The Gutting of Dayton: Why My City Is Gone

Written by Ted Rall

For decades, cities like Dayton, Ohio have been demolishing their architecturally significant buildings with abandon. Now we know why. Ted Rall cartoon.

aNewDomain — For decades, cities like Dayton, Ohio have been demolishing their architecturally significant buildings with abandon. Now we know why.

Why My City is Gone: The Gutting of Dayton
Cartoon: Ted Rall exclusively for aNewDomain

For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.


  • Greed? You’re an idiot. Let’s take a look at the political party that runs Dayton for the last 40-50 years…you people turn a blind eye to corruption within your political party but damn fast to point the finger at a corporation (which actually EMPLOYS people); makes you look like trained lapdogs. Dayton’s big problem is a poor education system, ran by the same political cronies that have run the city administration into the ground. Wake. UP!

    • Both parties are power mad and GREEDY scum for one, now please explain how what the article describes isnt greed driven!

      • Mike was the lone Republican on the city commission and hasn’t been in the office for, oh, 20 years. His pick for City Manager got ousted because he set to work fixing the city’s management structure and stepped on toes doing it so out the door he goes.

    • I sincerely doubt that this is a D vs. R problem. The issue is institutional; were the GOP to run Dayton things would likely wind up the same because of the financial pressures from banks and businesses.

  • All these vacant buildings yet we still have people living on the street. Maybe if these ass clowns actually put to good use the money they extort from our paychecks, these could be restored and be homeless shelters or soup kitchens or meybe even cheap housing for college students. See, right there 3 ideas that politicians don’t give two shits to even think of. This is why I don’t vote anymore. All these shit heads do is worry about their political careers and don’t actually give two shits about the people they are suposedly “leading”. I personally don’t need a leader. I am quite capable of living my life without the influence of some suit wearing jerkoff who thinks he knows better.

  • Pretty disappointing analysis that leave out a LOT of factors. Urban Sprawl? Building I-675? Globalization? The simple math of smaller family sizes today? Racism?
    Then again, maybe you should spend more time downtown. GE just built a $50M facility. Emerson is building a $35M facility. That newspaper building will be transformed into a $35M student housing development. There are microbreweries popping up all over. Millions invested in infrastructure, roads, highways. Maybe the problem is – people like you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s too late.

    • Hey man, a broken clock is right twice a day – I agree, there are exiting things happening right now in Dayton, but for the long haul, but by and large, those things are happening not because of the city, or major developers, but because of individuals stepping up and staking a claim. Rall nailed it – the books are getting cooked, and Dayton has been losing history to parking lots for far too long.

    • If urban sprawl were the cause of mass demolitions in cities like Dayton, you’d see empty lots in Manhattan, Miami, central LA, and downtown Chicago. Likewise, the I-675 bypass is not unusual at all; many cities have directed traffic around their urban centers with similar projects yet have not been tearing stuff down like it’s going out of style. Ditto for smaller family sizes and racism…those are in every American city.

      I appreciate your optimism about Dayton, and I like the little glimmers of hope you see in the form of a few new hipster cafes and so on. But those things are tiny tiny tiny compared to the destruction.

      As for not appreciating what you have until it’s too late, I’m sorry but I don’t understand what you mean: to the contrary, my plea for urban preservation is exactly motivated by that! We need to appreciate old buildings before we tear them down (and it’s too late).

  • Hey Ted – I think you nailed it, man. I’ve been trying to suss out why Dayton has remained a ghost town for the last 30 years, and no other explanation makes sense.

    • Thank you. I could have gone on and on and about Dayton’s weak mayor system, which makes it impossible for anyone with vision to execute it, but this piece was long enough as is.

  • Also, for about as many years, I’ve said the thing needed to really spur growth in D8N is actual RETAIL. Businesses that people want to travel to and buy things from. Sure, people work downtown, but SHOPPING is what really drives an area. Rikes, Elder-Beerman, Sears, the Met, everything in the arcade, GONE. Since 1990, there has been a steady decline in retail that can probably be tracked right along with the decline of people giving 2 craps about downtown Dayton. It a real shame that Dayton lost retail opportunities like the Greene. Guess it just makes more sense to build a fake downtown rather than give some breaks to allow businesses to move back into the real one.

    • Tax breaks for retail would make a lot of sense. Of course, you’d also have to bring in the kinds of stores that don’t exist in the suburbs, and provide a sense of security for suburbanites so they didn’t worry about their cars getting broken into or getting mugged.

