An elegy for a wounded place
By Paula D. Ashe
Experience has taught me that sometimes you have to sit with pain. Invite it in, let it sit awkwardly in your living room while you search for things to say. Sometimes you can’t think of anything. In those times, you have to let the pain speak.
I’ve felt that way since Sunday, when a man with a gun killed nine people and injured twenty-seven more in Dayton’s Oregon District. The Oregon District: stomping ground for the wealthy and eccentric, the weirdos and the lost. Junkies, poets, artists, musicians, transients, writers, freaks, hedonists, innovators, and dreamers. People talk about community, about places where you can see “all kinds of people.” That place is the OD. A strip of Fifth Street where everyone can be.
I spent my formative years in Dayton, in the Oregon District. My young, Black, queer, weirdo, sad self never felt strange there. Never. Some part of me never fits anywhere, but the OD was an anomaly of inclusion. Back then, I was stretched thin in every direction, trying to hold myself together while disparate parts of my identity developed in sharp angles and discordant evolutions. There, among the cobblestone streets, bronze plaques, wrought iron railings, and buildings of weather-worn brick, was the only place I felt completely at home. The only place I felt familiar.
I came out to my friends in 2004, at the age of twenty-five. I did so without any immediate role models, templates, or a real understanding of what it meant to be a Black lesbian in the Midwest, in America, or in the world. Unlike many families with rumored gay uncles and aunts, my family had no such creature. To this day, as far as I know, I am the only out queer person in my immediate family. My friends and I, when we were all in various stages of coming out, called this period ‘the gay desert.’
The gay desert is when you first recognize your queerness, and with it, the desire to have it extend beyond your own interiority. You begin to shape a history, a narrative, around the strangeness of your being. You long for a place where you can explore this emergent ontology, a place where you can dissect yourself from a misaligned history, a history forced upon you by a culture you had no hand in creating. You want to be new. You want to be, now.
It was there, in the Oregon, on Friday and Saturday nights—no matter the season or the weather, walking those streets alone or with friends—that I felt, for the first time, the possibilities of being beyond what came before. Gem City Records, with its wide selection of overpriced-but-essential albums. The Oregon Express, where my best friend and I spent so much time knocking back White Russians and vodkas with Red Bull. The Neon Theater, where I time-warped my way through my last year in high school. (Where I saw Spike and Mike’s Twisted Animation festival, and later watched the Blair Witch Project three times in one day.) St. Patrick’s Day at the Dublin Pub. Exotic Fantasies, a sex shop where a bunch of lonely and scared babygays could go without feeling ashamed and afraid. The only place we were—in a limited way—represented.
I often think of the District as a slice of the French Quarter with a Midwestern twist, but that is an unfair comparison for both locales. It is a protean place; it becomes what you need it to be—a business district, a neighborhood, a string of bars, an entertainment venue, a sanctuary, a place to sin.
People joke about ‘safe spaces,’ fantastical bastions of conformity and political correctness, an absurd and impossible geometry of limp ethics and flamboyant otherness. But the people who joke about safe spaces are the very people who don’t need them. To call the Oregon District a safe space is both obvious and trite, but also tremendous in its accuracy, particularly now. It is a collection of places, their significance untranslatable.
A wounded place holds a community in need of healing and offers a promise of progression. My experiences in the Oregon District are not representative of all experiences there, but I can say, with some level of certainty, that this place does a seemingly impossible thing—it radiates hope. It allows us to see beyond the walls of our histories and our vulnerabilities. And it does so through the people who reside, gather, mourn, love, and celebrate there.
On Sunday morning, a man with a gun violated that place. And now, the pain must speak. Hear it. Beneath that breath is a whisper of hope. ■
Paula D. Ashe is an educator and writer who lived in Dayton until 2009. She currently lives in Indiana with her wife and their son. She graduated from Wright State University (twice!) and is now a PhD candidate in American Studies at Purdue University.
Cover image of the Oregon District in Dayton, Ohio. Photo via Flickr user THX0477 (CC BY 2.0).
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