Dayton and College Graduates

The New York Times comes to visit Daytonwhose metropolitan area I am (barely) a resident, and to use it as a poster child for the sort of formerly prosperous manufacturing city that is now fighting to retain and attract college graduates who see New York, San Francisco or even Raleigh as a better place to be — because there are lots of college graduates there, for one thing. It’s a hard cycle to break, although to its credit Dayton is now trying (after years of inertia, which basically typifies the human condition, now, doesn’t it).

I’ve been reasonably happy in the area, even in a rural part of the area with even fewer college graduates, but then again I spent my 20s first in a job that nearly weekly took me to LA and San Francisco, and then suburban DC at a job at which nearly everyone around me was college educated. These days I’m settled with a family, I and travel constantly and see lots of people that way, all of which skews my perception considerably. I don’t know that I’m a good test case.

I do have a fantasy that some of the college graduates and/or creative people who flock to NYC/LA/SF/DC/etc eventually yearn for cheaper rents and yards and start looking at towns like Dayton as places to land — which may seem a tad dismissive of the creative folks in towns like Dayton, to which I say: Sorry guys. More would still be better, no? But it’s a chicken and egg thing — need cool stuff in town to attract people, but cool stuff comes with enough people. Or maybe you just need enough people becoming exasperated with paying $2,000 a month for a postage stamp apartment in a big city. Either way, I hope Dayton and other towns like it find a way to get and keep their share of college folks.

32 Comments on “Dayton and College Graduates”

  1. I enjoyed visiting Dayton when I worked on research contracts for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is very science fictional. I dig, for example, seeing a patch of fabric from a manned Civil War recon balloon.

  2. Your latter hope is pretty much exactly what i’m planning. Living in the SF Bay Area is great, until i look up rents basically anywhere else in the US that isn’t New York and weep for the prices. I could be a homeowner right now, for the rent i pay. Soon as my wife finishes her post-grad work, we’re getting out of the bay area for somewhere a) cheaper and b) less crowded.

  3. Interesting perspective.I can only hope that I will be a published author,too.

  4. This dream becomes easier as more people can telecommute (I’m saving on Austin property prices by working largely from inner-city Atlanta), but will become vastly harder if Dayton (like some other cities of it’s size) loses a good chunk of it’s airline routes. Good luck.

  5. Eh. I was happy to leave Ohio when I figured out that the sun shines in the winter in other parts of the country.

  6. Dave:

    I suspect Dayton’s going to be fine in terms of its airport because among other things it has a huge Air Force base nearby which is not going anywhere anytime soon.

  7. Is “college graduate” some kind of shorthand for “creative, interesting people”? Because I would rather by far live in a city with creative interesting people who may or may not have degrees than in a city with college graduates like the ones I used to work with. The ones who still bragged (on a more or less daily basis, and more than ten years after the fact) about the papers they’d copied from someone else, the nights they drank until they couldn’t recall whether they’d had sex – and if so, whether she’d been sober enough to consent, and the queers they’d taunted and bullied.

    Now, I myself have two advanced degrees in two different fields, and I do value education. I just don’t think that having a degree is any proof of being educated, being creative, or being the kind of person whose mere presence enhances a community. Actually, now that I think about it, there are very few classes of people whose mere presence enhances a community.

    Is it that there’s no clear cut way to communicate “We want to attract people who will contribute to the arts scene, start new businesses, and otherwise make this an even better and more diverse place to live” than by saying “We want college graduates to move here”? I guess I am just puzzled as to what exactly it is about college graduates, as college graduates (and specifically without any other information about them), that makes a city decide to try to attract more of them.

    I am open to learning that there are causal relationships between “lots of college grads” and “things that enhance a city in some way”, but at this moment, I am unaware of any.

  8. Believe me, if I could find a decent job in a rural area anywhere in the US besides New York, Boston, or SF (I live in the SF Bay Area) and could sell my house for more than what I paid for it (we bought after the crash when our house was 30% lower than its peak, and it still dropped another 10%), I would be there in a New York minute.

