Dayton in Decline

Stretching more than a half mile north-to-south between railroad tracks and the Springboro Pike is an empty asphalted lot, striped with thousands of parking spots. Each is painted with an alphanumeric designation and arranged into zones named after states that adjoin Ohio: placards for Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania hang from disused light standards. Dead straight green lines of grass split the pavement now, and rusted gates sag heavily. In better shape is a nine- or ten-foot high chainlink fence crowned with outward-slanting barbed wire, though a car must have crashed through a section along Springboro Pike, and there’s an opening at the north end where parallel spur lines peel off the main tracks and into the lot at the top of a gentle rise.

On the other side of the fence to the west, CSX and Norfolk Southern coil cars — rail gondolas purpose-built to carry rolls of sheet steel — idle on a siding. There aren’t any auto racks in sight, but dozens of the latter would have lined up here and backed down the short spurs to load Chevy Trailblazers and S10 pickups, GMC Jimmys, Oldsmobile Bravadas and a smattering of Isuzus and Saabs built and painted across the street at GM’s Moraine Assembly. More than six million vehicles rolled down the assembly line and into the body and paint shops, as many as 350,000 a year before the SUV bubble burst — and all of them were likely parked here at some point for transshipment.

Now it’s empty. I never saw any cars parked here; the third shift was eliminated in 2006, and the last GMC Envoy rolled off the line almost four years ago. Had I wandered past this downriver industrial district when I first moved to Dayton, I would have seen the plant operating at partial (still-busy) capacity, but this lot full of new cars wasn’t visible from I-75 or from standard routes from downtown to the southern suburbs. That’s part of what has drawn me here, that I lived nearby and unaware of a plant that employed 2,400 and that was the anchor for three Delphi chassis division plants that employed another couple thousand Dayton-area workers. Where railcars screeched and clanked, pickup doors slammed and backup warnings beeped and heavy machinery hummed, there’s now just silence swallowed up in the immensity of the lot. I try to picture more commotion, but all I can conjure are stupid questions: where did they store keys for all those vehicles, and how did they keep them straight? Did hooligans break in to steal radios, or were the sound systems installed somewhere more secure?

Across the street there’s more to frame an imagined past; low boxy hulks clad in off-white corrugated siding — nearly two-and-a-half million square feet of workspace under roofs strung together across the complex history of the facility. Frigidaire built the first factory here in 1950 — refrigerators and refrigerated trucks, with the latter a bridge to GM when it acquired the site in the late 1970s and expanded it to build S10s. I’m guessing the uniform siding masks a more layered architecture, as does the flyover passageway that connects the paint shop to the rest of the complex on the other side of Stroop Road. But this too is quiet now, except for the whine of forklifts inside one building that a salvage company is gutting; neatly segregated piles of scrap metal and assembly line parts outside open bay doors that don’t reveal much of the darkened interior. Heavy wheeled assemblies roughly stacked, disassembled orange carts in an unruly jumble, torn-up yellow housings.

All this is behind more chainlink-and-barbed-wire, so whatever remains of the assembly line can’t figure in the industrial scene I’m trying to reconstruct. A walk around that fenced perimeter turns up more traces of the workaday mundane. Employee lots bracketed by shaggy medians planted with unpruned trees and sun-faded mulch. Parking spaces reserved for motorcycles and visitors and supervisor of the month and for vehicles assembled here. (Down by the paint shop, where the union headquarters were, there are signs that more aggressively promote/reward employees driving GM cars; there’s a posted promise that ‘non-GM products will be towed’ from the choicest spaces.)

