Dayton not ‘Left Behind,’ ready for a comeback story

Community leaders speak out after national documentary paints Dayton as the face of poverty.

Well, it happened again.

A major national news organization parachuted into Dayton and portrayed our community as the poster child for all cities dealing with the urban problems of our time: poverty, drugs, economic inequality, racial differences, blight and all the rest.

But we know that’s not Dayton’s full story.

It’s happened dozens and dozens of times over the past few years. This time, it was the PBS news program Frontline. The hourlong report that aired Tuesday was titled “Left Behind America.” It presented Dayton as struggling — not just to catch up with the rest of the country from the Great Recession, but also from the big global trends that have led to the loss of factories and jobs since the 1980s.

Local reaction was swift and intense, especially on social media — ranging from comments agreeing that the city’s problems are as bad as Frontline portrayed, to others arguing the show was one-sided. Some branded it a “hit job.”

As Mayor Nan Whaley put it to one of our reporters afterward, the show was truthful but not necessarily fair.

Everyone acknowledges that Dayton must deal with a host of difficult problems. This newspaper formed a special reporting team earlier this year to focus on sustained coverage of those problems. We’re digging in to how to improve the Dayton Public Schools, how the community recovers from the opioid epidemic and how our local economy can be better prepared for the future.

Our coverage, called The Path Forward, seeks to find solutions — based on the premise that if the community is going to get anything fixed, we’ll have to fix it ourselves.

Many who complained about Frontline say that’s what it left out — along with a more fully rounded view of the community beyond its poorest areas.

Connie Nash-Kearns wrote on Facebook: “This story did a good job of representing the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs and the devastation wrought by the opioid epidemic. However, it failed to mention the revitalization of downtown and Riverscape, the thriving and diverse arts scene, an expansive MetroParks system, the robust college and research environment or the economic impact of nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Viewers were left with an unfairly bleak and incomplete picture of Dayton and the surrounding area.”

“I was waiting for the ‘and Dayton has turned a corner … investing in new school buildings, libraries, bridges and infrastructure that enable a good quality of life,’” wrote Brenda Boyd. “But that wasn’t part of the story. Too bad.”

Holly Allen, director of marketing and communications for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, sent a “Letter to PBS.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Allen wrote. “We have our set of challenges, as do all metropolitan areas, but we don’t sit idly by and accept them … We know that Dayton is experiencing a renaissance that hasn’t been realized before and the investment, growth and pride in our community is at a high.

“No, today’s Dayton is not the Dayton of 100 years ago, but … the world has changed, and so has our fair city,” she said. “We’ve evolved and diversified, and yes, we’ve been knocked around a little, but we are not ‘Left Behind.’”

One of the most heartfelt social-media posts we ran across came from a man who spends his working life trying to improve downtown.

“This one just hurts worse,” wrote Scott Murphy, vice president for economic development for the Downtown Dayton Partnership. “Given how far we’ve come, Dayton deserves a comeback story and we just got more of the same negative national exposure we’ve been dealing with for the past 10-15 years.

“We feel like we’ve turned the corner on the Rust Belt narrative, but the national conversation hasn’t … To me, the difference is whether we use this as an opportunity to engage the whole community in addressing our inequity, or instead just fight a PR battle for Dayton.”


• 10 things PBS missed in ‘hit piece’ about Dayton

• What you thought about Frontline portraying Dayton as city left behind

• Frontline puts Dayton in spotlight as city left behind

Shining a light on that inequity matters to a lot of people. Melodie Bennett, executive director at the House of Bread, a West Dayton community kitchen that was featured in the Frontline report, said she thought it was spot-on.

“I would say what’s not fair is that a third of the city’s residents who reside in West Dayton feel that this is their reality, and that while it’s fine for people who aren’t exposed to poorer areas of the city on a regular basis to feel outraged that it was not an accurate representation of our city, it was also eye-opening for them,” Bennett said. “People were asking me, ‘Where did they get that film?’ Well, it’s in their back yard.”

“I can tell you there’s a lot of frustration among people in west Dayton that there’s an economic plan for downtown … but there’s no west side ripple yet,” Bennett said. “People here are asking why there isn’t a development plan for west Dayton?”

Another social service director interviewed by Frontline said she noticed reactions to the show seemed to depend on how close one might be to the problems it portrayed.

“You see a difference between those of us who live in the city or work in the social services, and those who don’t,” said Cherish Cronmiller, president and CEO at the Miami Valley Community Action Partnership.

“I feel their intention was to use Dayton to illustrate how economies have shifted in the last 50 years and how that has affected the working class and the poor in once-thriving small cities,” she said. “Of course I read the response by Nan and the chamber and, of course, I’m tied in well enough to know, yeah we do have a thriving arts scene, great shopping and good schools in our suburbs. But I think people should watch the show, pay close attention to it and take it personally and realize that if you are not part of the half of our population that’s living paycheck to paycheck and relying on social services, you are missing the reality of what is happening in large parts of our community.”

Regardless of which side one takes on the show, Mike Parks, president and CEO of the Dayton Foundation, said he believes there’s value in the discussion.

“It did fire up a lot of people who saw it, that’s unquestionable,” Parks said. “If you have a stake in or care about the community, you know that it wasn’t the full story. It’s our home, we live here, we’re invested here and we care — and so you feel attacked a very personal level.

“It’s true that we have all the problems of any larger city … The thing we have going for us is that we’re the size of community where we can actually get our hands around our problems,” Parks said.

And Dayton is doing that, he said. From the Community Overdose Action Team task force dealing with addiction to Learn to Earn to Preschool Promise to Miami Valley Works — we’re working on our problems.

“And that’s more important than any perception,” Parks said.

But is there a way to change how we’re seen by the rest of the nation?

“That probably is worth a regional conversation — because it’s not just a city of Dayton issue — about how we are perceived elsewhere,” Parks said. “Can we change that perception, and is it worth it? There’d be a price tag to it. We’d have to decide if it’s worth it and if it’s even possible.”

Something like this has happened before. Peter Benkendorf, the executive director of the local networking and idea-generation nonprofit called The Collaboratory, was moving to Dayton from Chicago about a decade ago when Forbes magazine infamously declared Dayton one of the nation’s 10 “fastest-dying cities.”

Benkendorf organized a lively forum that involved leaders from eight of the 10 cities, “and we had some profound conversation that got a fair amount of national media attention — the Wall Street Journal, NPR, others.”

He points out, though, that while that attention and conversation made some difference, many of the same issues are still here today.

“If we want to change the outside world’s perception of our community, then the community needs to change,” Benkendorf said. “We’re having the wrong conversation. We’ve got systemic issues. When I drive through the west side, I see devastation. People are personalizing it because they care about the community. You can see a big difference in Dayton now. But it hasn’t gotten better for a lot of folks.”

Parks said it may simply take time for outside perceptions of a community to evolve. It’s possible that’s already starting to happen. A New York Times story last month that updated national overdose numbers gave Dayton credit for coming up with some original solutions to the problem.

“In Dayton, Ohio, a hot spot for the epidemic, public health officials are seeing signs of progress,” reporter Margot Sanger-Katz wrote. Given how often the Times has written about Dayton’s drug problems, you could very well count this as a changed perception.

“At the end of the day, the heck with national perceptions,” Parks said. “The important thing is, how do we live, work and play here? Who and what do we care about? We can’t lose track of the good things happening here and the opportunities to make a difference in greater Dayton.”

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