    The problem is that until the economy stabilizes, most folks are stuck where they are.

  9. Jay Sheckley commented on my Facebook page, for my 4,565 FB Friends: “this new John Scalzi book shown REDSHIRTS is a ROMP! Ya gotta read it all [I co-own 2 bookstores: very spoiled. Am not a trekkie but LOVED this.]”

  10. Since housing prices were irrationally high before the downturn, a return to economic prosperity may not be sufficient to cause houses to appreciate for a while.

  11. The rents in my home town are (relatively) cheap, but the letters to the editor in the local newspaper are more than enough to scare away most college grads.

  12. Bob:

    Do today’s college grads still read the newspaper?


    “Is ‘college graduate’ some kind of shorthand for ‘creative, interesting people’? Because I would rather by far live in a city with creative interesting people who may or may not have degrees than in a city with college graduates like the ones I used to work with.”

    I think there is the suggestion that there is overlap to some considerable degree.

  13. A quick search indicates that there are quite a few colleges in Dayton. Capitalizing on this might work. E.g adding money to endow chairs, scholarships, tech incubators, …

    (I just noticed the band name sidebar – mine’s “Executive Whimsy”)

  14. I am a college graduate very much hoping to visit Dayton later this year. One of my all-time musical heroes Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices lives there. I’m making my first trip ever to the US in October, to attend a conference in New York (, and if I can work in a pilgrimage to Dayton I’ll be pleased as can be. I hope to play a gig there too, if I can wangle it.

    So: just a visit. But still, for some of us it’s a desirable destination, at least for a visit.

  15. I’m one of the ones who LEFT Dayton. I grew up in Centerville/Washington Township (suburban Dayton) and went to Cleveland for college (CWRU) with no intention of returning. I’ve settled in the DC area now. The reason I left had less to do with job opportunities and rather more with social ones. It’s a lot easier to come out of the closet in a larger city, which is exactly what I did.

  16. Speaking for myself, I moved to DC because that’s where the jobs are. I do environmental work, so it was either government or a non-profit and there’s the most of both in D.C. I was actually from a major state capital (Albany) and still couldn’t find a decent job there. (The State of New York is perpetually not hiring.) As for entrepreneurs, I think a lot of people are very hesitant to start a small business in an area that is economically depressed because they’re afraid there just isn’t enough of a market to sustain it.

  17. I assume “college graduates” is synonymous with “young people” and “new blood” and “they’ll make babies in a few years.” Not to mention “our elderly population is dying off.”

    Well, it all depends on whether or not there’s jobs there, doesn’t it? Small towns usually aren’t so good for that.

  18. First, sorcharei: hear, hear.

    Second, I’ve lived several places where rent was cheap[er]. They all were pretty lowsy places to live. Couldn’t go do anything without climbing into the car and there usually wasn’t much that was worth driving for that didn’t mean driving 45+ minutes each way. This includes both more rural areas and suburban areas that almost uniformly suffer from crappy transportation infrastructure and the blight of dead-end housing developments.

    All that wasted time in the car adds up. At least in a more urban area, I can get some exercise (walking or riding) or spend the transit time reading and/or listening to music (on the bus).

  19. John Scalzi

    Do today’s college grads still read the newspaper?

    Some do, I think. Online, of course, and with a sense of ironic detachment.

    A particularly inane article from my hometown paper made an appearance on Fark a while back, and racked up about 1,000 comments. I’d bet it was submitted by one of those college grad punks.

  20. I was born and raised in Dayton (OK, a southern suburb thereof, but close enough) and when I was 22 I wanted nothing more than to get the fuck out. Now I’m 55 and I live in Kent, which is an even smaller town. One’s perspective changes over time. I used to be quite frustrated with what I saw as the lack of cultural excitement, reading the NY Times every day and drooling over the obscure films playing at Film Forum that I would never in a million years get a chance to see in Dayton. Not to mention the difference between seeing someone hot and hip at CBGBs vs. someone old and moldy at any bar you’d care to mention in the greater Dayton area. But with hindsight, Dayton in the 50s and 60s was a remarkably busy, affluent place with prosperity which reached across many different lines.