Better resolved shadows cluster around employee entrances and signs of sternly meticulous protocols for plant access — card readers and punch pads, security cameras, red-and-green lights above revolving barred gates, footwear specifications, and bins that held sleeves designed to cover rings, watches, and belts for ‘paint mutilation protection.’ At gate 5 there are racks with in-house GM newsletters detailing executive hirings, pending recalls, advances in efficiency; as well as flyers announcing Moraine GM-specific events. Apart from a few long-discarded pamphlets lodged and bleached between window glass and shelving, the summer- and fall-2008 publication dates on this literature mark the plant closing with redundant precision. In security guard boxes there’s strewn discard that suggests a sudden abandonment that wasn’t really the case — 1980s-vintage microwaves, old phones ripped from wall jacks, half-filled logbooks, overturned chairs, and sprays of visiting contractor badges scattered on floors. Tucked under plastic desk covers are printouts of emailed memoranda on measures to discourage employees from taking company property home and about Sunday deliveries.

I’ve walked a couple miles this hazy July morning and compiled a stack of meticulously incomplete mental notes and an SD card imprinted with photos of cracked asphalt and rusted fences. But no people in all this staring across parking lots and peering into cluttered gatehouses. For a first foray into a survey of Dayton’s social landscape, this little meander hasn’t achieved much. So what am I doing here?

*

“It’s a dying town.” That stock response — careless as it is — slips out first whenever I’m asked about living in Dayton. I guess I figure this shorthand charts rustbelt coordinates that any American recognizes. Cincinnatans know something of passed-by urban Ohio — gutted downtowns and industrial fade and abandoned malls register passing time, a mundane and unremarked reality. East coasters will get only a rough gist of it — when I say ‘dying’ they probably think of a downsizing Detroit and burning rivers and rusted pickup trucks; close enough in broad dashed strokes, yet those dreary visuals mask a harder-to-comprehend social desolation. Factories crumble and neighborhoods blight in eastern cities and in the sprawling wash of suburban debris that spills down the northeastern corridor, but for all that there’s more flux, a sense of renewal and development alongside deterioration, or at the very least around the corner. Against this, the inexorable downward trajectory that is so much the rustbelt narrative stands apart in its stark and straightforward coherence — no confounding tangle of boom-here bust-there.

Nowhere do I sense the dull shove of that inertia more than onsite at what was the Delphi chassis assembly division off Needmore Road in north Dayton. The city skyline rises — only just — out of the hummocky brown grass beyond the huge concrete pad where the plant used to stand. Aside from a couple of weedy trees in the distance, there’s nothing to block the view — whatever buildings were part of this complex were razed sometime after Delphi’s 2006 stumble into chapter 11. That demolition was complete; sketchy perimeter fencing, a gatehouse at the entrance, and thirteen neatly arranged black barrels (with reassuringly green ‘non-hazardous waste’ stickers slapped on) are all that stands higher than the half-inch of multilayered linoleum tile presumably marking the locations of break rooms and offices and cafeterias around the site.

And of course tall weeds prying through cracked concrete. That grassland is so quickly reclaiming ground that was once aggressively paved and that’s hemmed in by busy roads and the north-south trunk line is the first thing I notice. In southern Ohio every park that carves out a little wild from the patchwork of corn and soybeans has a ‘tallgrass prairie,’ maintained with careful mowing and invasive species eradication and controlled burns. But here the prairie seems not to need much help, even if the thistle and Queen Anne’s lace aren’t especially native. And so on as the built environment fades: five years ago chassis rolled over deep slots from which undercarriages were assembled and from there out into loading docks for trucks and auto rack railcars; now those slots are filled with a few inches of oily water, and oft-repaired concrete bays are a tangle of ripped-out rebar and spalled rubble.

Oil stains and scuffed tile are all that recall a humming assembly line, and even these traces are now slashed and gnawed by encroaching weeds…you couldn’t draw up more evocative terrain for a not-ever-coming-back dead end. And it’s not just here, that end-of-the-line quiet. There’s more such razed wasteland in a south Dayton river bend that wraps around Edgemont, on the site of another former Delphi plant wedged between Wisconsin Boulevard and Cincinnati Street and bisected by the rail line that connects Moraine Assembly to the Delphi complex at Needmore Road. Nothing of the plant still stands — steel I-beams sawn off down to the concrete, manhole covers salvaged, remnant warped steel-concrete mesh and more tile palimpsests. Weeds have taken over in dense thickets for a familiar scene, except for the passing misty rain that coated surfaces in a transparent damp sheen the morning I walked there.

