Los MiserablesWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Forbes magazine recently placed Toledo on its list of “America’s most miserable cities.” A recent visit to the South Toledo neighborhood where I lived during my high school years shows Forbes doesn’t know what it is talking about; “miserable” does not begin to describe some of South Toledo’s blighted and abandoned areas.
“Wretched” might. “Hellish” might.
Describing parts of South Toledo as “miserable” is like characterizing a gaping, hemorrhaging chest wound as “unpleasant.”
As soon as one leaves Downtown Toledo and drives west on Summit Street, the decay is evident. The street that connects Downtown to Broadway Street looks like it was shelled by German airplanes during World War II and left to sink into the earth. It is shameful that the main eastern artery into Downtown’s riverfront area is a first impression wreck of pitted, dangerous potholes and crumbled asphalt.
Perhaps Mayor Mike Bell’s recently approved plan to fix local roads will start with the gateway to Downtown.
The Broadway Street stretch to South Avenue and a bit beyond features closed and boarded businesses, four semi-demolished schools and a shuttered library.
When did South Toledo turn into Gotham City?
Haunted and rotting
The area was not a thriving paradise when I lived there in the mid-1980s, but I was able to walk to the grocery store, library or laundromat without feeling like I was creeping through Mumbai. Today, there are parts of the neighborhood that feel haunted; there are broken windows, smashed-in doors and piles of urban rubble. It’s like someone airlifted Salem’s Lot and dropped it near Jones Jr. High, which has been stripped and readied for demolition but stands as a skeletal tombstone. Newbury and Beverly schools also sit empty and half-smashed, portentous testimony to a vanished population.
Behind the Jones corpse, a row of nearly a dozen abandoned houses sits rotting and ransacked, mocking the memories of those who once lived there. Behind one, a large boat sits, half blocking the alley, filled with garbage and God only knows what else. It is surrounded by discarded evidence of children: a collapsed wading pool, a broken car booster seat, a wasted plastic picnic table. It is difficult to imagine that youthful laughter once emanated from the junk-filled backyard that now serves as a boat dock, but all those squandered kids’ items testify that someone once called the building a home.
It is clear that Toledo Public Schools and the City of Toledo have abdicated their responsibilities to this area of South Toledo, like deadbeat fathers who seduce, rut and molest to their satisfaction and then disappear like wisps of smoke. If there was a shred of interest in the future of these streets, why would three crumbling schools, scores of atrophied houses and piles of junk like a foundered boat be strewn through the neighborhood?
To drive around the zone of Broadway Street, South Avenue, Western Avenue and such side streets as Field Avenue and Walbridge Avenue is to tour a landscape of urban waste and desolation.
I did not have the heart to cross the Anthony Wayne Trail to witness the destruction of Libbey High School.
And yet …
And yet, in the midst of collapse and ruin, there are people who believe in a better way, people who believe in the future, people who believe in salvation. And that cannot be factored into Forbes’ injudicious list.
Pastor David Kaiser and his wife, Kelly, operate Western Avenue Ministries and the South Toledo Community Center, literally in the shadow of Jones Jr. High (across from that abandoned boat, which sticks in my memory like a horrific talisman in a zombie movie).
The Kaisers belong to that group of people who seem blissfully unaware of the path of least resistance. They choose the cracked, hammered road choked with weeds and unspeakable obstacles. Why? Because they know that is where they are needed.
The South Toledo Community Center offers free hot meals, take-home groceries, clothing and opportunities for education and betterment, ranging from GED classes to parenting help.
Kaiser estimates there are 6,600 households in the “South Toledo Kids Zone,” which lies between the High-Level Bridge to the Toledo Zoo and the Anthony Wayne Trail to the river.
The demographics are horrific.
- It is a young area. The median age in the S.T. Kids Zone is 29. One-third of the people who live there are younger than 14.
- It is an impoverished area: 35.3 percent of the residents are below poverty level (the Ohio average is 13.4 percent); 16.6 percent have income below 50 percent of the poverty level (the Ohio average is 6.2 percent); and 60 percent of S.T. Kids Zone households are led by single females living in poverty.
- It is a poorly educated area: 39 percent have no high school diploma (the Toledo average is 20 percent and the Ohio average is 17 percent); www.neighborhoodscout.com rates educational achievement on a scale of 1 to 10. The U. S. average is 5, with 10 being the highest. The S.T. Kids Zone neighborhood is rated at 1.
Plan of action
The Kaisers’ ministry is working on a 20-year-plus plan to transform the S.T. Kids Zone, focusing on essential services (food, clothes, education, health care), a “transformational pipeline” (based on the successful programs the Harlem Children’s Zone and Urban Impact of Pittsburgh, emphasizing parenting classes, preschool, tutoring, college preparation and a potential charter school) and infrastructure changes (creating a community development corporation, fixing or removing shuttered houses, creating jobs in repair and security and developing a commercial corridor to capture the attention of commuting workers).
The ministry has received a growing number of accolades, which it has earned through its actions. It bought and demolished a crack house and two abandoned properties to create an urban agriculture zone, in cooperation with Toledo GROWs. The ministry’s leaders and volunteers have donated more than $150,000 in the past four years.
The ministry spends $2,500 a month to maintain essential services, untold tens of thousands on education opportunities and is working on purchasing its $250,000 building, which drains $1,500 in monthly rent.
There are partnerships with too many organizations to list here, but ProMedica and Cherry Street Ministries are driving forces.
Pastor David and Kelly are hopeful and optimistic, fueled by their faith, but they are realistic. They fully understand the challenge the S.T. Kids Zone faces, with its 14-year-old mothers, violence, drugs, abusive attitudes toward women and survival needs trumping niceties such as education and vocational training.
And yet they believe, and they love, and they try.
The S.T. Kids Zone is engaged in a losing round of whack-a-mole, with problems and neighborhood issues popping up with alarming frequency. It’s a miserable situation with no easy remedy and no short-term comfort.
But as miserable as the blight might be, as miserable as the decay might be, there are people like the Kaisers who are willing to put their shoulders against the encroaching boulder of misery, to slow it, to at least try to slow it. Whether they — and the S.T. Kids Zone — get crushed beneath that boulder depends on how many people are going to join them in the effort to push back, to fight, to make a difference.
Western Avenue Ministries is embarking on a “One of 100” campaign to raise funds for its work. $25 a month from 100 people will cover the costs of the community center’s essential food and clothing services.
A subscription to Forbes costs about $25. The ministry works in the South End to ease misery and solve problems for us. Forbes works in Manhattan to celebrate misery and create problems for us.
Which entity will you reward?
David Kaiser: (419) 344-5844.
Forbes magazine: 1-800-295-0893.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.
Tags: Anthony Wayne Trail, Cherry Street Ministries, City of Toledo, David Kaiser, Forbes magazine, Harlem Children's Zone, High Level Bridge, Jones Jr. High, Kelly Kaiser, Libbey High School, Lighting The Fuse, Michael S. Miller, Mike Bell, ProMedica, South Toledo Community Center, South Toledo Kids Zone, Toledo GROWS, Toledo Zoo, Western Avenue Ministries, World War II