Jul 29, 2005

Trilby: The Search for a Vanishing Ohio Village

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Left: 1913 photo of Trilby School

A cursory glance through any of the telephone directories that clutter my living room yields several dozen listings for businesses containing “Trilby” in their names. From Trilby Animal Hospital to Trilby United Methodist Church, the amorphous locality known as Trilby survives in a number of Toledo businesses, churches, and even an elementary school.

The old Trilby fire station, however, recently fell to the wrecking ball to make room for (what else?) another drug store.

If a West Toledoan with any significant period of residence is asked about the physical location of Trilby, the usual answer runs along the lines of “the Alexis and Secor area.” Indeed, it is possible to strike several Trilby establishments with a metaphorical thrown stone while standing at this intersection.

The logical questions (at least to this historically-minded writer) upon discovering the wealth of Trilby-laden monikers would be: What, exactly, is Trilby, and why does it no longer exist as a political entity? In addition, why are these questions relevant to a twenty-first century Toledoan?

The inhabitants of Northwest Ohio at the time of the arrival of white settlers belonged to a wide variety of Amerindian groups; chief among these were the Ottawa, Potawatami, Delaware, and Shawnee. The Treaty of Greenville (1795), orchestrated by General Anthony Wayne, legally cordoned off Northwest Ohio from white settlement, but western migration of settlers eventually resulted in the erosion of Native American presence in the area.

In the nearly bloodless Toledo War of 1835, militia units from Ohio and Michigan tracked each other through the plentiful swamps; the forces were dispatched by the respective governors during a dispute over a 468-acre section of land that was known as the “Toledo Strip.” Inaccurate surveys commissioned during the territorial years of both Ohio and Michigan created ambiguity as to which state owned the marshy terrain. The area later known as Trilby was part of the land upon which this quarrel centered. Ohio finally gained control of the Toledo Strip in a compromise that gave Michigan the mineral-rich Upper Peninsula; modern readers can judge for themselves as to which state “won” the war in the long run.

Settlement in the Trilby area can be documented as early as 1835, when a 40-acre parcel of land was purchased by an Irish immigrant named Thomas Corlett. The land, located directly northeast of today’s Secor-Alexis intersection, changed hands several times over the course of the next decade. A small schoolhouse was eventually built on the property in the 1840’s, beginning the Trilby tradition of education that continues today.

Local legend holds that Tremainsville Road was once an Indian footpath; the track supposedly picked back up at present-day Whiteford Center Road. Nineteenth-century maps depict a large frog pond just north of the present Alexis-Secor intersection; perhaps the trails that predated Whiteford Center and Tremainsville Roads were one and the same, snaking their way around the pond.

Tremainsville Road was named after a Mr. Calvin Tremain, a businessman who immigrated to the area from Vermont in 1832. Tremainsville was also the name of a small settlement near Ten Mile Creek and present-day Detroit Avenue; Toledo Raceway Park is the current inhabitant of the land where once stood the village of Tremainsville.

More to follow on this essay; it is a work in progress, and I am interested in your feedback.

Jul 25, 2005

Toledo: A Rust Belt City Considers Alternative Fuel Technologies

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Gasoline prices in excess of two dollars a gallon have once again brought the issue of America’s dependence on oil – and foreign oil in particular – to the attention of the average consumer. The instability in the Middle East, a recovering US economy, and the rise of China as an industrial powerhouse are among the reasons for petroleum prices approaching $60 per barrel. Some analysts are projecting $80-$100 per barrel prices in the next year.

However, for Toledoans, the rising cost of operating our favorite obsession – the ubiquitous automobile - supersedes any curiosity in geopolitics or economics. The high gas prices sparked considerable interest in hybrid vehicles, which employ both gasoline and electric motors. The concern over energy costs has also reawakened interest in the development of alternative forms of energy, as well as how Toledo might position itself in such a way as to capitalize on these emerging energy technologies and industries.

The advent of the personal computer sparked the birth of a host of new industries, including semiconductor production, software design, and network technologies. Toledo, for the most part, missed out on the PC boom; as a region known for heavy industry, strong unions, and a perceived lack of highly-skilled workers, Northwest Ohio did not emerge as a top contender for research, development, and production facilities built by technology giants such as IBM or Microsoft.