    What’s clear is that Dayton’s been, to a greater or lesser extent, hollowed out by the same forces which have ravaged other Rust Belt cities (Akron’s closest to us. but also think of any small to mid-sized city in upstate New York like Rochester or Schenectady). The problem is figuring out how to replace the disappeared industrial manufacturing with some other form of commerce which will generate jobs and income for what some might call the working middle class, and others might call the unionized working class. GM, Ford, NCR, Delco, Frigidaire…the list goes on and on of companies which have either moved away entirely or slashed their employment to negligible levels. And those weren’t just the assembly line jobs which were cut, there were a lot of middle and upper management jobs which have also disappeared.

    In many ways, Dayton serves to my mind as a perfect microcosm of all the ills that our society has suffered over the last 30 to 40 years. I still remember a friend telling me about 5 years ago that the Dayton police had been forced to team up with the local scrap dealers to do a special public service announcement to tell folks that the dealers would no longer accept for purchase old aluminum siding, because there’d been too many thefts of the same from foreclosed-upon or abandoned houses by desperate people. Note that I’m not just playing the nostalgia card. There was a fair amount of racial oppression and segregation in those days, and we are all a lot better off for the civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements which have occurred since then. But civil rights don’t do one much good if the only paying gig you can find is one that regularly requires you to ask if that’s a regular or large size fries.

    So I hope Dayton comes back. I have too many friends and kin still living there to wish otherwise. And it would be good to see it as an example for what other cities could or should do. But it’s hard to be too optimistic, given just how thriving a place it was 40 or 50 years ago, and just how reduced it is now..

  21. Same story – just last month I moved to Kalamazoo Michigan after living over 30 years in the Boston area. A fair sized university and a couple smallish colleges keep the community artistic, active, and interesting – just like the Boston area. The politics are a “bit” more conservative, and being the one who sees something like gay marriage as “why not?” sets my family apart, but we are still welcomed with open arms by the friendly people here.
    In short – Kalamazoo Michigan is comparing quite favorably with the hub of the universe (Boston).

  22. Yeah … I’m with Christopher Hinkle @9:28. Grew up in Sharonville, now have family in Mason (which is either a Dayton suburb or a Cincinnati suburb). Left at the first opportunity and landed in Minneapolis.

    My decision is reinforced by the blatantly disapproving looks my girlfriend and I get when we visit my family. It isn’t that Dayton is too small, it’s that (much of) Dayton is too small-minded.

    (To those in Dayton what are not, like our gracious host, I understand that good people are everywhere. It’s just that southern Ohio has an insufficient ratio to make me comfortable about say, going to the grocery store.)

  23. Jonathan Vos Post:

    The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is very science fictional.

    I was just there last summer with the kids. I would describe it as “scientific”, and not “science fictional”. I highly recommend it to everybody. (I know you’re not supposed to touch the planes, but I totally had to touch a SR-71. Coolest plane ever.)

    John Scalzi:

    I suspect Dayton’s going to be fine in terms of its airport because among other things it has a huge Air Force base nearby which is not going anywhere anytime soon.

    I agree that Wright-Patterson isn’t going anywhere, but in general it’s a bad idea to count on having a military base as a staple of your economy. I grew up in Plattsburgh, NY, which had the second largest SAC base in the US, and the base was closed in 1993. That left a large hole in the economy of the region. The only thing left was Canadian tourism, but changes in the exchange rate helped to kill that off as well.

    Dayton has to work hard to keep college students because the Jupiter of college campuses is in nearby Columbus (The Ohio State University). My community college has a similar problem attracting talented students for our science program, because most students would rather be in Lexington at UK than stay home. The “get out of Dodge” forces are strong with young adults.

