An American Abroad

The Murals of Toledo’s Old South End

Toledo’s Central Union Station, where my sons and I have caught the Lake Shore Limited east many times, is situated in the city’s Old South End. I had gone down to the tracks there to photograph an antique steam locomotive as it chuffed through Toledo on its way to Youngstown for a special whoop-de-doo. Like many such events, there was about an hour of waiting and about a minute of what I’d really come to see. Since I was already in the neighborhood, I decided to explore.

This part of town now has a significant Hispanic population, a fact that’s reflected in the public artwork there. Many of the murals had been designed by Mario Acevedo Torero, a Peruvan artist who has an ongoing relationship with students of Bowling Green State University, a large state school about a half hour south of Toledo. The murals were in good condition, with very little overtagging or other defacing.

The murals were painted on the concrete supports for a large overhead highway. They made what might otherwise have been a grim (or even forbidding) environment feel loved, tended to, and peopled.

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The murals below adorned the exterior walls of Adelante, a Latino community organization.

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I liked the idea behind the two pieces below. The use of the blank faces encourages viewers to see themselves — or maybe their friends and family members — as the artist’s subjects. Fill in the blank: you, too, can be famous.

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The one institution that I remember from years back that’s still in operation is the Green Lantern, a classic burger café that’s been continuously operated at the same spot since 1927. I’ve never eaten there myself (I think I popped in for coffee once several years ago), but it gets rave reviews from the diner aficionados on Yelp.

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Outsized portraits of American heroes such as Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King graced the sides of several old buildings on Broadway. These, too, were painted by a BGSU group.

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It was encouraging to see that even on obviously decrepit and decaying buildings, someone had made an effort to make them look cheerier.

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Less lawful artwork could be found under the highway and atop a nearby water tower.

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Oh, and the steam train I came out to see? Here it is: The Nickel Plate Road No. 765. Quite a machine to behold.

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Fourth of July, Toledo, Ohio in Color

Red, white and blue for the holiday, plus assorted greens, yellows, angels, and a cat. Photos I shot today in my hometown.

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Fourth of July, Toledo, Ohio in Black & White

A photo essay: my hometown on this most American of holidays. I shot these today in my hometown.

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Toledo, Ohio: My Hometown

When I was growing up here, I couldn’t wait to leave. At seventeen, I lit out for the territories and swore on a metaphorical stack of bibles that I would never ever ever return to Toledo. I managed to stay away for nineteen years before returning. When I came back, I planned to stay just a little while. But inertia, the low cost of living, and the excellent school system in the suburb where I lived kept me and my family here.

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But I wasn’t happy about it.

One day while I was driving around town with my son Spencer, I started talking smack about Toledo. To my surprise, my son didn’t share my sentiment. “Dad,” he insisted, “Toledo’s got soul!”

“Whaddaya mean?” I asked.

“People here keep getting kicked in the mouth,” he said. “Layoffs. Downsizing. Factories closing. Stores gone out of business. Crappy political leadership.”

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“But,” he continued, “Toledoans get up every morning and go to work, go to school, do their thing, and by and large they do it with a good attitude. They have every right to be bitter, but generally they’re not. They’ve got soul.”

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With that conversation, I began to make peace with my hometown.

I’ve been away from Toledo again for the better part of two years, traveling through other countries. Now that I’m back in town for a while, I’m determined to explore the city in the same way that I explored cities on the other side of the planet. And so this evening when the sunlight was golden, I went out and shot the kind of photos I’ve taken in Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and Chicago.

As I’ve done in those cities, I focused initially on public art: the authorized, the unauthorized, and the unintended.

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Chicago Housesit

I took the Megabus from Toledo to Chicago last week to begin a housesitting gig in Hyde Park. The double-decker bus was only about 10% full and was quiet, clean, and on time. However, the seat arrangement provided excruciatingly little legroom for my 6’3″ frame, and the WiFi was slow and heavily censored.

The house I’m taking care of here was built in the 1880s and features high ceilings, bay windows, an elegant L-shaped staircase, a cozy gas fireplace (with oak mantle and beveled mirror) and an honest-to-god front porch swing.

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The place comes with four cats, whose personalities range from ebulliently friendly to pathologically shy.

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The neighborhood, Hyde Park, is a wonderfully civilized place of tree-lined streets and older houses.

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It’s home to the University of Chicago and President Obama. It has a record store and a head shop, conveniently located next door to each other.

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Across the street is a barber shop, where you can get some Buddy Guy to go with your high-and-tight.

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Down the street is an African American bookstore still selling Malcolm X literature.

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Bicycles for rent stand out in public racks. With the swipe of a credit or debit card, one can unlock one of these machines, go for a ride, and return than at any one of scores of locations around the city.

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There are handsomely-executed murals on the walls of the viaducts where trains to and from downtown Chicago pass overhead.

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The neighborhood feels wonderfully time warped, like a portal to 1979. There is even a nightly repertory film series at U. Chicago just four blocks away.

In nearly every place I have traveled, there comes a moment when I look around and ask myself, Could I live happily here? The answer for the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago is an unambiguous yes. I will be here for at least two housesitting stints this spring. I may not want to leave.

Plans, Old and New

I must be the only person in the world to set out for Tierra del Fuego and wind up in south central China.

For over a year, I’d been planning a motorcycle journey through the Americas, from Toledo all the way to the Argentine city of Ushuaia. I’d expected to leave on May 15, 2013 and to be in Oaxaca, Mexico by now. Instead, I’m still in Toledo, but just for a little while. In ten days, I will fly to Kunming, China and then head 50 miles south to the city of Yuxi, which will be my new home. My job teaching English there will be my primary focus, but I also hope to travel, to come to know Chinese culture from the inside, and to gain some perspective on my own culture by viewing it from afar.

Someday I’ll look out over the Straits of Magellan from a motorcycle seat, but 2013 is not the year for that. The opportunity to live in China may not come to me again–so ready or not, here I go.

Right now, I am here:

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