Life Support for Dayton?

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – August 2, 2009

Coming back to Dayton after a few weeks elsewhere, I realized something that’s been sort of brewing inside of me for the past two years since I returned to Dayton. I realized that Dayton is home for me. You know that feeling you get when you’re driving back here after a time away and you see the exit on the highway, and you get that excited feeling that soon you’re going to be able to just relax because you’re going to be home. I had that feeling coming back after my vacation this summer.

This is a feeling that has taken me a lifetime to actually realize. Because this is the third time I’ve come to live in Dayton. Once as a teenager with my parents, then as a young mother when my husband was transferred here, and then this last time as an “older” person. You’d think I would have figured out by now that there was something calling me here.

I wasn’t sure about whether Dayton would be home when I first moved back here two years ago. But it started to come to me when I would drive by old familiar sights that stirred memories in me. One of these old familiar places was Old River, the NCR company park that the corporation gave back to the city before their cloaked exodus to places south. I went to visit Old River one weekend soon after it opened this spring.

I must say it was a sight for sore eyes. Unfortunately over the years, NCR has not maintained the park and there is much maintenance needed. But walking down the paths, over the bridge where the small moat runs with its oversized carp, and by the old miniature golf course many memories returned to me of having birthday parties in one of the shelters for my kids, or of bringing my kids to swim in the huge swimming pool which is now filled in.

NCR was one of the manufacturing companies that founded Dayton. Starting in 1884, John Patterson bought a failing company making cash registers and re-built it using a winning sales strategy. NCR has had a long and respected history in this town ever since. His vision for a company included providing recreational facilities for employees such as Old River. There were also movies in the old NCR auditorium and concerts in the park. A family who worked for NCR was part of the NCR family and employees therefore had loyalty. Many would stay at NCR their whole careers and some would even encourage their sons or daughters to seek their careers at the company.

Dayton was founded with many such companies. Another founding company was Delco, auto parts manufacturer, later becoming Delphi, still one of the largest employers of Dayton and the Midwest.

Settlers who came to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois toward the middle of the nineteenth century came primarily from New England and New York or emigrated directly from Europe. They were ambitious, individualistic, with faith in “social progress, and education and civic egalitarianism.” (Longworth, quoting Cullom Davis, Caught in the Middle, p. 19) These settlers were eager to found a new life for their families and a new society for plenty of jobs for hard-working, fair-minded people. My great, great, grandfather, Preserved Smith was one of these later settlers, coming to Dayton from Masssachusetts. After becoming prosperous by running a country store in Troy, Ohio, he married my great, great grandmother and moved his family into a house he built on Second Street downtown. He then became joined E. H. Barney and founded the Barney and Smith Car Works which made wooden rail road cars. If my great, great grandfather had had a vision of train cars of the future made of steel the way Mr. Pullman had, who knows, we might be a wealthy family today.

However, these eager and ambitious settlers primarily from the East created Dayton as a seat of manufacturing, a place where innovation thrived. We heard in our reading about the fact that Dayton has more patents per capita than any other American city. We know about the Wright brothers, Colonel Deeds and the started, Charles Kettering, etc. We have much to be proud of in Dayton.

As Richard Longworth, author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism describes, Dayton and many other Midwestern cities having been founded on innovation in manufacturing didn’t see the changes that would need to be made in their way of doing business until it was too late. Dayton like many of the other major manufacturing towns in the Midwest watched as the manufacturing plants were moved first to less urban locations, then to the Sun Belt where unions were not an issue. Then the manufacturing moved offshore to Japanese plants and to South American cities where labor was cheaper. It wasn’t just foreign countries who were competing, it became the companies founded in the Midwest who looked for cheaper ways to compete in the now global economy. Many of these companies begun in the Midwest aren’t going out of business, they just aren’t in Dayton, or Cleveland, or in Flint, Michigan any more.

