Lifelong Dayton resident Monica Schultz, 36, brings me to the East End block where she grew up. “This whole street was full of families,” she says. “Kids were running around playing, all within my age range.”
Now no kids are in sight.
Schultz points to a half dozen abandoned houses, including one right next door to her family’s place. She says the city has boarded it up a few times but stray cats keep finding their way in.
“We had a flea infestation problem,” she tells me. “People walking by could see the fleas or feel the fleas or get the fleas. All of the yards in the neighborhood here were becoming infested with fleas.”
Schultz says the city can’t keep up with houses like this. “It’s one of many that need to be bulldozed,” she says. “But it’s on a list.”
Dayton’s population has been shrinking since the 1960s. Most of the area’s factory jobs are long gone. To save the city, Schultz has embraced a new idea: Help immigrants and refugees lay roots in Dayton.
Schultz, who owns a small marketing firm, helped lead community meetings that generated a 72-point plan called “Welcome Dayton.” City commissioners approved the plan this fall. The points range from better immigrant access to social services, to more translations of court materials, to grants for immigrants to open shops in a dilapidated commercial corridor, to a soccer event that supporters envision as a local World Cup tournament.
Schultz tells me the plan could revive a Dayton entrepreneurial spirit that sparked inventions ranging from the cash register to the airplane. “You would have small businesses,” she says. “You would have coffee shops and you would have bakeries and you would have specialty grocery stores.”
Dayton is among several rustbelt cities suffering from population loss and brain drain. To create businesses and jobs, some communities are trying to attract immigrants, especially highly educated ones. Dayton stands out for the attention its plan pays to immigrants without wealth or skills.
The plan even addresses people without permission to be in the country. One provision calls for police officers to quit asking suspects about their immigration status unless the crime was “serious.” Another point could lead to a city identification card that would help residents do everything from open a bank account to buy a cell phone.
City Manager Tim Riordan, Dayton’s chief executive, says welcoming all types of immigrants will make the area more cosmopolitan. “I think there would be a vibrancy,” he says. “We’d start to have some international investment of companies deciding they ought to locate here.”
Foreign-born residents so far amount to 3 percent of the city’s 142,000 residents. For a mid-sized U.S. city these days, that’s not many.
But Dayton’s immigrants and refugees are increasing their numbers and, Riordan says, they’re already making a difference. He points to a neighborhood north of downtown where some Ahiska Turks have settled. “They were refugees in Russia," he says. "Here they’ve bought houses. They’ve fixed them up. And, sometimes when I talk to hardware store owners, people will come in and they’ll buy a window at a time. ‘I’ve got enough money to put in another window.’ It’s slow-but-sure change.”
Not everyone in Dayton is on board with the plan.
In a corner tavern on the East End, a 62-year-old bartender serves the only customer what she calls his last can of beer for the night. It’s a Friday, just 11 p.m., but she’s closing. “The owner can’t pay me to stay any longer,” she tells me, speaking on condition I don’t name her or the bar.
The bartender says the tavern could be on its last legs and tells me what happened to three other East End bars where she worked. They all shut down. She says that’s because many of the neighborhood’s Appalachian families, who arrived for manufacturing jobs after World War II, have moved away.
“NCR closed down, Dayton Tire and Rubber closed down, GM and Delphi and Frigidaire,” she says, pausing only when her customer slams down the beer and bellows something about a “last paycheck.”
The bartender tells me she doesn’t like how Riordan and other Dayton officials are handling the exodus of families who’ve been paying local taxes for generations. “Why won’t he try to keep those kinds of people here?” she asks. “He wants to welcome the immigrants to come in here. What can they do? Where are they going to get the money to fix up anything? What jobs are they going to get to maintain what they fix up here? There are no jobs here. None.”
It’s not just locals like the bartender who have doubts about “Welcome Dayton.”
Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that pushes for strict immigration controls, acknowledges that attracting immigrants would increase the size of Dayton’s economy. “But that’s different than arguing that there’s a benefit,” he says. “Growing an area’s gross domestic product, but not the per capita GDP, doesn’t mean anything. It wouldn’t be very helpful. In fact, there might be problems with that.”
Camarota says the low-skilled immigrants would put downward pressure on wages for workers on Dayton’s bottom rungs.
But Italian-born economist Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, says low-skilled immigrants would bring what Dayton seeks—and more: “One, they will increase the variety of local restaurants, local shops. Second, they will provide a variety of local services, such as household services, care of the children, of the elderly. Third, they will also develop and bring an atmosphere of diversity and higher tolerance.” Peri says these low-skilled contributions would all help Dayton attract immigrants with more resources.
The willingness of many immigrants to perform manual labor for low pay, Peri adds, could create jobs for longtime residents. He points to landscaping companies: “They will need people who mow the lawn but also they will need accountants, salespersons, a manager and drivers.”
Dayton’s approach—welcoming immigrants with and without skills—is the “optimal strategy,” Peri says.
Whether a city’s immigrant-integration plan can actually attract many people is another question. About an hour east of Dayton, the city of Columbus launched an immigrant-friendly initiative in 2002 and saw its foreign-born population grow fast. But that city’s economy is much more robust than Dayton’s. It had already been attracting immigrants for years.
The results of “Welcome Dayton” could depend on how it works for city residents like a 25-year-old mother whom I’ll call Ana López. (She doesn’t have papers to be in the country so I agreed not to use her real name.) López says she came from the Mexican state of Puebla as a teenager at the urging of a friend who had arrived in Dayton earlier.
López says her first job was in a restaurant with a big buffet. “We didn’t come to take work away from anyone,” she tells me in Spanish. “Rather, there are jobs nobody else wants.”
Now López and her husband have three kids, all U.S. citizens. The family has managed to buy a house. And it’s found a congregation, College Hill Community Church, that provides simultaneous Spanish interpretation through headphones.
But Dayton hasn’t always been hospitable. López says police officers caught her brother-in-law driving without a license and turned him over to federal officials, who deported him.
Looking at the “Welcome Dayton” plan, López says providing the ID cards and removing the police from immigration enforcement could make a difference for families like hers. “These families would tell their friends and relatives to move to Dayton,” she says.
That’s exactly what city leaders want to hear.