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The Land of Rust and Pigskin - Part II

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

( Winter Race Track, Toledo, Ohio, January 2020 )

Reaching Ohio's fourth largest city in winter feels like an ideal time to get to know it in a historical context and to try to get a sense of its present-day spirit. Clearly, it's been through a lot.

My own context to experience a few weeks here is a photography exhibition of mine that examines the migration of Finnish workers in the wave of movement to North America that brought upwards of 300,000 natives of Finland to North America between the 1860s and the 1910s. At that time, Finns were heavily recruited to work in mills and mines throughout the Great Lakes region that Toledo inhabits. Citizens of Nordic countries were in particularly high demand in the region at that time because the Arctic climate from which they came gave business managers reason to believe that they would be able to work straight through the chilly winter season without quitting on account of the intense weather.

( History of a Harbor, Ashtabula, Ohio, September 2018 )

The American steel industry was in its heyday at the time and the still-young country had it to thank for a wave of products that would establish metal-based manufacturing from the region on the map within the United States, and also internationally.

Ohio Toledo Mettler steel

( Post Office Scale, Chicago, Illinois, October 2018 )

Ohio Toledo steel Mettler Bulgaria Kardzhali

( Grocery Store Scale, Kardzhali, Bulgaria, September 2019 )

It was this very industry that pushed Ohio's neighbors in this region of manufacturing powerhouses to change their National Football League (NFL) team's name from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ohio Toledo Steel aluminum

( Aluminum Litter, Toledo, Ohio, January 2020 )

The era surrounding and including the first half of the 20th century saw this industry serve as the lifeblood of the area's economy while also giving rise to two distinctly contrasting developments in Toledo itself. One was the boom of Toledo as a hotbed of underground sales of alcohol during America's period of prohibition (1919-1933) via a thriving network of organized crime, which often illegally imported alcohol from Canada onto the shores of Lake Erie. The other cultural development at the time was the mass construction and growth of the city's churches in the neighborhood known as the Old West End from the 1870s to the 1930s. The rate of construction and immense popularity of these churches in such a concentrated area of the city is one of several popular etymological explanations for the coining of the phrase "Holy Toledo."

( The First Church of God, Toledo, Ohio, January 2020 )

The two contrasting movements of organized crime and surging piety in the form of Christianity delivered an equilibrium for Toledo that may have survived in non-deliberate support of one another indefinitely, but the manufacturing industry that formed the basis of both of their supportive clientele did not ultimately have the legs to carry on.

A combination of many factory jobs becoming automated, a general decline in the steel and coal industries and many factories shifting their activities overseas beginning in the mid-20th century sent a ripple through the sections of Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York state that can be felt to this day, with Toledo being one of its hardest hit. A rate of unemployment 60% higher than the U.S. average and rate of poverty nearly doubling that of America (and even the average within Ohio) is a visible outgrowth of this shift in the region that once proudly delivered the world the peak of mechanical innovation made out of steel.

Ohio Toledo snow ice winter Mustang

( Full Driveway Clearance, Toledo, Ohio, January 2020 )

These numbers and their implications can be particularly intimidating in the face of sub-freezing temperatures several months of the year, which is why it came as a poignant surprise to me that those in search of hope have not turned to the city's wide array of churches for solace and a spirit of hope; a colleague in the church at the show that brought me to Toledo shared that more than 10 churches in Toledo's Old West End have no regular masses or staff, and those that remain open have witnessed the same sharp declines in congregation sizes that are visible across much of the Western world, and have turned to renting out segments or entire floors of their premises as office space in order to make ends meet.

With all this considered, it seems no wonder that political campaign strategists have seized on this portion of the U.S. map as a hotbed for repeat visits, as candidates make routine stops here with the aim of delivering and capitalizing on a message of hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Ohio Toledo winter snow bicycle training wheels

( Terrain for Training Wheels, Toledo, Ohio, January 2020 )

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