A year ago, Forbes magazine named the ten top “fastest dying cities”. Out of the ten, four were named in Ohio, Youngstown, Canton, Dayton and Cleveland, making Ohio the winner in this dubious contest. These cities have faced population decline; in Dayton the total decline since 2001, is around 13,000. They have sluggish GDP growth- in Dayton our growth was only 1.2% between 2001-2005 compared to 2.7% average nationwide. And of course unemployment is a huge challenge over the past year but even going back to 2000, unemployment in these cities was rising faster than in other cities due to the loss of industries connected to the auto industry. Our unemployment now is XX compared to a year ago when it was XX.

Richard Longworth visited Dayton just about a year ago when writing his book. He describes driving into Dayton: I drove into Dayton, Ohio, on a recent Monday in May. The first building on Third Street as I entered downtown was the Montgomery County Building. Next door stood the Coroner-Crime Laboratory. Most of the other buildings also were government buildings, police, city administration, a courthouse, a small college. Downtown held one decent hotel, a Doubletree, not much for a city of 165,000. I saw a little commerce–a few clothing stores, discount stores, pawnshops. Not much traffic. Parking is easy to find. The city looked neat, not shabby, but dull, with little life. Not to knock government, nor to glorify traffic jams. But a healthy downtown needs more than government buildings, and real cities are busy places filled with commerce and people and traffic. Downtowns aren’t supposed to be quiet.

We all recognize what he’s talking about. We’ve all seen it. The downtown of Dayton has been dying for years. When I lived here 14 years ago, there was an attempt to revive the downtown with the renovation of the Arcade. But that didn’t hold. Not enough businesses downtown to generate the people traffic to support such a place.

Dayton is in crisis. We now are facing the exodus of NCR, a Dayton institution to Duluth, GA. It makes many of us who see Dayton as our home very sad. Dayton faced another crisis in its history when its citizens needed to band together to find solutions. It was in 1913 during the flood of the Miami River. In my youth, I grew up hearing stories about this flood. My grandfather was about 22 years old. He told my mother about his reserve unit being called up to guard the stores downtown. He was given a rifle with no ammunition to hold to scare away looters.

The flood affected many towns on the Miami River but Dayton was the most affected. Here’s a description: Fifteen square miles of Dayton lay under six to eighteen feet of water. Fourteen thousand homes were destroyed or damaged; 50,000 people – nearly half the city- were at least temporarily without shelter. The flood had inundated commercial generating facilities, so survivors were without light. They were short on food, as well: everything not canned or jarred was sodden or contaminated. And, they were without central direction: local government collapsed in the first four hours of the flood. At the center of the catastrophe, cool, cantankerous and issuing orders to all, was John H. Patterson.

Patterson went into action even the day before the flood had broken its banks. He had thrown his employees into building boats, collecting supplies, using the company’s resources to become a first responder in this tragedy. He dispatched boats to collect people from the roofs of their houses, created shelters in NCR facilities, and used the NCR telegraph to communicate the disaster to the outside world.

A great deal of heroism was witnessed during these days after the flood. Citizens, businessmen, and city employees alike all banded together to save their city. And after the flood waters receded they were left with a soggy, muddy mess to clean up. And they all cooperated with that as well.

After the flood, it was clear that a plan needed to be constructed to prevent this from happening again. Edward Deeds, the inventor, took it upon himself to step in and recommend Arthur Morgan, a civil engineer from Memphis who had been studying water control engineering from a somewhat unconventional approach. Morgan was hired within weeks and began his thorough study of the Miami River Valley. At the same time, a group of citizens, business, and government officials made up a planning committee, the Flood Prevention Committee and went to work led by Deeds to raise the $25 million dollars they would need to build a solution.

This group of innovative Dayton citizens created the plan for the Ohio Conservancy Act and Deeds led the fight for its passage by speaking about its importance throughout the Miami Valley. The bill passed in February, 1914.

What this story describes is the way that citizens raised their voices and gained power along with the businesses and government agencies to save Dayton from the possibility of another devastating flood. Business leaders like Patterson and Deeds knew that if Dayton was not protected from this future possibility, businesses would not remain in Dayton and Dayton would die. Another direct result of this planning, was the hiring of a city manager. Dayton was the first Mid-western city to use this new professional style of city government.