      • Tax breaks: the libertarian snake oil that fixes any problem.

        Deficit too high? Tax breaks!
        Deficit too low? Tax breaks!
        President too dark? Tax breaks!
        No talent hack can’t get a paying job? Tax breaks!

    • I’m afraid you have it backwards. Today more than ever, jobs drive downtowns. In particular, downtowns rely on office jobs that put lots of people very close to each other all day. Some of those people will decide to live downtown–this is a particular demographic, though. Most of them will have lunch and sometimes drinks or dinner downtown. And most of them will do some incidental shopping downtown. But this is all driven by working downtown. Work brings them in.

      Getting people to come downtown otherwise is very difficult. Unique draws like sports, culture, and festivals can bring them in sporadically, though to a large extent these draws suck up the economic activity. You don’t go shopping at a department store on your way to a play or basketball game, for example. When you go to the art show, you generally buy from vendors who are there just for the art show.

      But shopping as a draw? Forget it. Nearly all Americans want to go shopping with their cars. Downtowns by definition are not car-friendly places. Nearly all Americans want to take care of several errands at once. This just isn’t possible in downtowns. Malls and shopping centers are more efficient.

      I’m not just talking about suburbanites here; I’m talking about city-dwellers, too. During the week, mom and dad may drive or take transit downtown to their office jobs, but on the weekend, the family drives out of town to the strip malls and huge grocery stores. Even downtown loft-dwellers will drive away to shop.

    • The shopping in Downtown would have to be unique and inviting. You just stand and look at the building at the Greene have the lure of ‘come shop here, it’s a nice experience.’ Downtown Dayton on the other hand has the look of bargain bin filled with multi-colored plastic bobbles at WalMart with all their multi-colored lights and stripped white/green towers. Nothing looks like it fits together. In order to compete with something like the Greene and other malls Downtown Dayton is going to need to present a shopping experience with vibrant/classic atmosphere which the Arcade used to provide AND SOMETHING NO OTHER CITY HAS. How about taking the Arcade and making a shopping mall/center in which shops only sell FAIR TRADE items. What not create a mall in which the items that are sold are not from human trafficking? Most people thru their consumption of sugar, chocolate, tea, coffee, cotton, makeup, etc. support human trafficking. What if there was a bakery where the bake goods were make from Fair Trade vanilla/sugar/chocolate/etc. Coffee shop where the coffee is Fair Trade. Chocolate/candy shop where ingredients are Fair Trade. Linen shop where the items didn’t come from slave labor/human trafficking. Small grocery where local farmers provide meat, produce during the summer. Hair Salon where the make up products are Fair Trade. Right now I drive all over to buy items, I would love to have it all in one place. There are plenty of shops that have Fair Trade. There are plenty of people in Dayton who are worth millions of dollars. What if they chipped in, rehabbed the Arcade to be the first ‘Shopping Mall to end Slavery’. Some people complain Fair Trade is expensive and they can’t afford it. It’s odd because they will spend 60.00-70.00 for their favorite NFL team’s sweat shirt but a Fair Trade sweat shirt is half that price. This is the kinda of SHOPPING experience those who live downtown would seek out.

  • Glosses over the reasons WHY these businesses failed or left. (Social and economic factors too big to fully cover, but deserve more emphasis.) The cartoonist seems to care more about the fate of the physical buildings than that of the people who make their livelihood in them.

    Sentimentality and history are important, but they’re a “nice-to-have” after stability and security. On my way to dropping my kids off at school, I’d rather drive by an empty lot than a rat-infested crack den that happens to have a glorious history.

    Anyway, Dayton seems to be revitalizing. All that “occupancy rate” stuff works, apparently. Better to have a city that’s thriving by bulldozing old buildings than a city with a lot of history that is becoming history itself.

  • “Paul’s story checked out: The easiest way to increase your city’s vacancy rate is to demolish buildings.”
    Didn’t Ted mean “occupancy rate”? That’s what he said the city is after to help get more loans to renovate.

  • I agree with the sentiment of this cartoon, but the reality is that old buildings are often extremely difficult to maintain or fix up.
    Also, the flip side of this is Toledo, Ohio. Tons of vacant old buildings, but just sitting there vacant doesn’t really help anyone and it’s depressing.

