People come before bricks and mortar

When my firm, The Next Wave, made “South Park Soliloquy” back in 1996, it wasn’t about the historic homes in South Park- it was a story about the people and the neighborhood. It actually took some convincing the neighborhood that this was the real story. The use of “Buckwheat Zydeco” for soundtrack was also questioned- but, again- the key to South Parks success isn’t rooted in history- it’s in the now- the way neighbors band together and make living in our neighborhood a collective party.

You can watch the video- it’s 30 minutes long- and it aired on DATV for a while, was distributed on VHS tape and now lives on via Youtube.

As I walked in Old North Dayton yesterday collecting signatures, I ran into people who’d lived there for their entire lives, who wondered what happened to their solid working class neighborhood. I also ran into new residents, who were building their lives in our country and in Old North Dayton as a choice, two very different cultures, co-existing.

My experience with Old North Dayton started when I first came to Dayton and was living in what was then called “Mad River Township” and my girlfriends grandparents lived on Baltimore. The house was impeccable. They knew all their neighbors. Most were immigrants or kids of Immigrants. There was a community pride that’s conspicuously missing today.

It’s that pride that thrives in South Park, it’s that pride we’ve lost over the years as we’ve focused more on “economic development” than developing and empowering our “Social Capital.” Without people, you don’t have a city- and our population loss since I first ran for Mayor in 1991 has been epic. Because our city has survived on taxation without representation- we tax people who work in Dayton for a majority of our city funds- we were able to ignore the population drops, until NCR and Delphi left town. Those jobs and payrolls were a huge part of our security blanket – and without them, the cuts we made were in the essential services that make a community a community. The Stuart Patterson rec center has long been closed. Our police department is half as strong, and building code enforcement is a shadow of its former self.

Instead, we’ve bet on buildings, “job creation” and pie in the sky. How’s that been working? We now have a 29 year backlog of houses that need to be demolished. And, while I don’t think that houses are un-saveable, having saved 5 myself in South Park, I can tell you that after they’ve been stripped of copper, left open to the elements and ignored, they do damage to the neighborhoods pride as much as they do to the value of our infrastructure.

When pride goes, so goes the neighborhood.

The sad thing is, these are still proud people. Many just feel trapped, now that things have slid away from them. Others think of their time here as temporary, a stepping stone to a better place, and a few- they see opportunity. What we have to do as a city is find ways to empower our communities to find their pride again. It’s time to rethink how we connect government to our residents, not by creating bureaucracy to evaluate and prioritize projects- but, by working together to fix the easy stuff first and get the people working together toward a shared vision. It took South Park a long time to find it’s voice and place, and there is still much work to be done, but the pride is there and that’s what’s most important.

It’s much easier to get people to do what they want to do, than what you tell them to do. If you ask me, it’s the main secret to Gary Leitzel, the one thing he “gets” and Nan Whaley and AJ Wagner never will. But, he’s still a lone voice on the commission. It’s why I have no problem circulating his petition as I circulate my own. And, it’s why I want to join him on the city commission to put the people first again.

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