TOLEDO, Ohio — Like its neighbor to the north, Detroit, Toledo has been hit hard by the Great Recession and the shrinking American auto industry. Downtown is littered with the hulks of giant factories that used to help supply parts and materials to the Motor City's car industry, but which now sit fenced off, their broken windows and weed-choked parking lots a testament to better times in this industrial city.
But despite areas with some of the highest double-digit unemployment rates in the state, these days there are plenty of reasons for hope thanks to the unlikely championship run of the area's new favorite daughter, "American Idol" top-three contestant Crystal Bowersox.
"She came from a small town, so it shows anybody can do anything," said Derek Wood, 14, who gathered with more than 200 others to watch the elimination show in the Baptist church across the street from Bowersox's childhood home two weeks ago. "I think it gives [kids around here] the chance to open up their dreams and try other things ... think they can actually do it. I think she's going to win."
That kind of optimism can be found all over the Toledo area, from the spanking-new signs proclaiming tiny Elliston, Ohio (population 75), the hometown of Bowersox, to the dozens of store windows painted with messages of encouragement for MamaSox in neighboring Oak Harbor, put up by the cheerleaders from the singer's old middle school.
After Bowersox made it through to the top four that night, Oak Harbor native Jaime Sellback, 20, was relieved and said the success has helped create a sense of community in the area. "I think it's brought everyone together, really, I mean, to have an 'Idol' from our town?" she said after attending her first viewing party at the church. "It's just crazy to think that someone's going to hopefully win it — well, she will win it — and be famous ... just from a small town, and she's done so good."
Of course she's a bit biased, but Bowersox's grandmother, Alice Bowersox, is not only proud of her granddaughter's success, but glad the rest of the world finally gets to see what she's known all along. "We knew she was going somewhere," said Alice Bowersox. "We really knew she had a lot of talent. And now the rest of the world is finding it out."
When it's suggested that her granddaughter's rise from a modest rural Ohio background to the biggest stage in television is a quintessential American success story, Alice blanches a bit, showing some of that signature Bowersox grit that Crystal has displayed when sparring with the judges on the show. "We always knew that she was going to go far," she said modestly. "And coming from a small town doesn't really have a whole lot to do with it. It was her drive and she really worked hard for this. That one night [on 'Idol'] when she talked about singing in the subway in Chicago, she really did that. She'd sing anywhere."
The previous night, Dr. Jeff Bunkers, who was Bowersox's orthodontist when she was a teenager, sat up close to the TVs at the Village Idiot in Maumee, Ohio — where Bowersox had a standing weekly engagement up until she left for "Idol" — and watched her perform with a big smile on his face. "I think it shows people that ... if you can dream it, it'll happen. No matter how long it takes, it will happen," he said. "So I think we should all have some dreams and let's work towards fulfilling those dreams. Because I think Crystal ... she's showing us that no matter where you come from, what you think, you can really make it happen."
That can-do message has spread all the way down to the school Bowersox attended, Oak Harbor Middle School, where principal Marie Wittman has been using an old video of the singer winning her sixth-grade talent contest as a way to motivate students during their recent Ohio achievement tests. "I can actually play off of Crystal's success because she was very driven at a young age and has worked so hard," said Wittman. "I told the students that with hard work and dedication and all of those good things, that they will be successful some day, that they never know where their dreams can take them." With the annual talent show coming up, she said some students have already taken Bowersox's example and signed up for guitar lessons thinking that they might follow in the Ohio native's footsteps.
Perhaps nobody is prouder, though, than local musician Ron Rasberry, the man who was one of the first in the area to give Bowersox a shot at playing on a real stage and who has nurtured her musical aspirations for more than a decade.
"Man, people are walking around and smiling," said Rasberry, perched on a stool on the stage at the gritty downtown Toledo bar Papa's Tavern, where Bowersox began playing at age 14 and where she is now enshrined in a hand-painted mural on the wall beside Rasberry. "This city needs a good shot in the arm, you know. Right now things are a little tough and rough around here. ... She's putting smiles on people's faces that wouldn't ordinarily watch that show. And I'm one of them."
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