    • Agreed, but Toledo will be in a better position to land on its feet as a cool city if and when recovery occurs.

  • I love Dayton too, and mourn these losses.

    Perhaps O/T but important. You can add to this story the wholesale bulldozing of a once-thriving river ecosystem by the City Water Dept. Consider the west shore of once was a tree lined Great Miami river – south of Harshman and north of the Keowee Street bridge.

    It’s going on right now, behind chain linked fences.

    You can use Google maps “Satellite view” to look up Kittyhawk Golf Course, and then pan east to the Miami River…notice the thick tree cover to the north and to the east, but those trees on the west are much reduced, zoom in and you can see the recently grassed-over bulldozer tracks in the image. It has not stopped.

    Bulldozing is in progress –right now — as this is being posted.

    Curious to see the damage it at ground level? Then drive along Old Troy Pike in winter when the leaf cover is down, and you can see it clearly. Huge mounds of earth, and moving equipment in constant motion. During the summer, the tree cover on the east side of the river obstructs the view.

    Eagles – being water-feeding birds – are using those trees on the west shore, avoiding the houses and people to be found on the east shore. Or they were.

  • Your city is gone, Ted, because most of the pale-skinned people abandoned it in the face of desegregation and school busing. The money talked and walked at the same time.

    • White flight was a huge problem, but it still doesn’t explain why Dayton and not, say, Columbus. White flight has afflicted most American cities since the 1970s, but cities like Dayton responded by mass demolition. Other cities have not, and are doing better.

      • Good point, Ted, and a tough call…maybe. Columbus is quadruple the size of Dayton, with quintuple the population. Its white population is about ten percentage points higher than Dayton: @61:51), likely attributable to institutional and infrastructural biases and increased gentrification. African American population percentages: @28:42%. Also, Columbus dwarfs Dayton in terms of manufacturing, wholesale and retail sales. Housing vacancy rates: @11.9:26.8%.

        Dayton’s poverty rate is half again that of Columbus; Columbus’ median income is half again that of Dayton, ditto Its per capita income and the value of its housing.

        I just don’t see the demolition of “historic” buildings being at the forefront of Dayton’s problems. It may well be a symptom, but it’s a minor one. Maybe what Dayton needs to be doing is demolishing its abandoned and dilapidated housing units and replacing them with something more inviting.

  • Nice article but this is NOT the reason the city has gone tango uniform. This is a result, not the cause.

    And you can’t save every old piece of architecture in the city. It doesn’t make fiscal sense. But then the city government was never about fiscal sense.

    • Love the strawman of “Every building”. The people on “your” side (and as a country going tribal, NEVER deviate from “Your” tribe. Win at all costs my friend. Winning is the ONLY thing) will latch on to that meme and do the bidding of the out of state money/out of town money looking for some short-term gain. Nice work.

      • Is there an argument in that diatribe? If there is I certainly can’t find it. You might consider sobriety before posting.

  • Not mentioned: It is much more expensive to rehab a building than to erect a new one. Those costs must be recouped in rental prices. Banks of course, use that criteria in deciding whether to loan money. Our beloved Arcade is still standing as you mentioned, so I invite and challenge you to find an interested party to restore it to its former magnificence and make it a profitable venture. You would forever be hailed as the guy who saved a Dayton icon! Oh, and while you are at it, why not try to get the ‘powers that be’ to leave the Roundhouse at the Dayton Fairgrounds right where it stands? It could be rehabbed and used as the focal point of the new building plan there!

    • Nah. Tear ’em all down and cheer the businesses doing it!! More parking lots please!! More short-term money and myopic vision!!!! We want it cheap and we want it now!!! We don’t care what anything looks like because we never leave our offices, cars, homes!!!!! There is no “civic” life in our cities anyway!!! Gimme cheap!!! Gimme now!!!! I don’t care!!!!! Gotta love the sentiments of the average American. Truly a cheap and tawdry people we are. We deserve everything we get shoved down our throats. (Oh, and your rehab vs. new statement is made as though it were some law of physics. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your complete lack of nuance and sophistication. We need MORE people like you. I want to destroy this country and you’re a general in that citizens army. Thank you!!!)

