Council criticized for dropping ‘Joe Wicks Way’ proposalWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
On May 15, Toledo City Councilman Steve Steel dropped pursuit of discussion or a vote on the ordinance to name a portion of Erie Street Downtown in honor of the late Joe Wicks. The move has drawn spirited testimonials from Wicks’ friends as intense as Downtown business owners’ complaints.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” recalled Army veteran Alan Erwin. “Joe was not a bad guy. Joe would be the first one when you were in trouble to help you.
“I came to Toledo in 1986, when I was 20. I didn’t have a job. Joe Wicks was the first person to offer to help me get a job. It was at Frisch’s. He knew someone who was hiring, and he put a word in for me.
“And through the years, he would help me if I would need anything. He’d help me any way he could. He helped me move once. When I paid my rent one month, the guy who I gave the money to, to give to the landlord, used it to buy drugs. And Joe helped out. He paid the rent for me and helped me get out of that situation.”
Jon Lento, 35, agrees with Erwin. Lento, who met Wicks 17 years ago, said he treasures his working relationship and his personal friendship with Wicks.
“I pretty much grew up to be the man I am because of Joe,” Lento said. “I would have dinner with him and breakfast with Joe and his sister Peg all the time. I was with him at the hospice the day he died.
“I wasn’t pissed when I heard the news that Steel plans to withdraw his proposal. I was more disappointed. They’re looking at it as to the state of the building and not to Joe as a person. I knew Joe both as a bar owner and as a person outside his establishment. The thing that hurts me is that I don’t think they’re talking to people who really knew Joe.”
Lento acknowledged there is a kernel of truth behind Councilman Tom Waniewski’s concern that Downtown businesspeople complained Wicks was rude to people.
“Joe could be very abrasive,” Lento said. “That was the business side of him. He could get insulting, especially with other businessmen. But if you knew him, really knew him, after he got abrasive, two seconds later, he would turn around and kid you, slap you on the back, and tell you, ‘I’m just teasing. You know I really love you.’”
Lento said Wicks was unfairly criticized for not fixing the facade of Caesars Show Bar after a bus crashed into the building on Nov. 30, 2005.
“I don’t know the run-ins he had with people Downtown,” Lento said. “He didn’t always get along with them. And he took a lot of criticism he didn’t deserve after that bus crashed into his business. That accident did a lot of structural damage. He told me that he didn’t get the compensation he needed to repair the building the way he needed to.”
‘Smoke screen complaints’
Gay activist Lair Scott, who introduced Steel to the idea of renaming the intersection at the May 8 Council meeting, said he was more distressed than surprised with Steel’s decision to table the legislation.
“It’s sad more people haven’t spoken up for Joe Wicks Way,” Scott said. “There were many people who loved him deeply. I blame the whole situation on Mayor Mike Bell and City Council. It just shows their ignorance of Toledo’s LGBT community.”
Scott contends the complaints about building maintenance are a smoke screen that a handful of influential Toledoans are hiding behind. Scott insists the real issue is the underlying prejudices those same people hold about the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] clients Wicks served.
“It’s all about homophobia,” Scott said. “That’s what I believe. Toledo’s LGBT community is not vocal enough. The solution is for them to be a lot more vocal.
“Who are the gay icons in Toledo? Or who were they? For people who have streets named after them, what are the skeletons in their closets? I’m sure I can dig those up.”
Scott said he retains hope that Toledoans will find a suitable way to honor Wicks’ work in the early 1990’s with AIDS awareness, AIDS prevention and AIDS treatment.
“[Steel] said we’ll honor Joe in another way. [District 4 Council member] Paula Hicks-Hudson actually said exactly what Steve [Steel] said, that maybe they can find an alternative way to honor Joe. I’m hoping it’s with a community center. I have hope.”
Scott said an LGBT community center named in Wicks’ honor would be the most appropriate way to acknowledge Wicks’ leadership because it would breathe life into discussions the two men had as far back as the mid-1990’s. Scott argues that May 2012 is the time for that community center to receive City Council’s attention and funding.
Lento, who worked as bartender for Wicks at Caesars Show Bar from 2008-10, said there may actually be a more appropriate intersection to name after Wicks.
“That spot [on Washington Street] was iconic to a lot of us,” Lento said. “Joe was, you could say, our ‘gay godfather.’ He made it his job to raise you and point you in the right direction.”
Ervin questions if Toledoans can ever honor Wicks in an appropriate manner.
“What should Toledo do to honor Joe?” Erwin asked. “I’m not sure on that. If they don’t want to do the Erie Street thing, why not do the intersection at the corner of Ontario and Jefferson? That’s where Caesars moved to before Joe’s death.”
Like Lento, Erwin said he worked for Wicks “on and off.” And he says Wicks would find a job, maybe even create a job, to help out someone in need.
“When I needed to buy a car, my first car, and I didn’t have any money, Joe offered me a job to bartend so I could save up to buy a car,” Erwin said. “I don’t know too many business people who would help out and help someone buy a car.”
All three men — Erwin, Lento and Scott — testified to Wicks’ role as a community leader.
“Complaints about Joe Wicks’ ‘bat-wielding’ behavior have everything to do with his legacy as a community leader,” Scott said. “Yes, Joe ‘wielded a bat’ down the streets at times, but he did it to protect his customers. The Toledo Police Department has never kept the LGBT community safe. Joe is the one who kept it safe.”
Lento said that Wicks’ advocacy for his customers’ safety was evidence of his concern for everyone who lived in Greater Toledo.
“Yes, he chased people off the street, but it was the hustlers and prostitutes he got after,” Lento said. “He would take other people off the street. He opened his kitchen when he saw someone in need. As long as he was already there, he would throw you a bowl of soup or a sandwich so you didn’t go hungry.”
Wicks had a sensitive side that few were ever privileged to see, Erwin said.
“My mother passed away in 1986, the year I first moved to Toledo,” Erwin said. “When I was at the funeral home, and was looking at all the flowers she had received, who did I see? Out of all the people I knew, lo and behold, Joe had sent flowers to my mother’s funeral.”
Scott has been criticized for staging actions in Toledo though he lives in Chicago.
“I left Toledo because of the oppression of Toledo back then. Whether I live in Toledo or not doesn’t make any difference,” Scott said. “Although I live in Chicago, I will never leave Toledo until there is a community center and services for the Toledo LGBT community. I owe that to Joe Wicks. Then I’ll move back to Toledo.”