One of the regions most closely associated with the tech boom is the so-called Silicon Valley in California. Located south of San Francisco, the region’s technological dominance and regional prosperity grew from its close proximity to Stanford University.
Like Silicon Valley, Northwest Ohio could benefit from association with university-inspired research. The influx into an institution such as the University of Toledo of government research dollars for developing alternative energy sources and technology could pay tremendous dividends to a community such as Toledo.

“With the decline of our manufacturing base over the past three decades, Toledo has experienced net job losses,” said Toledo City Council member Ellen Grachek. “Research and development of alternative energy technology could bring a significant number of high-paying industrial jobs to the region.”

UT boasts one of the nation’s finest photovoltaic research groups, led by Professor Alvin Compaan. His group, which has secured millions of dollars in research grants over the past decade, has made tremendous strides in improving the efficiency of solar panels. Compaan indicated that the grants totaled over six million dollars in just the past three years.

“Research grants in thin-film photovoltaics continue to grow,” said Compaan. “By capitalizing on these grants, the University of Toledo has achieved a level of national prominence in the field.”

The Apollo Alliance is a national coalition of business, labor, environmental and political groups with the common goals of building a stronger economy through the development of alternative energy sources. The group calls for massive investment in the alternative energy sector: specifically, $30 billion per year for 10 years.

As a city in the middle of the Rust Belt, Toledo would certainly benefit by becoming a leader in the Apollo Alliance movement. Research dollars could position the University of Toledo on the cutting edge of alternative energy technology development, and the growth of hydrogen, solar panel, and wind turbine industries could bring much-needed jobs to the Toledo area. The major problem, according to Grachek, lies in local leaders who lack the necessary foresight to envision a changing world.

“There is a tendency to practice ‘business-as-usual’ politics in this area,” she said. “For Toledo to capitalize on opportunities in the emerging alternative fuel industries, local leaders must recognize that these industries offer tremendous economic potential.”

Toledo boasts a number of advantages in any quest to posit itself as a forward-looking community seeking a role in the development of alternative energy technology. Hydrogen production requires access to large quantities of water; through the process of electrolysis, electricity is added to water and it is separated into oxygen and hydrogen. With its close proximity to Lake Erie, Toledo certainly meets this criterion.

With a vision of a hydrogen-powered world, McMaster Energy Enterprises of Toledo hopes to capture the emerging hydrogen fuel market. The company has developed a device known as the HyOxy Gas generator, which can convert any existing gasoline-powered car or truck into a hybrid hydrogen-gasoline vehicle. Located on Dorr Street, the firm is beginning to experience significant interest in the apparatus, according to company president Norman Johnston.

The generation of electricity through wave power is another emerging technology that Toledo might tap into. Most experimental designs involve some form of wave-driven turbine that produces electricity, and the waves of Lake Erie might one day be harnessed by electric utilities as a renewable energy source.

Driving through the rural sections of Northwest Ohio, a motorist is likely to see a great number of cornfields. These fields may one day supply a good deal of the corn used in the production of ethanol, a type of alcohol that can be used as a cleaner-burning fuel. Most standard gasoline blends currently include ethanol, but a fuel known as E-85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) is emerging as the industry standard for flexible fuel vehicles, or FFVs. These vehicles are designed to run on a variety of fuel formulations, and produce a much lower level of pollutants than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

An example of the movement by municipalities toward alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) is found in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city has begun to replace traditional vehicles with vehicles that use biodiesel fuel. In addition, the city is building two biodiesel fueling stations, with the first coming on line this December, according to city energy coordinator Dave Konkle.

Contrary to popular misconception, the Toledo area is a good candidate to become a major producer of solar power, according to UT’s Compaan.

“Thin-film solar panels do not necessarily need direct sunlight in order to efficiently produce electricity,” he said. “Flat-panel photovoltaics actually accept scattered sunlight on hazy and cloudy days. Toledo is thus able to generate 75-80% of the power produced by an equivalent solar panel in sunny desert regions, such as Arizona or California.”

The Toledo area also boasts one of the most advanced thin-film solar panel production facilities in the world: Perrysburg Township’s First Solar LLC, formerly known as Solar Cells, Inc. The plant is one of the three largest in the world, according to company spokesperson Paula Vaughnn.

