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Tale of Two Toledos: Birth of the 'Sister City' Relationship

The global tradition of uniting cities as sisters started with an unlikely pair: Industry center Toledo, Ohio and art capital Toledo, Spain.

Meet Toledo, Spain, an enduring Bronze Age metropolis whose history includes Roman rule, Visigoth sieges and Castillian conquest (all before 1086 A.D.). It served briefly as Europe's multicultural center, where the writing of Muslim scholars and scientists was translated by Jews into Hebrew and by Christians into Latin. Together, all three faiths rewrote the texts in Spanish during the Italian Renaissance, at a time when cooperation was hard to come by.

Toledo is no longer a Spanish capital, but it remains a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts a bumpin' TripAdvisor page. I've added it to my list of places to visit.

Now, meet Toledo, Ohio, settled by newly christened Americans in 1795 with an outpost called Fort Industry. Its claim to fame is its perch atop the Miami and Erie Canal. It's only seen battle once, in the coyly named Toledo War of 1835—a nearly bloodless spat over a 5-mile stretch of land that both Ohio and the Michigan Territory had claimed. By 1900, it was a hub for railroad companies, furniture and glassmakers, and beer brewers.

But as manufacturing jobs began vanishing midcentury, Toledo sunk into depression. Ten percent of residents left the city between 2000 and 2010. 8.7 percent of those who stayed are unemployed. I've visited many times—and despite its downtrodden narrative, the city is bustling with people who care for it.

These were the world's first transcontinental sister cities.

The two cities established their bond in 1931, predating any governing body of sister cities. In 1934, Toledo, Spain invited Ohioans to a week of Corpus Christi celebrations. The Spanish Civil War interrupted plans for Spaniards to return the favor, but they finally arrived in 1962. The first Spain-U.S. phone call connected Toledo to Toledo the same year. Toledo, Spain loaned a host of paintings by El Greco, its most famous artist, to the Toledo Museum of Art in 1982.

Other gestures have been largely symbolic—the cities have named plazas after one another and donated Jeeps to police forces. But the sister cities movement has globalized. President Dwight D. Eisenhower created Sister Cities International in 1956 in an attempt to promote transnational friendship amid the Cold War. A decade later, it became a self-sufficient nonprofit, and after the Berlin Wall fell, sisterly bonds connecting U.S. metropolises to post-Soviet ones exploded. Now, more than 2,000 U.S. cities have sisters in 136 countries.

And "being twinned," or "twinning," has taken the world by storm since the late 1980s. Some cities prefer sisters with the same name, like Mansfield, England. Others vary wildly. Boston has eight sisters; Los Angeles, 24. There was even a "Global Twinning Conference" in Cairo in 2011. (Cairo, by the way, has 28 sisters).

And Toledo? The Ohio twin has taken to hosting an annual Sister Cities International Festival, where visitors can spend an hour picking up basic phrases and dance steps from other cultures. Toledo's second sister was Qinhuangdao, China, adopted in 1985; its newest, Hyderabad, Pakistan, in 2011. And the program says more relationships are in the works all the time. After all, twinning is part of Toledo's heritage.

Your city may not celebrate its sisters as extravagantly as Toledo does. But do you know where they are? Look it up, then learn how to say "hello" in that language. If you're as lucky as Toledoites (Toledoans?) are, you'll get to greet your sisters someday.

This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Learn About Your Town's Sister Cities. Follow along and join the conversation at and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.

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