Urban Resilience: an Ohio City Adapts to a Century of Disasters

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By Mike McGrath 

Last year, a hate group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan obtained a permit to stage a Memorial Day rally at the Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton, Ohio. The Klan group was from Indiana, and the permit was granted by Montgomery County. It was Dayton, a city with a large black population and more than its share of local challenges, that would be left holding the bag for the six-figure cost of policing the event.

The City of Dayton went to court to prevent the white supremacy event, but only managed to get an agreement limiting the number of weapons that would be carried to the rally. In the end only a handful of Klan supporters showed up at Court House Square, where they were far outnumbered by police and counter-protestors. The rally was a dud. It seemed like Dayton avoided a potential nightmare.

Two days after the Klan march ended without incident, a series of devastating tornadoes hit the region, destroying dozens of buildings in and around Dayton. Two months after the tornadoes, the city experienced its worst mass shooting in history near a popular bar in the Oregon Historic District, killing nine and injuring 17 people. Earlier in the year the city suffered a major infrastructure failure—the calamitous bursting of a water line. If a city could be a character in the Old Testament, Dayton would be Job.

Mayoral Leadership 

When asked about Dayton’s year of disasters during an interview last November, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said,

“You know, you never want to go through these kinds of events, but when you do, you see the grit and resilience of the community and how connected it is. We’ve gone through a lot of pain, but there’s been a tremendous amount of action and beauty that’s come out of that from people, and I felt especially honored to lead Dayton during these times.”

“The NAACP showed really terrific leadership during the white supremacy event, really trying to bring the community together in tough conversations about us still being too separate, too unequal,” said Whaley. “The work that the churches and nonprofit community and people coming together to take care of folks who lost their homes in the tornadoes, that’s still going on.”

The tornadoes brought together different communities within the region. “[Nearby] cities like Trotwood, and Beavercreek and Harrison Township saw a lot more damage than Dayton did, and how those communities came together through a regional task force has been impressive,” she said. “And I think the demand for action that I see from the people of Dayton around getting gun violence prevention measures through has been impressive, and just the love that people have for their city.”

First elected to the Dayton City Commission in 2005, Whaley was the youngest woman to win that office. In 2013, she ran for mayor and was elected by an impressive vote margin. Since taking office, Whaley has been active in national organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, serving as Second Vice President, and is a founding board member of the Ohio Mayors Alliance.

“I think our resilience and grittiness was tested this year, and it showed just how gritty the city is. I have always felt that about Dayton,” added Whaley. “I’m not from here originally. I went to the University of Dayton and stayed here. I decided to stay because I liked that grittiness of Dayton. It’s how it has always acted, especially in the last 100 years or so, starting with the great flood in 1913, which created tons of changes in our community and in our structures to this day.”

In 2018, the PBS’s Frontline and the online ProPublica journalism site co-produced an hour-long documentary called “Left Behind America,” focusing on Dayton as the embodiment of a once-thriving industrial center that was now on the losing end in a globalized, winner-take-all economy. With a poverty rate that was three times the national average and a growing opioid addiction epidemic, Dayton seemed like a good place to tell a larger story.

Dayton began to lose manufacturing jobs in the late 1970s as corporations began to transfer operations abroad or to southern states where labor unions were fewer and wages were lower. After China entered the World Trade Organization, the pattern of globalization accelerated. Between 2001 and 2007, Dayton lost an estimated 23,000 manufacturing jobs.

As the documentary points out, Dayton was once the “epitome of industry and ingenuity in the American heartland.” At the turn of the nineteenth century, Dayton was like a fin-de-siècle Silicon Valley with more patents per capita than any other city in America. It was in Dayton that two bicycle repair shop owners, Orville and Wilbur Wright, designed the prototypes of their first airplanes and the inventor/philanthropist Charles F. Kettering engineered an electric self-starter for automobiles, the first of many inventions to come. The city’s leading employer, National Cash Register (NCR), was a trend setter when it came to technology, marketing and business organization.

The Early Days: Great Flood and Professional Management

Dayton was at the height of its inventive era in 1913, when, after a period of extraordinarily heavy rainfall, the levies on the Great Miami River failed. As an article in the New York Times described the scene, “cataracts of water swept through the railyard lifting up box cars as if they were made of cardboard.” By the time the flood waters had begun to recede, nearly 100 people were drowned or dead from exposure. Nearly 15,000 Dayton area residents were left homeless, and more than 4,000 horses drowned. The cost in property damage was astronomical.

Dayton’s insolvent and inefficient municipal government was all but paralyzed, so NCR President John H. Patterson stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum. Although he was facing a prison sentence for a recent antitrust conviction at the time, Patterson mobilized his employees to evacuate, feed and shelter flood victims at the company headquarters, which was situated on higher ground.

After the disaster, local civic leaders organized a Dayton Flood Prevention Committee to investigate the problem and explore measures to avoid similar catastrophes. Acting on the advice of a local party boss, who advised against letting the city’s discredited elected officials choose a contractor, the committee enlisted the services of one of the country’s leading flood control experts, Arthur Ernest Morgan, a Memphis-based civil engineer.

Morgan, who would later serve as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, devised an ingenious flood control system that featured a sequence of containment ponds and low-lying “dry” dams with openings. The openings would allow water to flow freely in normal times so the containment ponds would stay dry except in times of emergency. But when the water was high, increased pressure would result in a hydraulic jump, water would back up above the opening and spill into one of several containment pools.

