By Amanda Dee
“I think it’s because one has no words that one writes,” Sandra Cisneros wrote, and I believe this is why I have been unable to do much besides write about Dayton since the morning of August 4. My heart is broken. What else is left to say? What else must be said for us to put an end to this bloodshed? I have no words, so I am writing.
Dayton was my home for five and a half years. I attended the University of Dayton, and stayed behind, after graduation, as most of my classmates and friends fled to the coasts or larger cities (as I would later do myself). When I became editor-in-chief of the city’s alt weekly, Dayton City Paper, it became my job to know Dayton intimately. Every week, I planned and edited dining reviews, music previews, art features, opinion columns. I helped cover the stores, restaurants, and bars in the Oregon District.
On weekends, I went to those stores, restaurants, and bars. I saw all the Oscar-nominated shorts at The Neon. I sipped whiskey like I was in a speakeasy at Century Bar. I still wear my Omega Records T-shirt almost every other week. I swung on the giant swings outside of Ned Pep’s, as my friends Allison and Tinkle like to call it. In courting the city, I fell in love with it.
This city that wants for naught, that has innovated from nothing and welcomed all (it was the first “Certified Welcoming” city for immigrants in the U.S.) – despite being abandoned time and time again by those who had once invigorated it; this Rust Belt sequel to Detroit; this city, broken as it has been, loves fiercely back.
In my years covering Dayton, I saw firsthand one of the community’s central contradictions: so much of the city is full of life, while some of it is, simply, empty. Never re-filled after the exodus of manufacturing jobs that began in the 1970s. Dayton has also struggled to address its vast expanse of food deserts, ranking as one of the worst metropolitan areas in the country for food hardship. Then, hit hard and fast by opioid overdoses, Dayton became a poster city for discussions of the opioid crisis in national news outlets. In 2017, the influx of bodies was so overwhelming, the county morgue had to seek reinforcements to outsource them to local funeral homes.
That same year, I left the paper and the city to move to Chicago, becoming another statistic in the decades-long population decline of Dayton. The City Paper, like many alt weeklies, would shut down within a year for financial reasons, silencing one of the loudest (and weirdest) voices that celebrated the city. Then in May, thirteen tornadoes tore through the region, taking more homes from the area, including the home of one of my friends, a former Dayton City Paper writer, whose family huddled, screaming, inside the house, while their roof flew away, along with the artifacts they had collected from their life.
You will hear many refer to the grit of Dayton, including the mayor and former residents. I have witnessed this side of Dayton, too. My friend, the writer, and his family raised enough money through community support to leave the motel they were living in for a mobile home. When the financial sustainability of the city’s three main performing arts organizations was at risk, the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance formed in 2012, merging the symphony orchestra, ballet and opera under the roof of one organization in what may be the first project of its kind in the U.S. In response to more grocery store closings in the area, more grassroots initiatives are on the rise. In one year, Dayton reduced opioid overdoses by nearly fifty percent, and other cities around the country are now looking to it to model solutions.
I’ve been thinking about another Sandra Cisneros quote these last few days, this one about death. “There is no getting over death,” she writes, “only learning to travel alongside it.” The only thing I have left to say is Thank you, Dayton. I love you, with my whole broken heart. You have taught me how to fight for the places and people I love, and to rally when life takes or is taken from us. As you travel alongside what has happened, I know this is what you will do again now. ■
Amanda Dee is a Chicago-based multi-media storyteller. She is the former editor-in-chief of Dayton City Paper, Dayton’s alternative newsweekly. Her work has been published in Hooligan Magazine and Sixty Inches from Center. Dee is also the associate producer of the oral history podcast Moral Courage Radio: Ferguson Voices, which documents voices from the Ferguson community in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown.
Cover image of a memorial in Dayton, Ohio. Photo by Allison Parrish of artwork by Nick Bruno and Christopher Etch.
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