Bulldozers don’t beat urban blight, they just create wastelands

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” is the prayer that begins almost every recovery meeting, and for good reason: change is difficult.

For the past 30 years I’ve watched the city of Dayton proper flail about in its efforts to… well, that’s the problem, there seem to be different goals and objectives serving as motivations in its 68 defined mini-fiefdoms- the neighborhoods. Division is the first secret to winning a battle, and you don’t have to take it from me- take it from Sun Tzu in his classic- “The Art of War”

If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

And it’s not just the City of Dayton proper. All those suburbs, the mini-banana republics known as suburbs, are just more divisions, fighting each other to make the real Dayton- the urban area of Montgomery County as well as the adjacent sprawl into Greene and Warren County- weaker instead of stronger. Each Banana Republic thinks it’s somehow winning because it’s “not Dayton”- while missing the bigger picture that we’re all Dayton, no matter how proud you are of Kettering, Beavercreek, Centerville, Miami Township or Clayton.

The more I listen to politicians, the more I understand why we’re all screwed. Division is their specialty, be it Red v Blue, be it progressive v conservative, be it issues like gun control, abortion, vaccination, taxation, regulation and all the other words that end in in -ion, including education.

There is a difference between leaders and politicians, and the key, apparently is mathematics.  Leaders multiply, politicians divide. And the worst politicians bulldoze. Not just figuratively, but literally. Their “solution” is to always remove the sore spots, to heal by amputation, to fix by flattening, to turn what was once vibrant into vacant- thinking you rebuild best from flat land instead of healing first, then filling in the gaps.

It doesn’t matter if you are a new school superintendent barging in to fix what’s broken (or what you think is broken), or a new mayor who promises to demolish the reminders of your predecessors’ mistakes, the first step to recovery isn’t removal of the weakest parts, it’s not strengthening the strongest parts, it’s holistically looking at the problems and healing the causes of the blight, of the failures, taking the whole, and curing the culture that caused the problems in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll only be winning in the race to the bottom- which is what we’ve been doing, and repeating, for decades in Dayton.

Call it the Grand Unification Theory, call it crazy, but realize: none of the 30-odd banana republics in the region are an island, even if Oakwood thinks it’s under a dome. Our futures are absolutely interconnected, even if our politicians are anything but. The reason is every stinking one of them thinks they are either a savior or a leader when in fact, most are only interested in preserving their positions at all costs. And, I’m not talking their job, or even their community, I’m talking about that sliver of power that elected office creates and inflates their egos and their own self-worth.

The fact that 99% of the population can’t name all their elected officials from school boards up to senators should be the first clue that having “representation” doesn’t mean you have leaders or a voice. In fact, almost all Americans believe that “democracy” and voting gives them power, when in fact, by voting, they are turning their power over to someone else to “represent them.” We have way more politicians than we need, and way too few leaders.

The reason for that is that leaders make people nervous. As much as I despise Donald Trump, he was a leader. He was able to take a large group of malcontents and mold them into a horde of followers who thought it was ok to go as far as to storm our capitol in a treasonous mob on January 6th, 2021, intent on overthrowing our government. Followers of Trump have defied every part of our nation’s founding principals and yet, believe themselves to be true patriots. With them, it’s their way or the highway, and of course, the first tool you need to build a highway is a bulldozer.

Bulldozers are also touted as the salvation of the City of Dayton proper. We want the broken-down, less than pretty hulks of houses torn down thinking that the key to saving a neighborhood is eliminating the eyesores, without fixing what caused those homes to succumb to entropy.

And, I’m not saying that some of those houses don’t deserve the bulldozer, but to understand how “urban renewal” or “revitalization” works, you have to think like a dentist, not a doctor. Dentists understand that you need all of your teeth to be able to eat, chew, and keep the others in place. When they take a tooth out, ideally, they want to replace it with a placeholder- and it you take out too many- a mouth stops working- and so they replace the whole set.

Creating gaps in our community is similar- if you don’t fill them back in, the likelihood of the community coming back to health is slim and none. Better to remember your Sun Tzu,

Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign. Having collected an army and concentrated his forces, he must blend and harmonize the different elements thereof before pitching his camp. After that, comes tactical maneuvering, than which there is nothing more difficult.

We’ve created unlimited options for the demise of Dayton proper by failing to marshal our resources and focus them on strengthening our savable positions, instead of cutting out the deadwood. The fact that people can choose to continue to sprawl out of Dayton makes it very hard to hold steady. This is why Portland, Oregon drew a circle around the city and stopped allowing sprawl to cost them all. Unless we have more people, we shouldn’t be building more housing without requiring an equal or greater amount of square feet to be removed. The goal is higher density and higher utilization of existing infrastructure, not adding overhead to a community already paying out the nose to support so many governments.

No dentist will tell you that adding teeth and making your mouth bigger is the right solution to a healthier mouth. 32 teeth is all you need; having 60 and a bigger mouth won’t make you healthier- it would just mean you could eat more faster, which probably would mean you would probably need to upgrade the rest of your body to handle all the extra calories and waste that would come along with it (infrastructure).

There are two words that need to be banned from the mouths of politicians, because they like to overuse them, and they are lousy indicators of success. “Economic Development” should never be the goal of government, instead, building Social Capital should be first and foremost. Social capital is the capacity of people to band together to succeed, without the need for intervention with bulldozers. Social capital is when all boats rise, instead of just the few. You can measure it’s growth through income tax revenue, educational achievement, median household income, health care costs as a percentage of income, rate of crime and incarceration. Successful communities have successful people living healthily. When you have an abundance of social capital, everyone is winning, people are working together and all is right with the world. When you have “economic development” the guy who owns the bulldozer is winning, as well as the few folks that the politicians bet your tax dollars on.

This focus on economic development all started with Ronald Reagan’s lovechild- combining the idea of the Laffer curve and “trickle down economics” both of which were code for helping the rich get richer at the expense of the rest of us. The final insult was the Supreme Court Decision of “Citizens United” which may have been the oxymoron of all time. It allowed the richest to buy politicians by the bushel, and we’ve been paying for it ever since.

We’re about to elect a whole bunch of new local yokels to their banana republics this November 2nd. If they are in Dayton- and they are talking about bulldozing, ask them how they plan to put something up to fill the gaps they will create. We don’t need more housing or more jobs until we figure out what caused the problem in the first place.

If you are living anywhere else in Greater Dayton- you need to ask if they support a move to unigov- one government for the entire county. Because as Dayton’s problems move to their communities- they can’t solve those problems with bulldozers either.

It’s time to stop issuing building permits outside of developed areas, without an impact fee of taking out equal amounts of vacant space- until our population actually grows. It’s time to come up with new solutions for public transit, homelessness, mental health, public health, schools and safety that work for all of Dayton- the one on the map, not the city proper.

Because, bulldozers don’t solve problems, they just fill up the dump.



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