Today, we know the Friendly Center, located at the corner of Superior and Magnolia Streets in the Vistula Historic District, as a local agency committed to Toledo's first neighborhood in partnership with the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. In 2023, as the Friendly Center celebrates its 100th anniversary, let's explore the story behind this North End institution.
We'll have to go back to the late 1800s to put the story into perspective. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Toledo’s population soared! It grew from 50,000 in 1880 to 132,000 in 1900, making it the 26th largest city in the United States. As you can imagine, many immigrants began to settle here, attracted by the promise of jobs and the city's accessibility by rail and water. Although Toledo offered many economic opportunities, it also experienced many of the problems associated with late 19th century urban life, including congestion, poverty, crime, poor sanitation, and disease.
As a result, Toledo drew the attention of progressive-era reformers. Among them was Samuel M. "Golden Rule" Jones, who was elected mayor in 1897. During his time in office, Jones worked to improve conditions for the working-class people of Toledo. He opened free kindergartens, built parks, instituted an eight-hour workday for city workers, and did much to reform the city government. Jones was very popular with the average citizen and was re-elected three times. He died in office in 1904, and his successor, Brand Whitlock, continued his reform efforts.
As the progressive movement gained steam in Toledo, a few local business leaders began to get involved by donating land and money for various social programs. In 1907, a settlement house for immigrant women called The Door of Hope was opened at a home located at 1324 North Superior Street by a women's group from St. Paul's Church. The home was donated by Stevens Flower. The Flowers had made their fortune in the seed and grain business, and after his wife Ellen passed away, Stevens Flower was keen to have his wife's name associated with the Door of Hope and the name was changed to the Flower Home for Girls. Later on, he did the same with Flower Hospital.
In 1922, after a significant expansion and refurbishment, the Flower Home for Girls was renamed Flower Esther Hall in honor of the Book of Esther, the story of a Jewish orphan who became a Persian Queen. The expansion allowed the hall to nearly triple its occupancy to 30 residents. Around this time, the neighborhood surrounding the home was at the end of a demographic shift from primarily white middle-class residents to first and second generation Syrian-Lebanese and Greek immigrants. This demographic change also shifted the needs of the surrounding community.
In 1923, after recognizing the need for a place to help immigrant families adjust to life in Toledo, the leaders of Flower Esther Hall opened the Friendly Center to provide educational and recreational activities for the north Toledo neighborhood. In August of 1927, they purchased a home on Magnolia and opened it as a community center. An adjoining home was purchased soon thereafter.
Here’s a great quote from Hanaday Awada’s 2009 thesis paper entitled, Planting the Cedar Tree, The History of the Early Syrian-Lebanese Community in Toledo, OH, 1881-1960…
“When the children were not running up and down the streets of the North End, they could be found at the Friendly Center, which was affectionately called The Syrian Country Club because most of the boys and girls who played there were Syrians."
According to the News-Bee and Toledo Blade articles that covered the facility’s dedication on November 13, 1927…
“The house, which is located just off of Summit Street, was purchased in August and has been redecorated, furnished, and equipped for use as a community center for girls and boys primarily. There is a large assembly room where neighborhood clubs can meet. There are clubrooms for the Camp Fire Girls and Boy Ranger Cubs of the district. A demonstration dining room and a model kitchen will provide classrooms for the cooking students. Classes in practical nursing for young mothers will also be taught…”
By 1942, Friendly Center opened a summer camp and began receiving funds from Toledo's Community Chest as the mission continued to grow. The center benefited thousands of neighborhood kids throughout World War II with educational and recreational programing. In 1949, the original homes purchased along Magnolia to serve as the center in the late 1920s were torn down to make room for a new gymnasium. In the 1950s, Friendly Center's new gym served the community with recreation and after-school programming. During this time, a new demographic shift began to take place as African-American families began moving into the neighborhood as part of The Great Migration.
In the 1960's Esther Flower Hall and Friendly Center merged, closing its residential services, and the mission of the Friendly Center began to focus more on poverty. Sadly, in 1973. Camp Friendly closed after becoming too costly to operate and maintain. But, despite struggling financially, Friendly Center continued to find new ways to serve the North End. While the Friendly Center's mission never shifted away from women and children, how the ministry served its community became much more complicated.
Today, Toledo’s first neighborhood is now a poor but diverse community with a mix of large, older homes. The median home value is only $29,000 — less than some of today’s newer automobiles — and the median household income is only $12,000, well below the poverty line. More than half of the people living in the Friendly Center’s zip code are unemployed, and fewer than one in five have full-time jobs. While some homes in the area are being fixed up, slum-lord housing and three subsidized housing projects are also dominant parts of the neighborhood. The North End has the highest crime rate in Toledo and the highest transiency rate. Finally, the Friendly Center neighborhood is basically a food desert with no grocery stores.
Clearly, the neighborhood has different needs than it did in 1923 but the Friendly Center continues to answer the call. For years, it has stood as a symbol of community, support, and hope. Over its 100-year history, it faced numerous challenges, from financial struggles to the ever-changing needs of the community it served.
In the early 2020s, the center's future seemed uncertain. Funding was diminishing, and the building itself was in need of critical repairs. Community members worried that they might lose this beloved institution forever.
But the citizens of Toledo were not ready to give up on the Friendly Center. Local businesses, schools, and individuals rallied together in an unprecedented show of solidarity. A massive crowdfunding campaign was launched, accompanied by local media coverage that shared heartwarming stories of the countless lives the center had touched over the decades.
The campaign caught the attention of several influential philanthropists who were moved by the center's mission and the community's fervor. Their generous donations, coupled with the money raised by the community, were enough to not only repair the center but also expand its facilities and programs.
Reinvigorated, the Friendly Center began offering new services tailored to the evolving needs of the community. As it celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is still a source of hope, providing a food pantry, a free lunch program, and community outreach programs. It serves thousands of meals a year in an area where many people rent rooms without access to cooking facilities.
Now, the Friendly Center stands stronger than ever. More than just a building, it is a testament to the power of community spirit, the importance of perseverance, and the incredible things that can be achieved when people come together for a common cause.
The history of the Friendly Center in Toledo serves as a reminder that with dedication, passion, and unity, no challenge is too great to overcome. It remains a beacon of hope, not just for the residents of Toledo, but for communities everywhere.