      • Dear Sir: 2 + 2 = 4. Have you ever restored/rehabbed anything? Do your homework, please. Of course, if the buyer of a historic building/home does all of the rehab work himself/herself, then of course it is less expensive, no labor costs other than all of the hours one must spend doing it. It is also less expensive, labor wise, if someone does all of the work when building their own building. I do agree with your analysis of the average American, however. The average person is more more enamored of ‘new.’ Hence the Greene, etc. My statement did not indicate that I am in favor at all of tearing down. You made a false judgement of what I stand for. I was merely stating why historic buildings are torn down and either replaced or not. I am a member of the National Historic Preservation Society, and historic buildings are a particular interest of mine. The downtown area of Dayton no longer is the beautiful city which I enjoyed in my youth and early adulthood–and it saddens me. I do not have any viable suggestions about how to save our buildings — do you? I challenged Mr. Rall to find someone to invest in the Arcade buildings’ restoration and also perhaps keep the Roundhouse in its present location at the Fairgrounds. Why don’t you step in?

        • I have. I also have an MS in historic preservation. What is the “National Historic Preservation Society”? But, assuming such a thing exists, and you’re a member, you must be hip to all of the available tax credits, both local, state and federal available to good restoration/rehabilitation efforts. Large-scale efforts are usually hampered by the financial industry’s adherence to the 19 Standard Real-Estate Types (Christopher Leinberger, U. of Michigan). Tax credits are designed to level the playing field. Dayton may no longer be the town you enjoyed before large-scale interests discovered a profit making venture in tearing it down and abandoning it, but that doesn’t mean one flippantly (like I think you did) turns their back. You see what is and accept it. Don’t expect everyone to do the same.

    • One obvious solution would be for the city of Dayton to seize the property and run it themselves, whether as residences or commercial space, or even better, a civic space like a community center. After all, the current owners owe real estate taxes, so the city can take it just like that.

      • That is generally not how tax delinquencies work. First, the city is not the only stakeholder. Taxes are also owed to the county and school district. If there’s a mortgage lender involved, then that’s another set of issues since the lender will not want to lose the property tax sale. Second, the delinquency doesn’t empower any government to “seize” the property in the sense of taking title to it. It empowers the sheriff to sell the property at public auction according to particular protocols.

        Now, there might be a creative solution, and of course the city could buy the property at the auction. But the city can’t just say, “You owe taxes so we’re taking the property.”

      • “After all, the current owners owe real estate taxes, so the city can take it just like that.” That statement illustrates the shallowness of your analysis.

  • Americans have always preferred the ugly to the beautiful. We want cheap over good. “We” don’t know how to create a decent society. Look at the rapid growth and death of anywhere “we” Americans land. “We’re” more like a horde of locusts descending on fertile fields looking for a quick meal before moving on. MOST of our cities big and small are ugly and decaying. The suburbs WILL shortly be decaying (they’re already ugly). Cities in Europe and Asia have stood the test of time. They’ve engendered love and good will (to the point that their citizens would fight for them – who would fight for Dayton, Toledo, Buffalo, Syracuse, Detroit? The very statement makes the reader chuckle and even laugh out loud) of their citizens for centuries – some for millennia. We’ve never built anything like that and can’t. Why even bother? We don’t care about anything beyond the rank commercial, and artificially pious. Cities are THE greatest human artifact. Want to know who and what the Americans are? Go take a road trip. Get off the beaten path. LOOK at America (you’ll want to emigrate, trust me).

    • Excellent point about the decay of the suburbs. Like the retirement crisis, it’s a huge problem no one’s talking about, and it’s upon us pretty much now.

  • Ted, nice try. But, it’s a whole lot of things- mostly decided long ago by some rich guys in a back room who used to run the city. They had the All Dayton Committee- later the Dayton Business Committee who decided who was in office- and what party would have the majority. Soon, they realized parties didn’t matter- just money. They bought the “Development” they wanted- at the cost of everything else. When they all lost interest because there was little money left to steal- they all ran. NCR is in GA, Mead a shadow of itself, Reynolds & Reynolds in Kettering getting tax abatement after abatement to shuffle the deck chairs- and Standard Register- hiring wall street weasels to figure out how to get cash out of their carcass.
    Danis – gone. Banks- aren’t local anymore. GM decided to stop dealing with the rogue IUE once and for all- and said screw this popcorn stand.
    You have charlatans galore in “economic development” that say it’s good for me, to subsidize other businesses in the name of “job creation” which is just making temporary investments to buy tax dollars.
    We can’t plow the streets, we can barely cut the grass in our parks, and sure, demolition contractors who bought politicians get a lot of work- as the city falls apart.
    It’s all there in about 2,300 posts since 2005 on
    But thanks for the cartoon version.
    BTW- the bank, isn’t getting torn down. The “Student Suites” development has to be rejiggered because there was a HUD lien in place. The arcade is toast. The schools are about to be taken over by the state- but the “weak mayor” just spent half a million to “win” a job that pays a whopping $45K part time.
    It all makes sense once you follow the money.
    We’re now run by Premier Health, Kettering Health, CareSource and UD.
    It was never the people we elected- they were just puppets… then and now.

