Dayton, Ohio, you are a city of epic proportions. Whether you know it or not, your voices are strong and you are important. Never forget where you come from. Don’t forget what this place is about. Mankind learn how to fly in this city. When the rest of the country was in slavery, everybody was free in Ohio. If a slave was running for freedom and saw The Ohio River, he was there. Nothing can break our spirt. I will never be afraid of you because you are my friends and neighbors and you give me strength. You are my countrymen.
When I heard these words spoken in real time by Dave Chapelle, our most famous friend and neighbor, my heart swelled with pride. A few years ago, I was asked a question: What is holding Dayton back? My answer: Daytonians believing in Dayton. We suffer from a specific syndrome that ails similar rust belt cities. Jason Segedy, the Director of Planning and Urban Development in Akron explains this phenomenon brilliantly:
From a world-historical perspective, the cities in the heart of the Rust Belt – places like Dayton, Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Erie, Flint, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Toledo, and Youngstown – are cities that have experienced incredible ups and downs in the short span of just 150 years. Until the Civil War, most of them were tiny agricultural towns located on the inland waterways that became important as the frontier expanded across the Appalachians.
By World War I, they were some of the largest, most important, fastest growing cities in the . entire nation. They teemed with immigrants and new arrivals, and they collectively produced an incredible share of all of the most important manufactured products on earth: automobiles, glass, machinery, rubber, and steel.
After World War II, they began a protracted, incredibly painful and traumatic period of economic and social decline, as the triple whammy of economic restructuring (the outsourcing of manufacturing); regional outmigration (to the Sunbelt); and rapid suburbanization (in a region with a strong tradition of balkanized local government and a history of economic and racial segregation) took an agonizing toll on these cities and their neighborhoods. The degree to which these interrelated trends profoundly affected the psyche of the people who live in these cities cannot be exaggerated.
That agony was literally spelled out in Dayton’s most quintessential bumper sticker: “Dayton’s Alright if you never been anywhere else.” Jason continues:
Some of this is good-natured joking, but it still betrays a real sense of shame and inferiority that people feel about the place. Even worse, when enough people exhibit these attitudes, they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, many of the newcomers are ground down by the negativity, and they move somewhere that they feel they can actually make a difference.
Daytonians believing in their city is one of many quandaries I’ve considered since emerging as a community leader in my beloved hometown. How do we start to change the psychological outlook of an entire city? How do we overcome our dramatic and distinct level of both racial and economic segregation? How do we stem the tide the brain drain? How do we fund non profits and social programs despite deep cuts to government, grant and corporate funding? How do we turn around the failing school system and end the cycle of poverty? How do we “come back?”
These are huge questions we are grappling with on a both on a local and national level. It’s overwhelming and in many ways paralyzing. Life has a way of shaking you into action and Dayton Ohio experienced a series of events that shook it to it’s core.
Last fall, a PBS documentary called “Left Behind America” was released detailing Dayton’s history of
de-industrialization and the subsequent fallout: suicide and opioid addiction. It also documented our history of segregation and economic disparity. It was a “Dayton I don’t recognize” to many of the local cultural elite. To others, it was overdue truth telling. No matter what, it certainly stings to be labeled “left behind.” It was one of many “dying city” stories to be profiled on us over the past decade.
More grim statistics were released: We have the worst school system in the state, infant morality is 4x the state average for African Americans, and one of the highest percentages of African Americans living in poverty in the nation. Proof that Dayton’s segregation is real, and not just misery porn for coastal journalists.
In the spring, a KKK group from Indiana announced they were going to host a rally in the heart of downtown Dayton. Shock and controversy set local social media on fire. Why are they coming here? Should we counter protest? Should we ignore them? Will this be the next Charlottesville?
After painful debates and $650,000 in taxpayer funded security costs, we survived the invasion of the klan members. We thought we were going to rest easy, at long last. It was the end of a wild Memorial Day weekend, and we all needed a good night’s sleep. Then the wind began to blow….
Over the course of that Monday night, 18 tornadoes ripped thousands of houses from their foundation, from the western outskirts, through the city, to suburbs to the east. The paths of destruction was unfathomable. The morning light showed how deep the damage was, and it was simply devastating. The worst part was the economic disparity that played out. Renters and home owners without adequate insurance are still scrambling months later while their suburban counterparts repaired their homes with comparative ease.
Eight weeks later, as Daytonians finally felt like there was a return to some level of normalcy, a young man did what is becoming all too common: he opened fire on his neighbors in the heart of our entertainment district, killing nine innocents. To pour salt on the wound, President Trump visited the wounded while so vilely insulting our Mayor she had to get a security detail. It truly felt like we were collectively living through an apocalyptic nightmare.
So when the Governor and congressmen showed up to our impromptu vigil, their words rang hollow. It’s like we are in an abusive relationship, when words won’t cut it anymore. DO SOMETHING was pulsating through our veins, and ripped through us as a chant for the entire world to hear.
Despite the inaction on a state and federal level, we did something here in Dayton. When the klan came, we literally wallpapered the entire town in “United Against Hate” signage. The New York Times declared “Hate Comes to Dayton, and Dayton Unites Against It.” It was the best press we had in years, and it wasn’t focused on the klan at all. It was about of of us coming together. “I am just overwhelmed with good spirit — all of these groups came together, and there was no violence,” said Lachashia Price, 28, a Dayton resident was quoted. “We are maturing as a city.”
Three days later, thousands of us rolled up our sleeves, learned how to use chainsaws, and got to work. We dragged enormous trees out of living rooms, delivered formula and diapers to mothers who had transportation or water, and checked on the elderly at nursing homes without power and air conditioning. There were so many volunteers, people had to be turned away times. It was absolutely incredible how many of us abandoned our work and personal lives to help our neighbors who were suffering.
In addition, between the tornadoes and shooting, we collectively donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid the victims. It was an astounding outpouring of generosity. And an unexpected and unrelated bonus, the Dayton school system improved their score with the state!
When I think back to my original questions, which were based in “how do we bring this community together?” I realized that through all this adversity, the silver lining is that it brought us together in a way that we haven’t seen since the Great Flood of 1913. We didn’t solve all that ails us, but it demonstrated that no government entity or corporation is going to come in and save us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. And although it hurts to be broken open, the cracks are where the light is starting to come through.
Dave Chapelle continued:
We are going to show the world that nothing will get us down. Dayton, Ohio, no matter what’s going on, no matter how tough these times get, we hold our heads up high because we know what we are about. The best way that we can honor our fallen is by getting up better than we were before. We will not let those people die in vain. They are our heroes. They are martyrs. This is our city. Gem City Shine!
My wish for 2020 and the fresh new decade ahead, is for us to start believing in ourselves again. We demonstrated incredible courage, fortitude and empathy, that would make the likes of Patterson and Kettering proud. It’s time to take that new found spirit and apply it to the deeper and older wounds that continue to hold us back. I’m confident, as I write my thoughts at the end of 2029, I’m going to swell with pride once again, thinking about how far we’ve come.
Your friend, fellow citizen and neighbor,
If you need to find some inner peace after such a traumatic year, I highly recommend the absolutely free meditation training at Heartfulness Dayton, with a convenient location at the Fairfield Mall. If you want to get involved with social justice awareness, I encourage you to participate in the revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Rally and March in Dayton on April 23, 2020. If you have some extra cash, donations to the Greater Dayton Disaster Fund are accepted here: https://www.daytonfoundation.org/greater_dayton_disaster_relief_fund.html