Note: This post is long. It’s a Sunday morning, New York Times Magazine type piece, that tries to bring some of Dayton’s recent development history into perspective compared to what Mayor John Fetterman has done in Braddock, Pa., star of international attention. Please set aside 10 minutes to digest it.
Dayton, Ohio, is the capital of consensus, committees and groupthink. Listening to one unnamed politician you’d think that he/she spends all day going from one committee to another. With committees come meetings- and from meetings come other sub-committees and more meetings. We’re also good at creating “master plans”- of which we have shelves of them.
UpDayton isn’t like that. It’s a group that’s committed to making things happen. Find something we can do to make a change right now- or at least in the next 6 months. They harness the energy of young professionals and funnel it into things we can see. Be it murals under bridges, murals on bridges, internship programs, etc.- they actually try things.
The annual summit is a way to get people to meet, talk, share their ideas on how to make Dayton a better place and stop the “brain drain” of young people leaving our city.
I went to the first summit 4 years ago- and I attended the 4th yesterday at the Dayton Art Institute. Luckily they’ve moved away from clickers and twitter to face-to-face talking and sharing. The first exercise was for everyone to write down two ideas on a card- and then they started a game like musical chairs where everyone walks around while the music plays and swap cards- until the music stops, and you then stop and discuss and score with the last person you had exchanged cards with. You then have 5 points to award between the first idea on each card. This was repeated three times and you could add “builds” to the idea to enhance it. Ideas with high scores were shared with the group between each exchange round. It was a good way to say hi to a lot of people- and end up having a discussion with someone you might not have met before.
I was in the livability group, there was also an entrepreneurship and a campus group. Of course I was a bit out of the age range- but, I wasn’t the oldest, since there were some corporate types and other organizational leaders (local Pecha Kucha founder and AIA Dayton honcho Matt Sauer) and a few candidates.
After the idea generation exercise, we got to hear a keynote by Braddock Mayor John Fetterman PA in the amazing DAI auditorium. While many of us have heard of how desolate Detroit is, or how Hurricane Katrina caused massive population loss, nothing is like what happened to Braddock- which lost 90% of its residents. Fetterman has become a bit of a celebrity- and has managed to put Braddock on the map as a city that claims on its homepage that “Reinvention is the only Option.” Fetterman could be defined as the anti-politician, except when you realize that Braddock’s entire population is less than 3,000 (or 6 times the number of valid signatures you need to run for Mayor of Dayton). Winning an election where it is truly possible to talk to every voter is a bit different than what has to be done in Dayton.
Needless to say, Fetterman is a big man, with a big heart and a focus on youth. He came to town as an Americorps volunteer armed with a graduate degree from Harvard in Public Policy. He ran for office because things had to change in his opinion. His main goals were to stop the killing, because Braddock had a gun violence problem- and to make the place safe for kids. Playgrounds, art spaces and public areas- from community centers to public gardens were keys to transforming the psyche of a town that was down on itself. He also managed to create a youth work program that gave every kid in town a summer job. Of course, it helped that somehow Braddock became a pet project of Levi Strauss, whic donated a lot of money to the city for using it and its people for an ad campaign. Also, the aesthetic of post apocalyptic entropy has attracted movies to use Braddock as a backdrop for movies of that genre. Not exactly the glossy beauty shot you use to attract people to move in and invest in your city.
But, here is where I get frustrated with Dayton. We don’t trust ourselves to listen to our own home-grown talent. We send more people with vision packing than we empower. I can go back 20+ years and remember the battle’s Commissioner Mark Henry had to fight to work to get “McHenry Town” to happen. McHenry lived in the McPherson Town neighborhood (I can’t remember if it was a historic district yet) and believed in Oscar Newman’s concept of “defensible space”- where blocking off neighborhood access was used to stop non-residential cut-through traffic, cruising for drugs and prostitution and generally to give people a clear set of boundaries to work within. It was a bold experiment, and to Henry’s credit, McPherson town made great strides. However it is the smallest Historic District in Dayton, so great strides were easy. We didn’t run Henry out- he stepped down from the Commission to go to law school at UD and never came back to Dayton proper, instead, decamping to the suburbs where he could raise his kids and send them to public schools that would give him his money’s worth (you only get one chance with your kids- it’s not like a house which you can walk away from).
