Blight and the Story of Blight

We finished the third day of our Homeless Adjunct Road Trip, and are, as I type this, in a cabin in Maumee State Park, outside of Toledo, OH. We left Pittsburgh early Monday afternoon, after spending two days there, meeting with some wonderful, interesting people and shooting documentary footage: faculty and union organizers of the Steelworkers/ Duquesne effort; two students — one a grad students and the other who refuses to become a grad student — both of whom feel that their future success has been hobbled by the crushing debt of getting an education in this country; a passionate educator whose dedication to teaching, in the face of her own financial struggles, stems from her fascination with the proven intellectual and emotional development that takes place when the writing skills of her students are strengthened. Finally, we talked to the head of a community college English department, who shared his own frustration with the ways in which he is required to staff with underpaid, undersupported adjunct faculty while seeing the retention and success of students drop each year.

Arriving in Toledo around 5 or 6 pm today, we were surprised at how small the city seemed — I suspect we haven’t seen the “whole” city. We were also a little disconcerted with how much blight and ruin we saw. It was very sad. It can’t be an easy city for its inhabitants, if so many of its streets are in decay. The whole place seemed devoid of life. To borrow a phrase from Jane Jacobs, it felt as though we were driving through one large “dead zone”. Being tired, and uncertain of ourselves, we simply left, and headed back out on the highway, looking for somewhere that felt more vibrant, more alive. “Let’s look for Lake Erie,” I suggested, knowing it was around somewhere. (I don’t pretend to be a geography expert.)

We found the nuclear power plant instead, the Davis-Besse facility. No, thanks. We drove for miles and saw no lake. Finally, we saw a sign for Maumee State Park, and turned down the road, to see what was there. Water, we hoped. Greenery. Life.

“Maumee” comes from the Ottawa name, Maamii, or the Miami Indians who, until the European invasion, were the inhabitants of the area. This was a place of great fertility, water travel, gathering activities. And so it is again — this park and the facilities are very new. Lots of greenery, people playing croquet, catch, riding bikes. And, there it was — Maumee Bay, a part of Lake Erie. I found that the beauty of this place was welcome after the almost physical pain of being in such a blighted area before. Since we had to stay somewhere, and since the hotels we saw in Toledo didn’t feel especially inviting, we priced it out here, surprised to find it reasonable — even more surprised to find that the cabins on the grounds were only a small amount more expensive that a room. Since Chris was hauling all her film equipment, and we both were hauling computers, needing work space, wanting to spread out and dive into the work, we opted for the cabin. Expectations were that it would be a tiny, one floor structure, two bedrooms, with a simple living space. Instead, we found a two story structure, two bedrooms on the first floor, where there was lots of living space including a vaulted ceiling, a fireplace, porches, and a stairway to the second floor loft area, where there were several more beds. We could have brought an entire film team into this space and had plenty of room.

Always looking for the symbolic in daily life, I asked myself: So what does this mean? How is it that our experience, driving through the section of Toledo that first greeted us was one of such contraction, discomfort and unease, and this experience was one of expansion, excitement, joy, comfort? Was it the poverty of what we saw? The blight? Was it the seeming privilege of Maumee Park? On the surface, maybe it was.

But that is surface only. It’s what the blight means that is so distressing. It is symbolic of the struggle of human beings, the paucity of opportunity, the deadness born of depression and despair. The Maumee area provided the opposite. Greenery and growth. Joyful gatherings of people. Play and laughter. A sense of upliftment.

The wreck of the city of Toledo begins to feel like a metaphor for the very thing we are in search of on this trip — we are diving into the wreck of higher education, and on this road tour, looking for the wreck itself requires that we find the many stories of the wreck first. Toledo serves as a kind of image for what can happen when the life is sucked out of something, when the vibrancy and verdancy is drained and the empty shell remains.

Toledo was a manufacturing town, a factory town that was, several times in the 20th century, blighted by the collapse of the factory model. One of the things written and said about the corporatized university is that it no longer operates as true academia. It has become an edu-factory. What we see, in the blight of Toledo feels uncomfortably predictive….a warning of what can come if the corporatized university continues to operate on this factory model, this assembly line mentality of “information delivery”, job-training. We are headed for wreckage. We may have already begun to see the earliest stages of it.

There are, I think, two ways in which ruin becomes the ground of new birth. The first way is through art. Tomorrow, we go in search of some artists of Toledo – young members of the Occupy movement who have just returned from the NATO demonstrations in Chicago, who are strong and powerful in their determination to breathe life into their own world, take charge of their own destinies, and by so doing, re-vitalize, replenish dead zones — in their city and in their lives — with their own miraculous energy and talent.

The second way to rebirth, I think, is through the experience of rediscovering source. I’d like to keep thinking about this – about what it means to return to the greenery as a healing space and how that is symbolic in a larger sense. Returning to “nature” means, I think, returning to the true nature of a thing, a place, an experience. Returning to the purest state — the source. Could we return to the more natural state of learning, leaving this more commodified, plunderer model behind, and manage to find what is true and pure and alive, what is eternal in learning? How do we even know what the more “natural state of learning” is? Stripping away the software learning programs, the statistics and learning outcomes, “value enhancement” theories, “teacher proofing” approaches, the pedagogical theorizing, the spread sheets and budgetary considerations, the high cost/debt model — how much can be stripped away in the search for the pure experience of learning itself?

I have absolutely no answers to these, or the hundreds of questions I haven’t even formed yet. But if I start with the feeling of extreme discomfort brought on by the blight we entered into, if I keep paying attention, questioning, exploring, maybe things will begin to come clearer.

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4 Responses to Blight and the Story of Blight

  1. OKToledo says:

    I live in Toledo and have just started a photo blog dedicated to the ruined and sad state of Toledo: http://toledowastewalker.wordpress.com/ . I linked to this article on it. Enjoy the photos, many more are to come.

  2. Pingback: Article: A Story of Blight « Toledo Waste Walker

  3. Mad Jack says:

    You should have sent me some email and told me you were coming – I’d be glad to give you the fifty cent tour!

    I live in Sylvania Township, Ohio which is right next door to the gravel pit. I wrote a summary about Toledo which you’re welcome to read (or not) as it amuses you: http://madjackshack.blogspot.com/2011/03/rant-toledo-ohio.html

    You were very smart to stay at Maumee Bay. There are cheaper places but the residents tend to get a little noisy at night, plus, just from reading your blog, I don’t think anyone in your party is a gun owner – am I right? So you’d be unarmed in an area where that is not a wise thing to be.

    I hope you enjoy yourselves. If you have time and inclination, shoot me an email and I’ll buy the first round.

  4. Bobby D says:

    I’m taking what you say about returning to the source to heart. I’ve been spending the summer reading again, and trying to comprehend the pleasure of the literary experience, and of the texts that best deliver it. One well-turned sentence can relieve a whole day’s tedium, the kind wonkish sentences tend to produce. Back to the sentence I say, and the teaching of it! I’m new to your blog, and now that I’ve found it, I’m staying.

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