“We are experiencing rapid growth,” Vaughnn said. “Last year First Solar produced 3 megawatts of panels, and this year we will manufacture twice as many panels.” Vaughnn declined to release sales figures for the privately-held company, but indicated that over 150 people are employed at the local facility.

Solar Cells, the company’s forerunner, got its start at the University of Toledo in the late eighties. Public and private research dollars provided the necessary startup capital, and the firm is now poised to become the largest producer of thin-film solar panels in the world.

Not content with merely leading one of the nation’s leading solar research teams, UT’s Compaan is building a new home in Spencer Township for his family with energy-efficient lighting, solar panels, and energy-management technology. “The State of Ohio offered incentives last year for individuals and groups to invest in alternative energy technologies,” he said. “We expect that our home will produce as much energy as we consume.”

Solar panels will grace the roof of Sylvania’s United Church of Christ, on Erie St. The 7-kilowatt system will produce over 10,000 kilowatts of power per year, according to the Reverend Bill Chidester.

“The church feels that renewable solar power symbolized a covenant of responsibility with our community,” he said. “Not only does this investment promote a cleaner environment, but it is a symbol of good stewardship of the planet’s resources.”

Local efforts at producing renewable energy are not limited to solar power. The city of Bowling Green, which operates its own municipal electric utility, installed two 1.8 megawatt wind turbines last year. The turbines are located at the Wood County landfill on US-6 and Tontogany Road. Peak electricity production by the turbines has supplied enough energy to the grid to power over 1,200 homes, according to city utilities director Daryl Stockburger.

The question of whether Toledo’s business and government leaders will recognize the opportunities afforded by emerging technologies in alternative energy remains to be answered.

Jul 20, 2005

On iPods and Walkmans

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Headphones, those aural attachments linking people and machines, are found in almost every setting that features human activity. As my children left for school recently, chief among their concerns was to make sure that they brought headphones and music. Boarding the bus that carried them to school, headphones were donned and each wearer traveled to the accompaniment of an individualized soundtrack.

Headphones and portable music devices, of course, are no longer novel products. Sony launched the first Walkman in 1979; it was initially called, variously, the “Soundabout,” the “Stowaway,” and the “Freestyle” in different world markets. The birth of the Walkman signaled a new era in personal entertainment. The iPod, while offering digital technology and unlimited programming possibilities, is really just a more evolved concept of an older machine. Users of both devices tune in to music that they have personally chosen, while they simultaneously tune out from the rest of humanity.

I was struck by the sight of over half the students on the school bus, quietly ensconced in their own musical refuges. The lack of connection to the outside world seemed to me to be analogous to social changes wrought by the consumerist mentalité honed in these recent decades of hyper-capitalism; under the guise of personal choice and individual freedom, human interaction appears to be increasingly seen as a distraction, rather than an integral part of life.

Hearkening back to my childhood, I thought of my own experiences on busses or in automobiles. One of the best ways to pass the time was to engage in song – the louder the better. As I traveled with other children on field trips, vacations, or visits to relatives’ houses, the defining event on such excursions was group singing, especially such wonderful ditties as “99 Bottles of Beer”:

99 bottles of beer on the wall
99 bottles of beer,
If one of those bottles should happen to fall,
98 bottles of beer on the wall.


Despite the protests of any nearby adults, the communal joy of group song united us youngsters and awakened a sense of the power of social bonds. There was still freedom for the individualists, who could interject lyric changes (“99 bottles of pee on the wall”) or magnitude shifts (“a million bottles of beer on the wall”). Free market aficionados – usually parents or employed older siblings - could also negotiate the terms of group solidarity (“I will give each of you a dollar to be quiet for the next hour”). Ultimately, even this attempt to bribe the silence of the nascent group consciousness only reinforced the collective sense; the same could be said for desperate authoritarian measures, as found in a weary parent demanding silence.

Pre-Walkman teens engaged in a variety of communal experiences involving music. Eagerly anticipated by any young person with a radio was the weekly countdown. There were, of course, plenty of songs that any given listener hated, but always a few worth waiting for. The rise of FM radio in the 1970s increased the number of choices, but groups became defined by their stations of choice. Powerful car stereos, for the most part, blasted the stations in which the listeners identified. If eight-tracks or cassettes were played, the group still listened – sometimes grudgingly – to the consensus choice.