But, there was another person with a plan in McPherson Town- his name was Michael Kern. He was a slightly ADD guy with a side of professor Harold Hill (from “The Music Man”). He started buying options on McPherson Town properties left and right. His goal was to acquire rights to 25% or 30% (or some number) and then have the city step in and use a process like eminent domain, to grab the rest of the properties that were in a negative social equity position (or run-down in lay terms). He was looking for using something much like a Tax Incentive District (TID) to reinvest in the district and pull it all up at once, quickly, so that it would become attractive to banks again (at that time he was running into the same obstacle I ran into with buying my house- banks didn’t do home loans to people for houses under $25,000 because homes shouldn’t be that cheap.). Instead, the city jumped on him with the full force of a bunch of Imperial Stormtroopers for every housing violation on his existing properties and put him in jail. Exit Michael Kern. (Kern’s efforts were pre-internet, making it hard for me to research and link to his plans- I think a case study analysis of this might be eye-opening, on how Inspector Gotcha and Mr. Status Quo killed ambition at the threshold of opportunity.)
The last visionary out of McPherson Town was my friend Bill Rain. Bill was working for Bass Systems (a local company that sold checkout system technology to retailers like Target) as a major accounts rep. He was living the good life, when he got the developer’s bug. He put together the deal that put the “one stop center” on Edwin C. Moses Blvd. in his spare time, got a decent check and next thing he was looking to leave Bass and go all in on creating new downtown living spaces- our first true, home-grown urban pioneer developer. We’d already watched the city throw money at McCormick Barron, the YMCA and who knows who else to rehab the old Y into “the landing” and build the new condos along the river on Monument, but Bill had to fight every battle on his own, and took the old butt-ugly Pinsky produce building on St. Clair and gave us the “Lofts on St. Clair” (not to be confused with the St. Clair lofts which came much later) which he and co-developer Dave Williams each had to buy a unit in order to get banks to go along. From there, Bill did the Ice Avenue lofts– a building that was so structurally weak on one side, most thought it should have been torn down, instead, Bill got engineers to figure out how to put it back out of catywampus-ville, and a whole bunch of new downtown living space was added. He was the flint for the fire that became “The Cannery” when he bought the first building at the corner of Wayne and Third, and struck up a relationship with Beth Duke who had the 4th building down the street. Arguably, the Cannery has been the most successful privately developed downtown housing, even though it did end up in bankruptcy- probably in large part caused by the road blocks that the city and HUD added to the project. (Originally, the second floor was to be offices, for a work/live possibility and to decrease the need for parking- since the uses alternate, but HUD supposedly said no to funding office space). Rain dropped out of that partnership to do the Schwind building, where he got his chain yanked by both the City and CityWide Development, to the point he left town when the DeBartolo Company offered him a development position in Tampa. Yes, DeBartolo, as in Eddie, former owner of the San Francisco 49ers and at one time owner of something close to 80% of the shopping malls in this country. Not good enough for Dayton, but good enough for a guy on the 250 richest people in the world list. The Schwind has just made the news again as being wrecking ball material, because an out of town developer is being welcomed with a million dollar gift, to create Sinclair student housing. Had the same deal been offered Rain, it would have happened years ago- without tearing down a piece of history.
As a side note, because the city decided to subsidize the YMCA to the tune of at least a half-million, Joe Moore of Moore’s Nautilus pulled up stakes and moved out of Downtown and swore off ever investing in the city. That’s the problem when tax dollars are used for private development without open bidding and fair playing fields – something Dayton seems to excel at.
So, back to Mayor John and his dystopian utopia. The big man spins a mean marketing machine, and has managed to covet attention to the plight of his neighborhood sized “city.” The real solution to Braddock’s problems probably lie in a total overhaul of the jurisdictional rules of Pennsylvania. What we have here is a “city” about as far from Pittsburgh as Vandalia is from Dayton. And the “city’s” population is about what we have in the total of South Park and Twin Towers combined (or less).
Here is where the UpDayton crowd could have looked for our own transformational leadership. People who are doing things right here in D-Town. No bald heads, big tattoos or the bravado that being a spoiled rich kid allows- since the part that Fetterman leaves out is that he works most of his “magic” by being a big fish in a tiny pond, with a bit of family money being channeled through a non-profit that he runs and comes from his dad and his own pocket, appended with money from Levi’s and other foundations, like the Heinz foundation.
Here we have Jan Lepore-Jentleson slaving away for almost twenty years, trying to navigate around the edges of the bureaucratic labyrinth of federal poverty reduction programs to create East End Community Services. They are building community in a neighborhood that suffered the exact same kind of de-investment that Braddock did. Although Xenia Avenue’s business strip was nothing like it was in the 1950s, much of the blue collar jobs were gone, and all that was left were the watering holes and an odd feed store which is now her base of operations after they moved Xenia Ave. Feed to the ‘burbs as well.
