The Black Disinvestment Crisis Pt 2: School Closings, Food Deserts, and Urban Blight
In the second installment in the series TRNN speaks to Racial Justice NOW an Ohio based organization that wants to stop the intentional economic dislocation of its community by Taya Graham and Stephen Janis
TAYA GRAHAM: Take a tour of Baltimore and you will quickly see the consequences of government-sponsored disinvestment. Downtown is filled with gleaming skyscrapers, a result of decades of tax breaks, but African-American neighborhoods continue to suffer from neglect and disrepair. But this pattern and the results are not limited to Baltimore.
TAYA GRAHAM: In Dayton, Ohio, city officials appear to be embracing the same idea. Quite soon the city’s majority African-American neighborhoods could see nine schools, a hospital, a mental health center, and a grocery store shuttered. Meanwhile, the city has offered tax breaks to developers to build a downtown hotel. Sound familiar? To discuss this future of West Dayton and what this might say about the future of African-American communities across the country, I have three activists here from the organization Neighborhood Over Politics. Jo’el Jones, Jamica Garrison, and Shenise Turner. Thank you so much for joining me.
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Thank you for having us.
TAYA GRAHAM: Sure. First, just give us some background on Dayton, Ohio. How is West Dayton different?
SHENISE TURNER-SLOSS: Yes. So Dayton, Ohio, Dayton is actually a Midwest city. We have a current population about of 141,000. At our peak, we were 260,000, 250,000. Due to the economic downturn, due to manufacturing leaving our area, again we have suffered a great loss in our population, along with the number of jobs and in the industry of manufacturing. Currently, as stated, we are experiencing 141,000 total residents in the Dayton area. We’re about 52, 55 square miles. We’re just north of Cincinnati. We’re actually about 55 miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio. With that, we’ve seen some challenges with our population.
Again, the city of Dayton is at a point where we’re trying to revive itself with the focus, unfortunately, being on the core, the downtown core in downtown Dayton. What that has caused is it has caused a great devastation and a loss of investment in our surrounding areas in which they consist of not only the west side of Dayton, but the east side of Dayton as well. Again, there has been a lot of great emphasis on the core and we notice that this is a trend across the country that a number of metropolitan areas are experiencing, but as stated, it has left a huge void in our neighborhoods.
Quite honestly, the city of Dayton, we’re experiencing over 7,000-plus vacant and blighted structures in our neighborhoods. We also have been a victim of predatory lending. The list goes on and on. We suffered tremendously through the economic downturn, and so right now we’re just really trying to rebound and that the residents are still of value and that we need to really, truly have an equitable plan in place where we are seeing equitable development. Not just focusing on downtown, but making sure that our neighborhoods are, again, seeing some equal, if you will, equal distribution in terms of how our federal and state funds are being spent.
TAYA GRAHAM: Sure. Now, let me ask. One of the things that was mentioned was that an Aldi’s grocery store in West Dayton is closing. Why is that so important? Why is one grocery store so important?
JO-EL THOMAS-JONES: Jamica, you want to go ahead and speak to that?
JAMICA GARRISON: Yes. Currently, Dayton, Ohio is … Well, actually Montgomery Country is the 12th largest food desert in the United States. West Dayton is one of the areas that are affected. Kroger’s closed on Gettysburg in West Town probably about seven years ago, and so Aldi’s was the next best option for residents for sustainable healthy food options in the Dayton area. Specifically, West Dayton. That is such a huge impact to not only West Dayton, but also surrounding areas like Trotwood, Jefferson Township, and, let me see, other areas that patronize that particular location.
With that being said, we do have centers and organizations that provide food pantries, but food pantries are limited to the items that they have available to them. If someone wanted to actually do a large grocery store shopping for the week they would have to go 5 to 7 or 10 miles to the closest store, which would be Kroger’s located on Siebenthaler. If you look at the demographics of the residents in that particular quadrant and in the city of Dayton as a whole, transportation is one of the number one barriers.