Even the boom-box, despite its intrusion into the domiciles of neighbors, possessed an element of community. Megawatt entertainment centers, usually propped upon the shoulder of the possessor, broadcast musical selections hundreds of yards. Whether one loved, despised, or remained indifferent to the box owner’s musical taste, every person within earshot shared the experience.

The Walkman, however, added a completely new element to the mix – the isolated musical consumer. One no longer joined others on a musical excursion, put up with the choices of the group, or remained resigned to the cacophonous choices of others. Largely cut off from the outside world, Walkman owners temporarily plugged into a sonic universe of self-seeking detachment in which, like an aural opiate, offered an escape from reality.

The iPod, like the Walkman, isolates the listener from the people around them. The owner of the device, however, is in a sense even more removed, as the very playlist is individualized. Alone in a musical oasis, the iPod owner becomes separated from humanity, and contact with others is seen as an intrusion, rather than an integral part of human existence.

And the band played on…

Jul 16, 2005

Living Simply, Simply Living: The Relevance of the Messages of Thoreau’s Walden in a Hyper-Capitalist World

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The landscape of the present-day United States bears but little resemblance to the land described by Henry David Thoreau in Walden; the nation today is crisscrossed with multilane interstates, pocked with shopping malls and big box retailers, and the American wilderness has largely carved into zones for suburban and exurban housing. It might be tempting for modern students to conclude that Thoreau has nothing to offer contemporary readers, since the land that he portrayed has changed so dramatically during the years since the publication of his literary magnum opus. Such a superficial dismissal of Walden is indicative of more than the usual undergraduate complaints about irrelevant classics; it suggests a national mindset that Thoreau’s ideas are incompatible with the modern American consumerist ideology. With this backdrop, a strong case can be made for the argument that Walden’s messages have even more relevance today than when Thoreau wrote the book; his advice of living simply – and simply living – takes on greater urgency in this era of fanatical consumption.

Thoreau believed that human beings did not require massive, palatial dwellings in order to live a healthy and joyful life; he decried the tendency to construct “for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb.” His experimental home near Walden Pond reflected this philosophy, as it was largely constructed from second-hand materials. Thoreau built the house with an eye toward utility; there was virtually no wasted space, and every accoutrement had a useful function. At one point in the narrative, Thoreau considered the value of several rocks that once occupied a place on his desk:

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.

Thoreau perhaps foresaw the present American obsession with expensive suburban homes, recognizing a growing demand for domiciles that did not simply provide protection from the elements. The typical modern three-bedroom urban bungalow – which dwarfs most of the dwellings from Thoreau’s era – is no longer seen as the ideal home that it once was in the post-World War II building frenzy. Consumers seek, and builders construct, extravagant structures on large lots, and this high-end focus is fed by a consumerist obsession with grandiosity and newness. In America the dominant belief is that excellent living can only be accomplished through ownership of a newly-built palace with acres of perfectly-manicured lawns.

This lifestyle, of course, cannot be maintained without a hefty income, and Americans are thus forced into the position of requiring high-wage employment to support their suburban estate. The manor cannot be preserved if its inhabitants do not work over half of their waking hours in slavish devotion to obtaining money; Thoreau presciently noted that “we may regard one third of that toil as the cost of their houses.” Thoreau suggested that this dilemma was evidence that “men have become tools of their tools.” The suburban house, then, rules over its residents, who must scurry about like so many worker ants to sustain it.

The culture of conspicuous and redundant consumption that has evolved in the United States pressures individuals to acquire luxurious possessions and to replace perfectly functional goods with those that are purportedly newer and improved. Thoreau noticed this phenomenon during his lifetime, declaring that the “childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical.”

This neurotic consumerism further increases the pressure on people to work more, leaving less time for more enjoyable pursuits. The typical American worker annually toils away for two weeks’ worth of vacation time, the earning of which leaves him too exhausted to enjoy his respite; he hopes to live long enough to pass his twilight years sitting in a tattered chaise lounge watching shuffleboard on the activity deck of a Sunbelt retirement center. Thus, one toils countless hours during the prime of life to be rewarded with a few short moments when the physical ability to take pleasure in living is in rapid decline. Thoreau noted the absurdity of this philosophy, and extolled the virtues of simplicity:

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial.