To the northwest there’s one more Delphi automotive complex, likewise abandoned but its physical plant intact. Between West Third Street and US 35 a jumble of mismatched industrial architecture (spanning decades, apparently) occupies the site where the Wright Company built the first factory dedicated to the manufacture of airplanes. In those extant buildings there’s not the same sense of erased finality, yet there are plans to demolish at least part of the complex for one more historical-interpretive site on the trail that tracks the ever-receding Wright brothers. No one has built airplanes in Dayton for more than half a century, but the dim prospect of luring tourists to west Dayton is apparently reason enough to erase this more recent stinging failure.

That resignation to a shut down manufacturing future in Dayton calls to mind another east coast contrast. South of Harrisburg there’s a dire stretch of blight that runs down the east shore of the Susquehanna River; Steelton and Highspire are about as down-at-heels as it gets in America, at least for places that were once industrial powerhouses. Out of work middle-aged men staring from porches, a ‘stop the violence’ campaign at the community center, the dank claustrophobia of low river hills pinching down from the east on a treeless floodplain cut off from the river by the miles-long rusted apocalypse of Bethlehem Steel. As movie-set gothic as these steelyards are, giant enclosures still stand, and against expectation manufacturing has trickled back: Dura-Bond has stacked rows of large-gauge piping at the north end of the old works, and the Indian mega-conglomerate ArcelorMittal has restarted steel operations further upriver. Actual economic revival or not, here again is that unpredictable flux and possible rescue from what once looked unmistakably terminal. Back in Dayton, there’s a ‘for sale’ sign at Moraine Assembly — no takers yet — but the forgotten Delphi properties look to have defeated even the considerable optimism of real estate brokers.

All this fits the rustbelt narrative neatly enough; Dayton plays the ‘dying city’ right down to the devastated neighborhoods where the manufacturing workforce used to live. Just across Wayne Avenue from the cobbled brick and dappled shade and tidy gardens of the Oregon district are streets lined with tattered Sears catalog houses awash in the clutter of urban poverty. On the west side of town are whole blocks of condemned houses tagged ‘gas off’ in yellow spray paint. Nearby are still-inhabited pockets that in ramshackle porches and appliance-strewn yards have transplanted a stereotyped Appalachia to the middle of the city, and where it’s sometimes quiet enough under dense leafy screens that urban surrounds fall away altogether.

But for all that stacked-up ‘evidence,’ I can’t shake the sense that something is dragging me down a suspiciously well-worn track. I didn’t happen upon neglected factories and staggering neighborhoods by chance. Camera in hand, I went looking for crazed concrete and flaking paint. I could just have easily crossed Needmore Road to the Cargill plant, dodging the steady traffic of trucks carrying loads of corn in and processed corn syrup derivatives out. I could have walked in the other direction from the Oregon district to the newly built concert pavilion-slash-ice skating rink on the river. I could have taken the bus to the still-shiny town square mall at ‘the Greene’ in Kettering, which opened just as Moraine Assembly was winding down. I’d be hard pressed to find any cracked pavement and sagged fencing there, though, and so it’s never occurred to me to tuck the camera under my arm for a stroll down those fake-urban streets etched between parking garages.