We also have the tag team of Theresa Gasper and Mike and Holly DiFlora, who’ve been part of gentrifying South Park for the last 5 years, investing about $3 million of their own money in a neighborhood that’s been pulling itself up by its own bootstraps for the last 30 years. Change comes at a snail’s pace in Dayton unless you have the blessing of the people in the back room who used to run this town. They were the people who brought you the Schuster Center, Riverscape and Fifth Third field, but, the sad thing is, unbeknownst to many, their ranks have thinned to almost non-existent these days- as Mead, Reynolds & Reynolds, Danis Construction, NCR and others all either left town or had to struggle with their own demons brought on by the massive economic melt-down that set this entire country back 100 years.
Fetterman is a master of telling a story that, upon closer examination, is more like being elected High School Class president than being a force of nature coming to save the urban world (my high school, Cleveland Heights High, was only grades 10-12 and had 2,400 students). When he talks about winning the election by one vote, it was in the Democratic primary where he was going against a 2-term incumbent. The total vote in that election was less than the number of signatures Gary Leitzell had to get to get on the ballot to run against Rhine McLin, and there was no 6-to-1 spending disparity in that race. When Fetterman is asked about how many people have followed his lead and moved to Braddock to do their art thing, he masterfully extrapolates the numbers by saying “it was like 4,000 people moving to Pittsburgh, he said, which sounded like a lot. The actual number is currently 23, in 10 households.”
He also exaggerates the numbers in his presentation by listing what was on Main Street in 1955, and then says shows all the zeros for what is left now. They didn’t have an optician in 1955, but they do now, but he fires for effect, not for the facts.
I’m still a fan of Mayor John. He has somethings dead on right. Safety is key. No one wants to invest where people are getting woken up by gunfire, boom-thunk cars cruising your hood, or having your welcome sign “sponsored by the Crips.” He is making changes and the most telling fact of his speech was that the woman who called him “full of shit” in the Rolling Stone article, who was the “borough manager” was later to have been found with her hand in the cookie jar to the tune of $178,000 of the town’s money. I’m pretty sure she would have been able to keep her scam going, just like some people in Dayton have done for years without getting so much as a sideway look because we don’t have a single elected independent leader, except Gary Leitzell, who isn’t a 6’8″ 350 lb independently wealthy guy able to blow the whistle on his own, since the size of the whistle needed to explain things to everyone in Braddock is a $15 megaphone and in Dayton it takes a lot more (it’s doubtful that Braddock has its own newspaper that’s in bed with the local charlatans who line their pockets with tax dollars like we do.).
Dayton has its own reasons for being on the world map, and not as a dystopia. The Dayton Peace accords make Dayton a mythical place to most in Europe, which may be why Mayor Leitzell’s reputation is better in the London Financial Times than in the Dayton Daily News with his “Welcome Dayton” initiative. His $10k challenge to run for commission which was ignored by the old school politicians who wouldn’t know either change or a great marketing idea if it hit them with a two-by-four is another example of why Gary Leitzell may be the most under-respected mayor this city has had in recent times (especially considering we’ve had a string of do-nothings or claim everythings in the center seat).
Leitzell isn’t a polished public speaker, although he can hold his own. While everyone in the audience at the UpDayton summit will remember the big sloppy man in shorts (Fetterman blamed his kid for spilling a slushy on him before he left Braddock for the roadtrip to Dayton) for showing his big tattoo of Braddock’s zip code on his arm, Leitzell had to endure a ton of crap for having a small earring by our politically backward establishment. I’ve gotten criticized for wearing jeans and not having a tie on the campaign trail- I doubt Mayor John hangs a rope around his neck ever, because, well, he looks like a skinhead and doesn’t smile according to articles in Rolling Stone and the New York Times.
Sure, compared to Braddock, Dayton looks great was Mayor John’s anthem. “All you young professionals, come on over to my playground and do the urban homestead” was his underlying pitch. While he made it clear what he was up to was Sisyphean in scale, when he talked about housing prices, Dayton is a much better deal than Braddock, we have amazing value here for those looking for it once you move just slightly off the bottom of the basement deals.
Maybe next year, UpDayton will look a little closer to home, because we have our own storytellers, who maybe haven’t been on the Colbert report, or been written up by Rolling Stone, but have done really amazing things. Not that I’m criticizing the UpDayton crew- but, isn’t it almost ironic that UpDayton couldn’t find someone in Dayton to talk it up? We’ve got the talent here, and it needs to be heard.