Life, in a society that worships possessions and acquisitiveness, could more accurately be described as drudgery. For a person trapped in the continuous cycle of consumption, there is precious little living; one cannot suddenly decide to spend time enjoying the natural world when there are financial obligations that loom, Leviathan-like, overhead. Thoreau argued that he had obtained a wealth – simple living- that had far greater significance than monetary gain:


Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day;for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher's desk.

In an era that had just recently lost the sobriquet of “frontier,” Thoreau recognized that the natural wilderness of the country was integral to the health and well-being of its human inhabitants. He argued that there is a certain restorative quality provided by nature, which he called the “tonic of wilderness.” Man, according to Thoreau, was inextricably linked to the world in which he lived, and that any attempt to divorce oneself from nature was an exercise in foolishness. This advice goes largely unheeded in an American society fixated on attempting to remove or control every last vestige of nature.

Corporations promote poisons to eliminate insects and rodents from our immediate surroundings, while convincing consumers that they are inadequate homeowners if any plant other than hybrid Kentucky bluegrass dares to push through their neatly-trimmed and herbicide-laden lawns. Human hair, which developed on the body over many millennia as a form of protection against the ultraviolet rays of summer and the chill of winter, is portrayed today as an undesirable trait – except on the top of the head – and thousands of products are marketed to eliminate this vital bodily component from our legs, backs, nostrils and ears. Finally, our desire to conquer nature has engendered in Americans a collective lack of concern for the environment; the very air that we breathe and the water that we drink have become fouled, and the possibility exists that we may so pollute and degrade the planet that human life may no longer continue.

As a journalist I once covered a municipal council meeting on the application filed by a corporation to amend the zoning laws in order to allow the company to build a controversial coking plant. Advocates for the facility argued that it would bring jobs and tax revenues to the city of Toledo, while opponents argued that the plant would produce toxins that could wreak havoc in an already-polluted regional watershed. I was most struck by a corporate supporter, who claimed that the environmentally-minded activists wanted everyone to “live like hermits in a shack, like Thoreau.”

Of course, Thoreau specifically warned readers that he was not advocating his extreme experiment in asceticism, admonishing that “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account.” He was demonstrating that it was possible to live in such a manner as did not require endless, senseless toil. The advocate for the coking plant constructed her argument with the false dilemma that we have only two choices: industrial development or a Neanderthalian subsistence. Unfortunately, many Americans subscribe to this corporate ideology, and fail to recognize that it is possible to find a middle ground that encourages responsible stewardship of the planet’s resources and a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.

The act of living simply, unfortunately, requires a leap of faith on the part of the individual; members of the cult of consumerism are barraged with media messages exhorting them to worship the god of consumption. To preach against this religion is akin to cultural heresy; people who advocate a simpler lifestyle are viewed as lunatics or, even worse, Marxists.

Merely mentioning the idea that one might, say, trade in a car for a bicycle is enough to raise eyebrows (assuming that the person still has hair above their eyes, and that they have not been waxed or shaven in an attempt to meet the fashion ideal of a hairless human). Thoreau recognized that this belief is a precursor to change, and that a man who “has not faith, he will continue to live like the rest of the world, whatever company he is joined to.”

Perhaps we should not be too concerned with converting the mass of humanity to a simpler life, and should just live the ideal. Internal resistance in people cannot be overcome with an external force, and people must want to alter their behavior before change can occur. The example we set by living a simple life might be the best medicine for the consumptive disease that has infected the American body politic.

Living simply produces hidden benefits to followers, and not the least of these is one’s physical health. The stress of struggling to meet the financial burdens of a lifestyle of excessive consumption takes its toll on the human body; what for example, is the physical cost of a daily one-hour, one-way commute? In one calendar year, such work travel – which is not unusual in bigger cities – adds up to over 500 hours of time spent cramped in a shiny metal box breathing air laced with automobile exhaust. Simply living is perhaps the best advice that Thoreau offered; as a slave in the service of the consumer economy of the modern United States, a person has precious little time to enjoy living. Voluntary simplicity offers people an opportunity to reduce the amount of time spent in mindless acquisitiveness, and frees them for more rewarding pursuits.

Jul 13, 2005

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Just starting out this blog, so bear with me as I learn how to make this page work.

Jul 12, 2005

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Jul 8, 2005

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