  24. I live in Columbus. Before that it was CA, NY, other parts of Ohio. Much of the Toledo area resembles a mini Detroit. Columbus is pushing for more educated, creative, progressive people, and it appears to be having some success. The city ‘s expanding bike paths, green spaces and recycling. There’s a thriving local art and music scene . Rents are affordable. There’s a lot happening with entrepreneurial-creative start ups in the city. I’ve met people who have lived all over the world and are quite happy being here. A good amount of positive energy, Cultural benefits of a larger city with friendly neighbors. All in all, a decent place to live.

  25. My perceptive on Dayton is a bit skewed since I moved away at 6 months old and then only came for brief visits to my oldest brother. My brother worked in computer programing/making simulators/some such (my youngest brother and I thought he played video games for a living). He worked for a midsized (as best I recall) company then he and some friends started their own small company. Maybe they were the only two IT companies in town but they certainly hire college grads.

    In general, I second Chris Sears, the ‘get out of Doge” forces are strong with a lot of young adults. But then some of them are coming from major metropolitan areas and maybe are looking for something smaller to try on?

    Personally, I’m not a 20-something anymore and grew up in a DC suburb, the flash of the big city holds little draw for me (never really did, been there done that). There are things about a ‘real’ city I miss (like real diversity and public transit) and things I can live without (like insane traffic everyday not just 7 Saturdays in the fall). Ultimately, I think we’d like to end up in a semi-rural area, near a small college town but where we go when my husband (still getting used to that word) finishes his PhD is anyone’s guess.

  26. I used to travel in/out of Dayton frequently as one of the visitors to Wright-Patterson AFB, and had been part of an USAF organization of several thousand people that was transferred en masse from the Washington DC area to WPAFB in the early 90’s (I had other options to stay in the DC area and so didn’t make the move.)

    The conventional wisdom was that WPAFB/Dayton was a lousy area for a business trip of a couple of days to weeks. (At least compared to other USAF bases–Eglin on the Gulf Coast, Hanscom in greater Boston, Peterson in Colorado Springs, Los Angeles Air Force Station). Nothing special about the surrounding area to do, so-so weather (especially in the winter), a limited number of decent restaurants for out-of-town visitors (other than the Pine Club everyone went blank if you asked for recommendations), no unique retail/cultural areas…nothing to do when not working except visit the local chain or not-special-at-all local eatery, see a movie/cruise the mall, maybe visit the local big-box bookstore, maybe visit the base gym, and head back to the room for more work to kill the rest of the evening. If your trip kept you there over the weekend you had better like whatever sports season it was because you’d end up spending a lot of time watching it on the tube, and hope you had enough work to do to pass the time constructively. Generally a trip to WPAFB was considered work between two plane rides and nothing more. Nobody ever challenged whether you really had to make a trip to WPAFB, as opposed to a visit to San Diego in February.

    At the same time those who lived there/moved there told me that it was a great place to live. Low cost of housing, good schools (at least in the area where WPAFB was), friendly people, traffic generally much better than other urban areas, enough retail to conveniently buy whatever you needed/wanted. I came to the conclusion that the things that made a location a good place to visit on a frequent basis had very little relation to the things that made it a good place to live.

    But as far as WPAFB and it’s very large collection of engineers and professionals goes, look for hard times a’coming. The USAF budget is going to take some large hits, R&D/acquisition (the mission that keeps WPAFB going) will suffer more than its proportional share of cuts to keep force structure in place, and the large size of WPAFB means that it will take a large number of losses over the next few years. If you’re not buying airplanes and other similar stuff you don’t need the staff to buy them.

  27. As a relatively recent (2007) college graduate who lives in Raleigh, perhaps I can give some perspective. I note that you seem to have thrown Raleigh in with some derision (even Raleigh! Oh My! – I joke, slightly). I recall that you even visited Raleigh once, for a convention, I believe.

    To be fair, I’ve gown up in North Carolina, so it isn’t like I moved far to live in Raleigh. But Raleigh has a lot going for it. It has lower rent than places like NYC or DC or San Francisco, but is still a large enough size it carries the amenities and interesting things to do, with a decent enough density that if you live downtown you can walk to where you need to go. If you live outside of downtown it’s suburbs, but it generally takes ten minutes or so to get to whatever you need.