Some of these same civic leaders that headed the flood control committee organized a research bureau to study the problem of city government and seized upon a new model that was being developed by the reform-minded National Municipal League. The plan consisted of a five-member city council, chosen by non-partisan at-large elections with a “weak mayor,” who was to be elected from and by the council.

The council would have total authority when it came to formulating policy, but day-to-day management decisions would be made by an appointed city manager who served at the pleasure of the council. Dayton would be the first city of size (and the first municipality north of the Mason-Dixon line) to adopt what came to be known as the “city council/city manager form of government.”

Dayton’s city government before the Great Flood had been viewed as inefficient and irresponsible, noted Ernest S. Griffith in his history of American city government. “The city’s finances were a shambles and basic services such as garbage collection were not provided by local government.”

After the reform, Dayton’s government was, in Griffith’s words, “administratively spectacular.” “Experts from outside the city were brought in for traffic, accounting, waterworks, sewers and parks. A nonpolitical civil service commission was named; a city planning board was set up. Many advisory citizen boards were set up.”

Dayton in the 1960s and 1970s 

In May of 1966, a local newspaper reporter named Dave Albaugh interviewed two-dozen leaders on the west side of Dayton, a predominantly black part of the city with underfunded schools, high levels of unemployment and substandard city services. A wave of urban unrest was sweeping across the country’s largest cities. Albaugh wanted to find out whether West Dayton was susceptible to the kind of unrest that might lead to such violence and destruction.

On September 1, 1966, a black man was killed in a drive-by shooting while sweeping the sidewalk in front of his apartment. A neighbor reported that the men in the car were white. By the end of the day, the west side of Dayton had erupted. Windows were smashed and stores were looted. The National Guard was called in to restore order.

Civic leaders began to search for new ways of addressing the concerns of Dayton residents. An office of ombudsman was created to deal with citizen complaints. As part of its participation in the Great Society era Model Cities Program, the city created a system of “priority boards” to amplify the voice of the city’s 65 neighborhoods.

Elected by precinct, members of the boards were given decision-making authority over grants for community development and neighborhood improvement projects. In their book, the Rebirth of Urban Democracy, Jeffrey M. Berry, Kent E. Portnoy and Ken Thomson, included Dayton as one of the five cities that were experimenting with new forms of “strong citizen participation.”

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, the priority boards were instrumental in developing grassroots leadership and building support for city projects and new legislative proposals. Over time, however, funding and volunteer support began to wane. In 2014, the city changed its system for awarding mini grants, de-emphasizing the role of the priority boards.

In addition to its experimentation with neighborhood governing structures, Dayton also has a long history of regional collaboration thanks to the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission, which was founded in 1964. The commission, Mayor Whaley pointed out, “is responsible for the Long-Term Community Disaster Recovery Network. It convenes leaders from cities, counties, villages and townships in the region to discuss recovery efforts.”

In the world of policymakers, philanthropies and urban scholars, there is a word for communities that are able to bounce back quickly from adversity and sudden disasters—resilience. Resilience doesn’t mean a city can avoid tough challenges. It means being adaptive and innovative in facing down those challenges and preparing for new ones.

“We live in an era of unprecedented environmental and social change,” noted a recent report from the Kresge Foundation and Island Press. “Some changes—like the rising seas and powerful storms of a changing climate—are unambiguously negative. Others—including the emergence of new technologies—can be positive or negative, depending on one’s situation and perspective. Urban resilience, in this context, can be defined as the capacity of a community to anticipate, plan for, and mitigate the risks—and seize the opportunities— associated with environmental and social change.”

A New Era of Challenges

The year 2019 was certainly a tough one for Dayton, a city that has faced more than its share of difficult challenges. But, arguably, it taught community-members and civic leaders some valuable lessons. “On the tornado, I think, with changing of weather patterns, extreme weather and climate change, every city no matter where you are is susceptible to these events,” said Whaley, “and you cannot underscore [enough] the necessity of emergency preparedness and doing these tabletop exercises. They are really important to get through these more common events that happen in the world.”

As for the mass shooting, “It’s really important for leaders to be there emotionally for their community,” she said, “and that isn’t a thing that you can take a class for, but there is a real need to understand why you are doing this work and what the community means to you as you go through that.”

“Thinking about these issues and listening to others who have gone through them I think is really important,” she added. “I’ve learned a lot.”

In the meantime, Dayton is facing up to the challenge of the global pandemic. On July 1, as cases of Coronavirus were beginning to spike in Montgomery County, the Dayton City Commission passed an ordinance requiring residents to wear face coverings in public places, the first city in Ohio to do so. To facilitate the order, the city would begin to distribute masks to businesses and other organizations.

“I know that, unfortunately, wearing a mask has become a political flash point,” Whaley told a reporter for Cleveland.com. “But I also know that masks save lives. Masks are incredibly effective in reducing the spread of this virus. Masks are a small sacrifice that we can all make to take care of one another and to keep our businesses open as we continue to weather this storm.”

Dayton has a history of weathering storms. The challenges continue but the city has proved its grit and ability to innovate.

Mike McGrath is the National Civic League’s director of research and publications and editor of the National Civic Review.

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