Hooray! Dayton, Ohio is in the midst of an urban revival the likes of which we have never seen. A major revamping of our main library, Levitt Pavilion Dayton, A major housing construction boom, and of course major traction on the Arcade. There is a different energy and vibe to the Dayton urban landscape and the direction in which Dayton’s fortunes are heading; a forward momentum.
We could debate the pro’s and con’s of each project mentioned, but that is a futile exercise of armchair commentary and anonymous social media commentary that at the end of the day is all sound and fury signifying nothing. The underlying thematic source of most responses to major public development projects is the desire for alternative thoughts and ideas to be heard and considered. And yes the diversity of voices in the public realm is vital to the continued upswing in the Dayton renaissance; something that underpins my personal value system.
I take my right to be in the “Room where it happens” very seriously. But that is a topic for another day. With being in the “Room” I am given a unique vantage point on these public projects, all of which are noble in the purest theoretical sense. When we are in these meetings which are beautiful anachronistic formal exercises of contemporary business mores, (handouts, Introductions and PowerPoint and maybe a pot of coffee) we begin the process of Civic project management. As an artist/culturalist I am privately amused at the human drama that unfolds, social machinations worthy of Edith Wharton. Trust me when I tell you most of these meetings never rise above the mundane and pragmatic. When these meetings are healthy passionate vigorous debates on what Dayton is and what it can become, that is when the possibility of bold and audacious action takes root, unfortunately this is the rare exception.
In order to have bold and audacious action requires a healthy acceptance of ambiguity and fearlessness. This attribute is commonly applied to artists and creative types, but of course skill, talent and openness needs to be present. I feel that this attribute can be applied to a Jeff Bezos, Melody Hobson, Oprah and Tim Cook (if you do not know who they are, Google them) leaders in other fields and professions. My private hope is that more people would throw caution to the wind, loosen up and let their passions fly in these meetings. I need more mavericks and rogue agents driving the next wave of urban development.
All of the aforementioned civic projects in Dayton are on a fast track, these projects are going to happen. I say this to push the conversation and dialogue to another place. What is your “personal” Levitt pavilion, what is your Main Library, what is your personal civic project? I have the great privilege to meet a lot of people from such diverse backgrounds, people who have passion projects that they want to see to fruition and take root in our community. Some of these ideas are cool and quirky, while others are ideas that have taken root in other communities all over the world. Best practices worthy of duplication. But the prevailing mindset is that we are dealing with finite resources and limited bandwidths for people to see these projects through.
Most of the decision making process resides in a very small cadre of individuals, and this where the question of diversity needs to be answered. We all have a tendency to see diversity though the narrow lens of race and class. For this conversation I want to focus on the role of class in the civic decision making process. All too often in these meetings, there is a prevailing parochial middle class lens that shapes and underpins the decision making process. Which baffles me at times, as we have all to a certain extent have achieved a level of recognizable professional success.
I argue that these achievements afford us in the professional class access to a broader world view through travel and access to information (Thank you technology). Yet we constrict the concepts and executable actions to what the community can bear and lowered expectations, that feels downright Victorian at times. There is no empirical data to back this up. I call this the Dayton “Bubble”, which constricts expansion and prevents incursion and bold thoughts and ideas to manifest themselves. And if we would encourage diversity of individuals/ideas in “the Room” where decisions happen, I suspect that bolder projects and ideas would percolate to the surface, but we will never know until we all push for that diversity to happen. I would love to see blue collar workers participating in the civic decision making process, housewives, nurses, janitors and students engaged in making Dayton better. Leaders, I challenge you to broaden the scope of who you invite to the “room”. I challenge you to be creative and fearless in forming your committees.
I am not a wealthy individual by any stretch of the imagination and those who know me joke that I am everywhere, working on everything. I come from a Southern family with a ridiculous work ethic. It is true that my sense of civic engagement and a belief that being in service to others and the greater good drive these motivations. I give 30-40 percent of my time, energy and skills to that end. I do not expect everyone to be this obsessive, but secretly I do. If you are not a part of the decision making process for these large scale projects then I challenge you to push, and get your personal projects off the ground.
Call up ten of your friends and each of you put in 100 dollars. Take that thousand dollars and get your project going, or whatever your project needs, Just do it. You may succeed spectacularly or not, but why not take the chance. Now more than ever we need to deconstruct/dismantle the “Dayton Way” and we need to accelerate this renaissance to warp speed. Our city needs color, flavor, sophistication, energy and excitement. We need to let go of the outmoded parochial thinking and look for ways to differentiate ourselves from the thousands of other cities on the planet, that are just like Dayton. Yes, this is a global game not a provincial one, the future is now.