Now you have people who used to be able to walk or will still be able to walk to Aldi’s through the end of April of this year will now have to figure what alternatives they can utilize, which may mean an additional hit to their budget and it may mean for them to be a little bit more creative when it comes to carpooling or when it comes to catching a bus they might have to do a different route. I heard another young lady who did an interview. She said that she may even have to do a cab or do Uber because catching the bus, there’s a limited amount of grocery bags that you can carry when she has her children with her as well, and so those are some of the things that are impacting our citizens primarily on the west side of Dayton.
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Just to add to that. I’m sorry, go ahead. I just wanted to add that, and one of the reasons … You asked the question, “Why is this such a problem?”, and Jamica did talk to that, but I wanted to add to that is that this community, everyone is not supported by subsidies.
These are people who are working 40 hour or more hours a week at a job. Okay? The fact that city leaders or the fact that … the thought that you may even have to grocery shop at a food pantry is unacceptable. Now, we do have an issue with livable wages in this community as a whole, but we’re talking about people who get up every day, go to work, take their kids to school, pay their rent or mortgage, and they no longer, after the end of the summer, will have a viable option to feed their family without going, like Jamica said, 10 miles away. That’s huge.
TAYA GRAHAM: It is. Now, why is West Dayton losing its hospitals and mental health care centers as well?
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Well, in regards to the hospital, we’ve been in conversation with leadership who made those decisions and the community is still in that process. Their rationale for that is they don’t have enough occupancy and that their profit margin is no longer acceptable, so the hospital may need to close.
Now, here’s the big issue about this. The structure, this hospital has been, of course, an anchor in the community for decades. It’s not just about providing viable healthcare for a community. It’s about what that particular corner means to the economic viability of a community that’s already been stripped of almost everything. In conversations with the hospital leaders, I asked a blatant question just a couple days ago. “Okay, so you are not able to make a profit margin that is acceptable to your board members. Why not sell the hospital to another hospital who may be able to come and make a profit margin so that the people in that community can still have healthy options?” What was told to me to my face was that was not an option because it meant competition.
TAYA GRAHAM: Wow. What do you think is the point of this disinvestment and this series of closures?
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Well, this is what you said earlier, Taya. This is a trend across the nation when it comes to urban communities and the widening of the wage gap between the rich and the poor. How companies view their bottom line profits. Is it profitable for me to locate my business and thrive in urban neighborhoods where people are barely making it? Not because, again, that they’re on some type of government assistance, but because the wages that they are making are not comparable to the suburban neighborhood. In these communities, there is this rush like we’ve been talking about to disinvest.
We have our speculation. We believe that it is the disinvestment of that community so that gentrification can begin to take place. It’s just a trend, it’s a pattern that has happened all over the country. It’s happening in Baltimore, as you see. West Dayton has some of the most beautiful views downtown and has wonderful housing stock in spite of all the blighted housing and some of the most beautiful thoroughfares. If we could put that type of attention into our communities in the west and east side of Dayton as we do downtown, things would start to look much different, but that’s something that hasn’t happened.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Now, in my city, Baltimore, city officials gave out a $600 million TIF, tax incremental financing incentive, to a billionaire named Kevin Plank after the Baltimore uprising was caused the police custody death of Freddie Gray. Have you seen developers in Dayton receive tax incentives like that?
SHENISE TURNER-SLOSS: Yes. It has been a huge trend in our downtown area. Again, the focus has been on the core in downtown Dayton, and so what we’ve seen is a lot of out-of-town investors, developers that are literally buying up large parcels of land and with that, they are receiving tax abatements. What we’re essentially doing is, and we use the term often, is we’re essentially robbing from our public school district. We’re robbing from our community as a whole, and so what we’ve called for on a number of bases, we’ve asked to put in place policies, a community benefits policy, so that we can start to see equitable development where we honestly can see that the tax abatements, that there are a number of units that may be set aside for low to moderate income range individuals and families.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, I would just advise you, Baltimore did create an inclusionary housing law in order to ensure that developers who are given tax breaks actually make units that your average resident in Baltimore can afford, but that law hasn’t been adequately enforced. I would just warn you about what’s happening here in Baltimore City.
SHENISE TURNER-SLOSS: Exactly. Yes.
TAYA GRAHAM: You don’t want the same thing to happen in Dayton. Now Jo’el, you said something interesting during a TEDx talk. You said, “Bulldozers and cranes have a language of their own,” that they have a message to urban communities. What message is that?
