When I moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1986, it was the first time I lived in a real city. It was far smaller than Phoenix or San Diego, the then sleepy but populous places I'd been, but it seemed bigger. I lived in a leafy city neighborhood of old houses and took the bus to work. The downtown was a compact mass of skyscrapers held in a bend of the Great Miami River. The newspaper was there, in a lovely old building enchanted by history, with a newspaper bar right next door and a bustling historic domed arcade across the street. Two department stores were a block away. Across the square was the old courthouse where Lincoln had spoken. Nearby, a jazz club.
The economy was robust. The "Rust Belt" was reinventing itself as an innovative superpower and Dayton was no exception. While National Cash Register had shut manufacturing of the old machines -- a trauma affecting thousands -- it had become a successful global computer giant. Mead, the paper company, was headquartered in a downtown tower and starting a data operation that became LexisNexis. Dayton had the second largest concentration of General Motors employees in the world, and its factories were being retooled and reinvented, often with UAW bosses as leading innovators. Hundreds of suppliers provided well-paid, high-skilled jobs that were as productive as any in the world. The airport hosted an airline passenger hub for the best-run carrier in America, Piedmont, as well as a freight hub for Emery Worldwide. For a kid from the West, this introduction to the Midwest was a heartland epiphany.
Those assets are almost all gone now. And when I wonder why Ohio seems so crazy -- how it could have voted for Bush in 2004, if indeed it did; why it fell for Hillary's Wellesley girl Norma Jean routine; why it could now be a tossup for McCain (?!). When I wonder all these things, I think about Dayton.
All the excesses of bad policy have been visited on these once powerful heartland cities. Lack of anti-trust enforcement, tax breaks for mergers, and a political environment that encouraged greed took away their corporate crown jewels. Bad trade deals killed their good jobs. Terrible corporate stewardship at companies such as GM, which kept building boring cars, decimated the blue-collar middle class. NCR was a plaything of AT&T in a merger most observers said wouldn't work; it didn't. Unchecked corporate consolidation took away competition and great companies such as Piedmont. Corporate bosses lied to Ohioans who not only worked like hell to create a productive, innovative economy, but also lavished tax breaks to keep these companies "competitive." They closed up, took their huge golden parachutes, and left the heartland to crash.
Every Midwestern city has its proud history, but the losses are especially tragic in Dayton. This was not only the Wright brothers' home, but where they and others perfected aviation. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was the center of Air Force research and development. Charles Kettering was the genius who enabled General Motors to leap ahead technologically. In many ways, Dayton was the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century.
At the same time, Dayton has been battered for years by other American problems: poisonous race relations, white flight, suburban sprawl that left the core city to wither, unequal educational opportunities, the death of the commons.
I'm sure some of the city neighborhoods and parks are still as beautiful, the monuments built by earlier generations of stewards as inspiring, the history still as evocative and enchanting as the changing leaves on the Miami Valley hills. And millions of former Midwesterners are happy to be down in Arizona (good luck with that).
But I mourn Dayton. I mourn a nation that would let its cities fail and flounder and rot while chewing up beautiful countryside -- and cropland we may need someday -- to build unsustainable ugliness. And I understand why Ohio feels such rage.