    Case in point: I’ve an under 30 college grad who lives in a nice family house within city limits (but in the burbs) who can get to anything I need with a short drive.

    The other thing Raleigh has going for it is outdoor space. There are parks, trees, and greenways everywhere here. It provides a nice contracts to places like NYC if that isn’t your thing.

    Of course, I’m writing this like all of this was perfectly planned. Mostly this is the reward for a hugh risk that was taken about 30 years ago. 30 years ago Raleigh and North Carolina staked their future on tech jobs: computer, biotech, pharma, medical, etc. and poured money into developing the Research Triangle Park and building up RDU airport. They guessed right and the jobs took: lots of them that pay really well. This has attracted and kept college grads in the area. This, combined with the benefits listed above, is what has made this area what it is today.

    The final piece of the puzzle is education. While large cities can suck in graduations from all over the place, Raleigh and the surrounding area have manufactured them. The area is home to a ridiculous number of public and private colleges. NC State calls Raleigh home (30,000+ students and my alma mater) while Duke (10,000+) is in Durham and UNC is in Chapel Hill (25,000+) which are about 30 minutes away.

    Obviously a single New York Times article can’t cover all of this, but lays out some of the reasons why Raleigh has done so well. If Dayton plays its cards right, it can catch up. Invest in education, gamble on business that are small now but appear poised to be the future, develop green space and public places, and know that over time places like Raleigh will become ever more expensive making it harder for the city to adapt and be attractive – leaving an opening for places like Dayton to step in.

  28. I currently live in the DC area, but hate the traffic. I would move to the Dayton area in a hot second if there were jobs available to support my family, which includes a BS/MS and a BA/MS.

  29. Good luck. I’m a Dayton native and after I graduated I spent a year trying to find a job. Had to move to Las Vegas and then, ultimately, South Korea to get work. There is absolutely no way I will ever return to Dayton.

  30. Funny, the NYT did that exact same story about Dayton 20 years ago – I pulled it from the morgue to write about Richard “Creative Capital” Florida coming to town for the DDN.

    I left Dayton five years ago, and break into hives and tears at the thought of going back. Even visits make me twitchy. There are some amazing people there, trying to do incredible things. But there are a lot more that only want to drag you down, so they have an excuse for never getting up. And yes, I’m sure that’s true everywhere, but since I spent 30+ years in Dayton, I strongly associate it there and firmly believe this is why the city continues to struggle to revive itself, and always will until the heat death of the universe.

    $2000 a month is a small price to pay to live in a nice place, surrounded by nice people, many of whom manage to make their livings creatively and don’t look at you like an asshole space alien because you don’t want to bartend/work in a factory/sling cheap retail goods for the rest of your life. As with everything in life, YMMV.

  31. I think the Dayton/smaller city problem in general is an extension of Sturgeon’s Law. or Sturgeon’s Revelation. Or whatever you want to call it. Generally, it says that, being polite, 90% of everything is crud. Books. Politics. People. Music. 90% is lousy.

    If you live in a town with 8 million people, yeah, 7.2 million are lousy. But 800,000 are making or doing something vibrant, interesting and wonderful. It’s easier to run into one in NYC or LA or Chicago than in Dayton, no matter how wonderful Dayton might be.

    When I was a musician and wanted to join a band, an older musician gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten. On his advice, I rented space at a rehearsal space and went there to write and rehearse. In the process, I met other Baltimore musicians and started trading ideas. I got invited to jam sessions, and was able to show my chops. In other words, I went to where the people doing what I wanted to do were doing things I wanted to do, and found a way in.

    Similarly, if you’re a writer/musician/actor/whatever, there are more people doing that in NYC than anywhere else. If you want to find others, you go to where they are.

    There are ways for smaller towns to create a good environment for it. Austin comes to mind, as does (obviously) Nashville. But you need the critical mass to create an infrastructure. In Nashville, that was the Grand Ole Opry. In Austin, it was SXSW. What does Dayton have other than large yards and John Scalzi? If the answer is nothing, well, I don’t know that’s enough.

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