We are facing a flood again. A flood that could wipe Dayton and its rich history of innovation off the map. Businesses are leaving the area and taking with them the jobs that could sustain our city. And what do we see happening in the city to prevent this? Nothing. Dayton seems to lack leadership at this crucial time in its history. We don’t have a John Patterson or a Col. Deeds with innovative ideas to help citizens come together to solve these current problems.

So, what can we do? There are probably many different things we can do. We certainly need to become more informed about what’s happening to Dayton. We can find out more what is being proposed in our state legislature about how to use stimulus money. We can get more involved in civic organizations in our own area.

But I want to tell you about one opportunity that some of us are exploring. On Thursday, I sat in a room with about 10 other Dayton area clergy to talk about how congregation based community organizing could possibly address this problem. The organization that you’ve heard about, still called Vote Dayton, since they haven’t come up with a new name, yet, is exploring with faith leaders if we can create a possible leadership for the problems in Dayton based on grass roots organizational structure, with people all over the city telling each other what issues they think should be worked on first and how they think we should go about it.

Around this table were four African American clergy, two women, four white clergy, and others who were invited but couldn’t make it including two rabbis, and some representation from the Muslim community. These people had agreed to explore the possibility of providing some leadership for this group as it formed. We couldn’t have been more different. We discussed some of our differences. We discussed our differences in race, in theology, in our views on some social issues, and in socio-economic background. I have to tell you that a couple of the older clergy mentioned that this was the first time for some of them since the sixties to have the opportunity to sit around such a diverse table. We all welcomed such an opportunity to know each other better in addition to discuss the problems facing Dayton.

Congregation based community organizing is a way for citizens to have a voice in their community and work with businesses and government toward mutual goals. Citizens so rarely have a voice in communities unless they are organized in some way together. Sometimes citizens will organize around one particular issue like housing or zoning issues. But if citizens groups are formed to talk about issues with each other, then they can work together on issues that many are interested in. No one in the group is forced to work on someone else’s issue unless they decide to. But the interaction among diverse groups across the city allows people to know what is important to other people, people who are not necessarily from their socio-economic group or racial group or faith group. You have a chance to learn what’s important to many different types of people.

I’ve been involved in community organizing before. I’ve seen large groups of citizens meet with government officials on local issues and receive commitments from them for change. I’ve seen those government officials meet their commitment- because citizens used their powerful voice together.

The national community organizing group that we’re exploring with is the Industrial Area Foundation. It is the community organizing group that Obama worked with in Chicago. Originally, it is the group that was formed under Sol Alinsky in the 40’s. The UU Funding group at Shelter Rock has committed a large amount of money to help fund this group to do their work nationwide. We are just exploring at this point. Nothing is decided. But we will be discussing more about this group in the coming months.

Dayton is my home now. I love Dayton for many reasons, including the fact that I have deep roots here. I love Dayton because of the neighborhoods where people really know each other. I love the friendliness of the people when I go into a store or walk in my neighborhood. I love the lack of traffic, even though maybe that’s not a good sign of a bustling city. Many of the schools are good places for children to learn. And I love that it’s a safe city.

But there are many problems that need solving in this crisis. Many of you were a part of the Vote Dayton voter registration drive when we walked neighborhoods in the West side. You saw the crumbling houses where drug dealers hang out next to the clean well-kept houses of responsible citizens. You all know people who have lost their jobs or are afraid of losing their jobs. Some of us know people who are being transferred with a corporate move. You may know small business owners who are hanging on by their teeth. I get calls everyday in the office from people who need help paying their bills or need money for food.

There are many responses we can make to these problems. And our on-going discussions with the Social Concerns committee will help define a direction where we want to explore in our concern for our city. Please participate in some of these discussions. Your opinion is valuable.

We can make a difference, even if it’s just widening our circle to know more people in our city of Dayton. Our home.