I could plead an aesthetic case for this selective documentation: there’s more to see in the peeling chaos of rundown neighborhoods than there is in suburban lawns that spool empty green that’s neatly trimmed and edged against the utilitarian sine curve of concrete drainage curbing. But that lazy reluctance to look for compelling forms in banal scenery only covers one corner — it remains that I went looking for a decaying Dayton. And whatever aesthetic did frame the project didn’t stand apart from that motivation: I thought carefully about when the light was ‘right’ for grabbing the camera. I waited for blinding summer sun to wash out already bleak post-industrial expanses at the Delphi chassis assembly on Needmore — a parching glare amplified the devastation I had already decided was there. And sure enough that narrative drone in the background had distorting effects… intimidating heat nearly discouraged me from crossing apparently featureless ground that turned out to be more deeply inscribed than I assumed. Likewise, I trudged around the-other-side-of-Wayne-Avenue neighborhoods one late-winter afternoon on which gray slush blurred edges and smudged sidewalks and porches. In this I wasn’t looking to scuff those streets to a falsely battered luster just for pornographic effect. Yet it seemed that a little atmospheric assistance was called for in order that a deeply scarred desperation — soaked up on long runs and on early morning bus rides and in the course of smoky conversations — was adequately illustrated in few poignant images.

And so it comes back to narrative, meta-narrative, whatever you want to call efforts to stitch bewildering and convoluted realities into patterns that ‘mean’ something. It’s how we make sense of the world, stamping order and purpose on the random and the contingent; it’s necessary for even the most boring stories and explanations. But where more ambitious representation — abstracting a full civic experience in a few thousand words and a dozen photographs, say — overlaps narrative is a trickier patch to navigate. Did relentless urban decay force me to compose this narrative of decline, or did a rustbelt theme pre-condition me to look for decay before I came to Dayton? It’s obvious how easily representation and narrative slip into a messy feedback loop, and it’s hard to control a narrative that picks up speed by burning fuel it had a hand in producing.

Decline is one of the more compelling tales that westerners spin…from Victorian-romanticized ruins to Edward Gibbon’s warped parable of Rome. And there’s the matter of a peculiar neurosis diagnosed by a young journalist who crossed this continent in 1842. Charles Dickens heard Americans insisting that their nation “always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise.” That sounds an odd tone for a nation that was at the time plunging headlong into westward expansion and was (soon to be) fortified by ‘manifest destiny,’ but it stuck, and decline still has a narrative field all to itself.

*

What exacerbates that general condition for me is this: the familiarity I’ve reached with Dayton is still very much that of an outsider, impressionistic and secondhand. It’s a Dayton of right-this-moment, not properly anchored in the sort of past familiars that locals take for granted. I can only reassemble those pasts indirectly, reading accounts, poring over maps, listening to recollections. But that’s not enough…I want to relive those experiences in the physical settings that framed and reflected and absorbed them originally. I’m drawn to abandoned factories at least in part because the past is frozen in place and can accommodate whimsical re-enactments. That illusion won’t work elsewhere. I can’t just walk into a still-operating facility, and it wouldn’t be the same place it was a decade ago anyway. Other shut-down complexes were surely redeveloped, and aren’t there at all for these contrived reminisces.

Yet if what’s left for inspection is all ruins — and there are a lot of them in Dayton, for sure — that derelict backdrop pulls down hard on the ‘decline’ end of the economic trend see-saw. And perhaps most importantly, I don’t have any personal connection to these empty shells. No matter how carefully I listen to what’s whispered there, Delphi and GM plants in Dayton don’t trigger any broadband nostalgia for me — they weren’t part of the community I’ve inhabited. While Paul hears summers past in tumbled-down bricks at the J.T. Slocomb factory, all I really have is a deadened industrial din that exists only in the abstract. From that narrow vantage it’s easy to tell a short story: the Dayton auto industry thrived for a few decades, thousands of people made a living at it, and then it collapsed. The narrative of decline is deceptively simple and straightforward in the way the inexorable steamrolls petty complexities like people and non-conforming events.

