Gem City

Dayton is known as the Gem City.

I grew up eating Gem City Ice Cream, and while the brand is no more, the headquarters building still stands on Third Street. My mother had an account at Gem City Savings back when deposits and withdrawals were recorded in the small gold embossed savings book provided by the bank. Why the name Gem City for a place with no visible gems at all? The city was the gem? The people were the gem? I can’t say.

My father was transferred down to Florida my senior year in college. His unit or entire division from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was relocated to Eglin Air Force Base. Since graduation, I’ve only been back to Dayton once – 10th reunion at Oakwood High School.

I read the New York Times and have no memory of seeing Dayton mentioned in recent years except when it’s the season for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Tara Westover, author of Educated is nominated this year, so is Tommy Orange for There There. So I was surprised in May, it was the 26th to be exact, to see a story about the Gem City in the NYT. I started reading it and thought how does it make the Times when eleven people from out of state, make a pre-announced appearance at the Montgomery County Courthouse? It didn’t say if they were wearing full Klan regalia, but they were Klansmen – all men I believe.

Of course the story was about the counter-demonstration, larger than had been expected, diverse, and in the end, peaceful – no violence- not even one arrest. Guns? Yes there were. “Guns for Peace” should have been a motto. Some of the demonstrators wore bandanas over their faces. Apparently there were A LOT of guns. Jeeeze. A visit by eleven out-of-staters ended up being quite the expense. The city spent $650,000 on security.

The article mentions Dayton’s economic decline in the last decade due to the loss of manufacturing. I think that was a typo, I’d say it’s been the last decades. It’s been ten years since the last Fortune 500 company, National Cash Register, left for Atlanta. In 2006, the merged Mead moved to Virginia.  The population has declined by nearly a third since I was a student at Harman Elementary School.

Growing up, we’d pass the NCR factories on Main Street on the ride downtown. You could hear the percussion of the machines through the open windows, see people and equipment in motion. The factory buildings had windows on all sides. I’d heard the design was an innovation of James Patterson, NCR’s founder, and the “Patterson” in Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The Wright was for the flying brothers. Hawthorn Hill, Orville’s house – some call it a mansion- sat across the street from my friend Nancy O’Hara’s house. After the Wrights, NCR bought the place and turned it into their guest house. They sometimes hosted seasonal events for the community. I’ve been inside, had some punch and eaten cookies. Maybe we sang Christmas carols. Back to all those NCR windows, I’ve heard it was to improve worker morale, give them some natural light and air.

The Times article says Dayton is “one of the nation’s most racially segregated” cities and I was surprised. Not that Dayton is still segregated, but that it stands out for that when compared to the rest of the nation’s cities.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, mornings in some Oakwood neighborhoods were like the changing of the tides. On my street, the fathers, white men all, left for work, then the children filled the sidewalks headed for school, and shortly thereafter, off the city buses, the parade of “cleaning ladies” headed for the day’s work. Colored people we called them –  no one said black or African American, or people of color. A lot of us were ignorant, myself included.

I don’t think there were any Jewish families nearby either but my sister claims she remembers one. There were churches but no synagogues in Oakwood. A Jewish neighborhood, with some very large houses, resided on the other side of town, across the divide of the Great Miami River. I asked my mother why they lived over there. “They all like to stay together,” she told me. I had not heard of the Holocaust at the time and I didn’t learn about red-lining until I was a teen, until the civil rights movement heated up . When busing was introduced in Dayton, it had no affect in Oakwood, as all of its two square miles were a city unto itself, incorporated back in 1908. Our school district didn’t have any buses; the furthest distance from the Oakwood borders to any of our schools was about two miles.

Several years ago I met a black woman at a party here in San Francisco who told me her father had worked at Wright-Patt too. She grew up in Yellow Springs, and I asked why there, as it was a distance from The Base, as we referred to it. She said “because they had open housing.” So I’m hoping maybe one of the least segregated places in the country was and is that close neighbor of Dayton’s. I always loved that town. We used to drive up on Sundays after church hoping to catch sight of some of the beatniks walking around the Antioch College campus. My sister Trish was always on the lookout for Maynard B. Krebs or some other cool cat. She dressed as a beatnik for Halloween, beret, black and white striped top, a goatee drawn on her chin – no interest in ballet flats or a black skirt.

Then a few weeks ago the Oregon District shootings wrecked all that seeming harmony from May. And come to find out the shooter was at that event, just months prior, was there with a gun, was there with a bandana over his face. Some say he was extreme left wing. What does that even mean? Untreated mental illness seems the culprit to me.

I’m going back to Dayton next month, to attend another high school reunion. I’ll make a point to visit the Oregon District, pay my respects. Dave Chapelle put on a grand event, to help take back the Oregon District, take back Dayton saying “Good people gotta be louder than bad people” and “Shine on Gem City.” It was generous of him to embrace the entire city, him living in Yellow Springs and all.

Shine on.

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