sarantou.
Sarantou said emails have been universally opposed to the renaming of the intersection.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Sarantou said. “They are all responsible people. They maintain first-class facilities and are offended that someone who did not maintain his property would be honored in this way.”
Waniewski agrees that the business owners’ response deserves City Council’s attention.
“I have never seen comments so eloquently articulated in such an elegant way about something so negative,” he said. “I’ve never seen such a groundswell of opposition.”
Scott said the responses Sarantou and Waniewski are receiving are not representative of Toledo, and that thousands of people would write to City Council in support of Joe Wicks Way if they only knew the intensity of Downtown business owners’ negative reactions.
Sarantou also cites business owners’ issue with the fact that Wicks did not pay property taxes on time. At the time of his death, April 19, 2010, both the Lucas County Treasurer and the Auditor reported that Wicks owed $30,954.83 in back taxes, and that those taxes have never been paid by Wicks’ estate.
In a May 4 email to Sarantou, City of Toledo Commissioner of Building Inspection and Acting Director of the Department of Inspection Chris Zervos wrote, “The misuse and abuse of its last owner, Joe Wick [sic] has rendered the building unusable in its present state.”
Waniewski also said the response to City Council’s decision to not act is a clear indication that Council must adopt an official policy regarding the naming of streets and intersections.
“This is a big deal,” Waniewski said. “We need a process in place by which we’re sure we’re doing the right thing. Just relying on a councilman’s judgment isn’t good enough anymore.”
Scott said opposition to the proposal has nothing to do with Wicks’ upkeep of a building.
Scott is adamant that “this is an issue of social justice. When streets were named for honorary people in the past, did City Council have a need for a policy back then? Why now? It’s because of the homophobic attitude of certain City Council members.”
Scott also said that he does not believe Waniewski’s claim that Council President Joe McNamara and Waniewski have discussed establishing a policy in the past, and are now recommitted to establishing that policy in light of the past days’ events.
Steel said he is stunned at the negative reaction.
“I did my research,” he said. “I read the Blade obituary, talked to local people. I was aware of the building problems with his business, but I thought Joe’s work with, and his legacy and contribution to the gay community with AIDS awareness, AIDS prevention and AIDS treatment back in the early ’90s far outweighed everything else.
“I was stunned by the flurry of emails in opposition as to why this would even be proposed in the first place. This is a level of scrutiny I’ve never seen before.”
Scott said Steel’s observations are a clear indication that the current scrutiny is discriminatory.
“Why are they concerned with the policies in naming streets for people?” he asked. “Why, all of a sudden, does a gay icon in Toledo have to be under changing policies or procedures? This has nothing at all to do with Caesar’s Show Bar. It deals with Joe’s legacy and the millions of dollars he brought into Toledo over the past decades.”
Sarantou said Steel and Scott do not recognize what he calls “Wicks’ true legacy.”
Sarantou cited former presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon Baines Johnson as examples to illustrate
“Richard Nixon, despite all the good he did in his career, will be remembered for the stupidity of Watergate,” Sarantou said. “And LBJ, despite the civil rights legislation he passed, will be remembered for Vietnam, an albatross that will always hang around his neck.
“It’s the same case with Joe Wicks. Like it or not, God rest his soul, Joe Wicks has left a reputation as someone who did not maintain his property. That’s a fact.”
‘Lack of leadership’
Scott also cited what he calls Mayor Mike Bell’s “lack of leadership” as a mitigating factor in City Council’s lack of action.
“I appreciate that he just passed the city employees domestic partnership [ordinance], giving benefits to gay and lesbian partners,” Scott said. “But that’s not enough. Mayor Bell should follow the footsteps of our president, Barack Obama, and back him for his May 9 statement for equality. Mayor Bell has had an opportunity to be on a board with other mayors of cities in Ohio to assist in passing Ohio’s right to same-sex marriage. He was offered and declined.”
Bell responded to Scott’s accusations through Jen Sorgenfrei, public information officer for the City of Toledo. Sorgenfrei said Scott does not understand the complexities of the legal process.
“In fact, Mayor Bell did not pass anything,” Sorgenfrei said. “Domestic partnership is just an ordinance. Mayor Bell just introduced the ordinance. It must be passed. It requires Council approval.”
Sorgenfrei also dismissed any claims that Bell does not support all Toledoans. She said Bell is committed to working with the local community.
“The mayor says he was not asked to join a committee of other mayors to assist in the passing of a same-sex marriage act,” she said. “He said he was presented a petition of mayors, and he did not sign it. He does not hold a position on same-sex marriage, one way or another. What he does do is continue to engage in conversation with members of our local community.”
Sorgenfrei questioned Scott’s motives, pointing out that he lives in Chicago, not Toledo, and no longer has roots in the local community.
Scott said he is deeply offended that anyone suggests he may be an outside agitator.
“I left Toledo because of the oppression of Toledo back in 1980,” Scott said. “I owe Joe Wicks with my time and my passion for the gay community. Whether I live in Toledo or not doesn’t make any difference. A lot of people come into Toledo to do their business. And the gay community is my business.”
In August, Scott made national news with a petition, “Let Bert & Ernie Get Married On Sesame Street” on Change.org. It collected 9,000 signatures in two weeks. The Facebook page “Bert and Ernie Get Married” has more than 6,700 fans.
Emails protest Joe Wicks Way
Emails sent to Toledo City Council:
- “I’m unclear why we would be honoring this individual? What specifically did he do during the course of his lifetime that is triggering this action? If it is simply that he was the proprietor of Caesars then I humbly ask how that validates such an honor? If there is more that is behind this initiative, please advise.”— Rich Schurfeld, CEO, REDSSON (May 6)
- “This is not appropriate. This individual did not maintain his property in downtown Toledo. How can the city single out this individual? There are so many other people who have been responsible, contributing citizens.” — Dennis Johnson, president, Brooks Insurance (May 4)
- “With all of the honorable citizens that have done so much for Toledo I think we could honor them prior to someone who has left buildings in decay creating hazards on our sidewalks. If this is approved I will be joining the ranks to have this repealed.” — Glen Blohm, facility manager, SSOE Group (May 4)
- “I am a partner in a property on Ontario St., less than 1.2 block from Jefferson and Ontario — I received the complaints from my tenants because his clientele, lack of concern by him for other businesses and property owners around the neighborhood. … Think we can find better qualified individuals to name streets after.” — Ken Marciniak, principal, Signature Associates (May 4)
- “The designation of any public street, park, bridge or other structures is a coveted honor. To preserve the value of such recognitions, this honor should be reserved for a person who advanced the city or specific community through their extensive volunteer efforts or philanthropic work. An entrepreneur whose ingenuity and willingness to take a risk by investing personal assets created a product or service that enhanced the lives of others. This may be an ideal time to establish a ‘Criteria of Worthiness’ for such honorable designations.” — Vickie Rapp, Registry Bistro (May 4)
- “I’m not sure why anyone would want to spend time on this Joe Wicks issue. What did this guy do for the city to warrant attention such as this? We have more important topics to be discussing on behalf of our taxpayers and I believe you will find many who believe this way if they would even give it the time to respond and share their feelings.” — Tony Plath, vice president, CBRE | Reichle Klein (May 4)