Yet of course I know that Eric MacIntosh, a regular at Flick’s Tavern in Belmont, worked at Moraine during the boom years and lost his job when it closed (now he’s a meatpacker at Hormel), and the guy who towed my wouldn’t-start motorcycle a few weeks ago worked at Delphi chassis before it went under, and so on for the thousands cut adrift from these jobs over the past few decades. This was a long-term trend: the auto manufacturing workforce here started to shrink almost as soon as the industry returned to Dayton in 1981, after what was in effect a 60-year hiatus. Moraine Assembly shed jobs even as unit production boomed, as 6,000 employees dwindled to 2,400, presumably with advances in assembly line efficiency, robotics, and the like. As GM cut positions at Moraine, Delphi emerged as a major employer, replacing GM Radio at Edgemont and building the factory on Needmore Road. In the midst of such jockeying, the ever-downward plunge of rustbelt lore doesn’t track, not least the attention often trained on the collapse of the auto industry. Dayton wasn’t much of a car-manufacturing town at all until the early 1980s, and 25 years of steady employment in heavy industry after the proverbial rust was well advanced is something the narrative doesn’t easily accommodate.

Eric from Flick’s, for example, acknowledges that he worked long hours, earned a lot of overtime pay, and lived pretty well during the SUV heyday. He’s clear-headed about the demise of Moraine Assembly; it’s hit him hard, but he doesn’t read it as an ahistorical footnote to some grand narrative. To him, the circumstances are far more specific. Because of the Frigidaire legacy, the union that represented Moraine Assembly workers was the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers–Communications Workers of America (the IUE-CWA if you’re keeping score). When GM emerged from its brief hibernation in 2009, most workers who wanted their old jobs got them back… if they belonged to the much more powerful UAW. You can read this as GM eagerly shedding non-UAW workers, or if you’re partial to the Wall Street Journal you can speculate on a backroom conspiracy orchestrated by the UAW against other unions. To Eric it’s irrelevant: losing his job wasn’t part of broader economic conditions and political struggles — Moraine Assembly came and went, and his union couldn’t stop it.

*

In the broadest sense, then, I’m sure I could pinpoint the apex of Dayton manufacturing output and working class prosperity and draw a straight diagonal down to currently desperate straits, and I don’t doubt that an objective measure of economic activity would find a worse-off Dayton now than in, say, 1965. But to leave it at that misses what is perhaps a more fundamental midwestern/rustbelt reality, a stubborn transience that’s lost in neat narratives of progress and dilapidation. For how long did cities like Dayton actually boom from the era of muddy streets and horrid working conditions in the early 20th century to the first use of ‘rustbelt’ in 1983? Hadn’t the US economy already limped through the 1970s? Instead of reducing the noisy clatter of midwestern economies to a steady march into oblivion, perhaps we should acknowledge the messier — and possibly more unsettling — transience that is the true signature of the American frontier, and not just in the goldrush and cactus west.

This frontier too was settled by homesteaders hoping — but not expecting — to stick, and waves of boom and bust have always washed westward; any number of towns that crested those waves advertise one-time status as ‘the richest town west of the Alleghenies,’ but that sort of prominence usually flashed for much less than a decade. Lasting prosperity isn’t a common experience here, and city planning reflects that. Ohio and Indiana small towns are often sturdily anchored on an imposing stone-built county courthouse and/or a main street of tall old storefronts, but it’s a surprisingly short walk past stately houses to an edge of town that melts into cornfields, in old neighborhoods that never had sidewalks and are now nearly abandoned. Farmland, too, has an unsettled scruffiness to it, in desultory fencerows, overgrown fallow, and many more unloved, graying outbuildings than there are postcard-scenic red-painted barns emblazoned with quilt squares for the Ohio bicentennial.

Dickens’ pessimists were half-right, then. But they were probably the same people that moved on to chase improbable get-rich-quick schemes and to found whimsically-named towns and generally get on with the business of American restlessness. Those left behind are all too aware of unpredictable life on the once-frontier. So if Midwesterners don’t like to move around much, and if they’re well-known for resistance to change, perhaps it’s because the one-or-the-other narrative of progress and decline doesn’t make sense here. People well aware of instability in the ground underfoot are likely to dig in whenever it’s possible, even in the face of what looks like the end of the line.