  • Sadly, the same dynamic has been at work in my hometown of Flint, Michigan for the past 30 years.

  • Wow. Never knew Ted Rall grew up in Dayton at the same time I did. Another good reason for leaving and never looking back …

  • Thanks Ted. I’m originally from Akron OH where there was more support for saving old buildings. A few visionaries created Progress through Preservation, a group dedicated to saving what is best. Akron still struggles a bit but it seems keep reinventing itself with the changing economy.

    I share your sense of loss. We are a short sighted people.

  • I am old enough to recall when Dayton was the “Gem” city, cleanest city in America. Rike’s and The Metropolitan thrived, the Arcade was bustling,the German immigrant wives swept the alleys on the east side while those of Jewish heritage were confined to the west side, building and developing some of the best houses, synagogues and business buildings ever. Dayton has always been a racist city, not just black and white. However, with White Flight things got really ugly and the poor folk of any color or ethnic group were left to an abandoned city that became a play thing for those manipulators of Big Money. As a former housing inspector I cannot tell you how heartbreaking it was to see the wonderful buildings come down instead of being assigned to economic re-development – it was also sad to walk through a home that had a floor so littered with used needles the crunch was audible with every step. Drugs did a horrible number on Dayton. Ask yourself who made the money on that industry. There is no one answer to the demise of Dayton but the uneven growth of UD and Wright State as compared to Sinclair (which is undoubtedly going down hill through greedy and ignorant management) shows how it is all in the long-term planning and healthy investment – something Dayton just has never done for the good of the City or its people. BTW-my breaking point was when the Lowes (Loews?) theatre was torn down – but the Victoria saved. Why?

  • Ted Rall is a libertarian goon who couldn’t analyze his way out of a wet paper sack. Dayton was destroyed by the same disease that destroyed a lot of once vibrant cities in the Rust Belt: when the time came to invest in new plant, the ownership class pulled out and moved down South for the cheap non-union labor. That truth makes Ted’s masters look pretty horrible, so he gins up a ridiculous smokescreen to cover the real story. Sorry, Ted, nobody is buying it.

  • Well, there are other factors. The Arcade has been so neglected that, conservatively, making it useful again would require well over 200 million. The facade is crumbling, there’s black mold, structural problems inside, inefficient HVAC, would need a complete re-wire for electrical and communication (and those old walls aren’t easy to work through). Some complained when ‘historic” but decrepit schools were demolished, but now the students and teachers have bright, safe, contemporary places to learn. I personally don’t think any buildings in Dayton are “historic” in the same sense as those in Philadelphia or London or Athens…when was the last time any tourist traveled to Dayton to see a building (and have you not seen how history here is preserved, gloriously, at Carillon Park??). There’s more than one side to this story, thanks for sharing yours, you defector :-)

  • If the building were not torn down and other business could not get loans because of the occupancy rates, more buildings would be unoccupied. The old buildings are historic but when they are empty and falling apart they will eventually need to be torn down anyway. You cannot blame the population decline on demolishing old buildings. The population decline is due to manufacturing moving out of the US due to a strong US dollar. Cities like Dayton and Detroit were greatly affected because their economy’s depended on manufacturing. This is mostly due to poor city governments who did not accept the future back in the 1960s and did nothing to attack more diverse businesses.
    Dayton is making a small comeback but will never be the same as it was before 1970. The student apartments and micro breweries are nice but not really enough to revitalize downtown. I cannot remember the last time I visited downtown Dayton. I see no reason to go down there besides maybe a Dragon’s game. The Oregon District is a bunch of bars and terrible food.
    Urban sprawl is the direct result of declining neighborhoods in the urban areas, wanting large lots, desiring newer more energy efficient homes, wanting better schools, and the high crime rates in most urban areas. Who is going to live in Dayton next to a crack addict?