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Well, when we see bulldozers in the urban community that means tearing down. Right? That means the removal of the old. What we don’t see happening at the same time, we don’t see cranes, which is the rebuilding, the reenergizing these communities. We see bulldozers. We don’t see enough of them, as a matter of fact, in our community, but we don’t see the cranes. We see the cranes downtown, and so when you see cranes you become excited because you know something fresh and new is coming.
When you drive through some of our neighborhoods, Taya, and I kid you not, just like in Baltimore it really looks like war zone. It’s not because of shootings. It’s because we have homes that are literally … One house you can see from the front to the back of the next street. These homes are burnouts. Our kids are going by these streets. When I talk about bulldozers and cranes, bulldozers aren’t necessarily bad, but you have to have a crane in there also to revive our community and that is what is not happening in West and East Dayton.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, the mayor of Dayton is a Democrat. How has the Democratic party responded to the needs of citizens in West Dayton?
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Well, you now-
SHENISE TURNER-SLOSS: That’s an interesting question.
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Yeah. Well, I’m sure they’re going to chime in. We don’t look at this as a Democrat or Republican issue, Taya. We do have a mayor who is a Democrat, and the Democratic party is likely to more progressive and more equitable when it comes to serving people who are from a lower socioeconomic status. We don’t look at her as just as the Democratic mayor. We look at her as the leader. Even though we do not have a strong mayoral government here in the city of Dayton. We have a city manager form of government.
We look at her as a leader, the cheerleader for the entire community. I will just go out on a limb and say as a Democrat I do expect more from my party since they are in charge. You would think that more would happen to level the playing field for our community, which doesn’t seem to be the case.
TAYA GRAHAM: Nine schools are slated to close. How would that impact the families of West Dayton?
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Deflate. Yeah. Tremendously. I think we all know that, right? The closing of nine schools … We have here in Dayton these schools and some of the schools have 25, 27, 31 kids in the classroom, so by closing nine schools on the west side … Let me back up. Dayton Public Schools built itself out as a school district that embraced community schools, neighborhood schools, if you have. The neighborhood school centers were supposed to be more than just a school. They were going to be opened up to the entire community.
By closing these nine schools … Now, let me back up again. These community centers, which are part of the neighborhood school system, work as meeting centers, all kinds of things for community programming, right? When the schools are closed, not only are we pushing these kids into other school buildings where we’re going to up the classroom, but we’re also shutting down that sense of community that the public school system said they built themself up on, neighborhood schools.
Here’s the issue. The issue is that our school system is second to last in the entire state. The entire state. Out of 600 and something school districts, Dayton Public Schools is second to last, unfortunately. We know that is a trend in a lot of urban centers, but the issue is we just built these schools, Taya. These schools are about 9 to 10 years old.
TAYA GRAHAM: Wow. They’re practically brand new.
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Every school that they want to close is a brand new building.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s incredible.
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Every building. When we talk about closing these schools, we’re talking about moving these kids from the west side to more east side schools or overcrowding the remainder of the west side schools in a school district that already has a reputation of academic failure. Now, I don’t think you have to be a genius to see that this is a recipe for disaster.
Something similar happened decades ago in Chicago. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen here in Dayton, but we see what happened in Chicago. We cannot afford to allow that to happen here in Dayton, Ohio. Yeah, you can go ahead, but I’m just saying we are working earnestly to bring attention to this. I am trying to force my way on the task force so that there can be another voice. There’s a lot of resistance with that, unfortunately. You would think that you would want to have a cohesive community conversation about an issue that is so impactful.
TAYA GRAHAM: I think you make such an excellent point. Baltimore City has certainly suffered from politicians who have used Baltimore City and its problems as their own personal springboard for their own political ambitions. I think you’re so right about holding these politicians accountable and making sure that you actually get politicians who care about the community that they claim they want to serve.
JO’EL THOMAS-JONES: Absolutely.
TAYA GRAHAM: I want to thank you, my guests from Neighborhood Over Politics, Jo’el Jones, Jamica Garrison, and Shenise Taylor, for joining me in this important discussion on gentrification and how residents can stand their ground. I’m your host, Taya Graham, and I want to thank you for joining me at the Real News Network.