Let’s start with the inevitable question asked of any young professional in Dayton: Why Dayton?
I grew up here. After college, I left for a few years and lived overseas and in another state. I missed my family. I missed sitting in front of my favorite painting in The Dayton Art Institute and watching Dayton Contemporary Dance Company at the Victoria Theatre. I came back.
That, more or less, used to be my answer to the “Why Dayton?” question. But after four years of working in the arts here and three years volunteering with UpDayton, my answer has evolved.
In my first year at Culture Works, I met a pair of fellow young Daytonians who were starting a theatre company, The Playground. They’d been living in Chicago for a while, and they, too, were working on their answer to “Why Dayton?” The responses they’d come up with were, in a nutshell, “Dayton has what we need” (people who love the arts) and “We have what Dayton needs” (a new, Millennial voice in theatre). A few months later, I saw their first show, The Breakfast Club, at Rosewood Arts Centre. My ticket to get in was a detention slip. At the end of the show, the audience exited the theatre by running down a hallway, past rows of lockers, while speakers overhead blasted “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” It was an immersive theatre experience unlike any I’d had before, and it was created by a group of twenty-somethings. Later, the theatre co-founders invited me to dinner. I asked them what was next. They asked me what I wanted out of life and dared me to write a play.
This conversation was representative of so many I found myself having with young Daytonians: Assertive, intimate, optimistic, challenging, generous. No room for excuses, only ideas and plans. And eventually, this determination to manifest, this refusal to waste time on “why nots” that could be better spent on “hows” and “with whoms,” became my newer, revised answer to “Why Dayton?”
I have to think that much of the reason for Dayton’s burgeoning “will do” attitude is the fact that we are a community made up of so many artists (Culture Works’ 11 grantee organizations alone list 1,500 in their ranks). Artists are always testing the meaning of “impossible.” Artists are always asking us to take a second look, give a second thought. And artists, though they shouldn’t have to, know how to make big things happen with little more than belief and determination. Look anywhere in Dayton and you’ll see art and artists showing us where we can go as a community and leading us there. A few examples that come to mind:
Mosaic artist Jes McMillan, whose Perseverance Memorial project asks us to approach addiction with empathy and challenges us to transform Dayton from the Opioid Capital of America to America’s Capital of Healing
Activist Bryan Stewart, whose Project Rebound calls us to engage young people through two powerful modes of human connection—sports and art—by revitalizing a basketball court with new equipment, programming, and public art, creating both a gathering space and a new cultural interest point.
Photographer Tom Gilliam, whose InstaMeets and @DaytonGram invite us to explore our city, discover its beauty—even in its disrepair—and inspire us to care about the future of our historic spaces.
Reggie Henderson, Leroy Bean, and TJ Cartwright, whose Build the Block initiative is working to restore pride of place through the revitalization of public art in West Dayton.
This past week, Dayton was put on the national stage, and now a great many more people than usual are looking at those of us who live here and asking, “Why Dayton?” I don’t intend to deny or ignore our problems, our tragedies, or our failings. I don’t intend to deny or ignore the historic and systemic reasons behind many of them. But as someone who continues to believe in this city, as someone who continues to love it, as someone who is intimately familiar—thanks to the people I’ve listed above and so many others—with all that is right and good in our community, I do intend to continue answering that question with pride and conviction.
And I believe that if we’re going to provide a compelling answer as a community—and create the growth and transformation to back it up—we’re going to need more art and more artists. The arts advocate in me wants to tell you about the economic argument for this—our region’s nonprofit arts and culture industry supports 9,000 jobs and makes a $214 million impact each year—but the arts lover in me wants to say this: The arts are uniquely positioned to share stories and shape them, to change both perceptions and reality.
When The Mural Machine puts art on a blank city wall, they compel would-be vandals to move on, and they invite would-be strangers into conversation. When Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus takes the stage together, they show our LGBTQ youth—young people who are disproportionately at risk of suicide—that if you keep going there’s a whole community of people waiting to sing with you. When choreographer Crystal Michelle Perkins brought her work “The Descent of this Water: Rain” to RiverScape in 2015, she invited audience members and passersby to engage with a piece informed, in part, by rivers’ roles in both the Great Migration and in persistent segregation. When the choreography ended and the dancers stepped back, community members stepped in and danced together.
Whether you’re an artist or not, you can be part of creating a new Dayton—one defined by ingenuity and healing and connection. If you’re not a natural storyteller and can’t find the words to express something that must be said, go to a Story Slam, a Dayton Poetry Slam, a gallery talk. Listen. Take notes. Share what you learn. If you don’t have the artistic skills to create beauty in a corner of a neighborhood that needs it, volunteer to help clean up a site for someone who can. Put on your gardening gloves. Grab a garbage bag. Get to work.
Instead of “Why Dayton?” I have a better question for you: What Dayton will you help create?
Karen Maner is a nonfiction writer and arts administrator from Dayton, Ohio. She has served on UpDayton’s board since 2016 and as the co-chair of the Discover Dayton team since 2017.