“The architecture of our future is not only unfinished; the scaffolding has hardly gone up”
Standing amidst the broken plate glass shards on the northeast corner of North Main St. and Santa Clara Ave., you can look across the street and see the fading promise of a once vibrant art scene reduced to a few tattered awnings stretched over abandoned storefronts. What could have possibly happened to take a profitable, progressive and thriving arts community that was flourishing in the nineties disappear, leaving us with just panorama of mostly empty buildings and memories less than decade later?
The 1900 block of N. Main St. was developed in the 1800’s with an architectural integrity that spoke of affluence. Business and residential development flourished well into the 20th century, but was marred by a sudden decline starting in the 1960’s. The seventies brought yet another sharp decline that mirrored the steady change in demographics of nearby urban neighborhoods. Property owners and businesses became increasingly absentee and the area fell into disrepair.
In the early nineties, Joe Dierkers and the partnership that comprised The Third Realty Co. acquired most of the commercial buildings that was soon to become the heart of the Santa Clara arts district. They were unsure at first as to what direction the area should take, but that issue was soon resolved when Joe attended an event where Jeff Rutledge was a guest speaker. In the course of several conversations, the two agreed that the area was a perfect site to create a center for the artistic community. They modeled their vision on the greatly successful Short North arts and retail center that sits just north of downtown Columbus. The Color Purple Decorating Service, owned by James Hankins, was already located on Santa Clara Ave. when Jeff moved Rutledge Gallery from it’s Front Street location directly onto N. Main St., becoming an anchor for the area. The renaissance of the Santa Clara area began.
Jeff Rutledge remembers the area as it was when he first moved there. “At the time there were mostly empty buildings . Nothing bright or cheerful, no identity, no direction. I could envision what this area could be, though, having lived in Oakland and Mendocino, California. and the north side of Chicago, seeing what urban gentrification and neighborhood revivals that were started by artists, musicians, and restaurants, and risk taking entrepreneurs could achieve.”
Other artisans and small retailer soon followed and within a short time, the district boasted over forty shops, giving birth to the Santa Clara United Business Association (SCUBA).
“The formation of SCUBA was grassroots…organic, democratic, and totally voluntary in our own self interest to gain influence with the city.” Jeff Rutledge reflected.
The area quickly became an unofficial arts district and in 1993, the City of Dayton designated the Santa Clara area as a “Town Center.” This program, now defunct, opened up city resources, as had been done for the Oregon District and the Belmont Business District in the past. The resources were earmarked for marketing, promotion and research for the burgeoning art district and hopes were high that the partnership between the district and the city would flourish as it had in the Oregon District.
Steve Nutt, who was the Dayton City Planner at the time and very active in the developing scene says “the ‘Town Center’ designation was made by a staff recommendation that was approved by the city commission. The ‘Town Center’ was made by geographical location and targeted those business districts. There was never really a contract made because there was no real entity to make an agreement with. It was more of a working agreement wherein the city worked with the business district…it was an informal partnership with the city and the business district.” Steve had left the area over a year before the ‘Town Center’ project finally shut down. He works as Director Strategic Development for CityWide Development now.
The ‘Town Center designation was comprised of several components that applied to every ‘Town Center’ locale; façade grants, incentives for new businesses, such as free rent for the first month or two and promotional and marketing funds. The money was made available to the districts on a first come, first serve basis and available through an application process. One of the first initiatives that were taken was to unify the district through the installation of matching storefront awnings and a linked lighting scheme. Neon lights were to be installed along the district giving the area it’s own distinctive flair. The first attempt at this ended somewhat anti-climatically. The bid was granted to a contractor who was apparently wholly unprepared for the task. Wiring insulation was sub-standard, causing a fire on one of the buildings and just outright inoperable on others.
Parking for the newly christened arts district and ‘Town Center’ was established when Joe Dierkers offered the city two houses that his partnership owned.
“I donated two buildings and the city tore them down to provide a parking lot.” he remembers, “They (the city) were supposed to acquire the, third (house) but that never materialized.”
Joe Dierkers kept the integrity of the area in the forefront with his ability to deal with potential tenants on an individual basis. He would scale the rent for those who planned to open an arts based business, knowing that they would be unable to pay a higher lease and also that another artisan establishment would add to the overall ambience of the area. He also turned away some prospective retailers that wanted to open businesses that did not fit in with the district’s sweeping vision. This business acumen paid off when in 1996, the area was at around 93% occupancy and, by Joe’s accounts, rose to 99% by 1999.
Things started to fray around the edges when a local branch of National City Bank decided to close its branch at the corner of Ridge Ave. and N. Main St.
Joe Dierkers says that “the businesses in the area felt like having a neighborhood bank was a stabilizing influence. We went to the City Council to oppose the closure, but we weren’t even allowed to voice our concerns or make our presentation. We felt that there was a lack of commitment from National City to the inner city.”
Around 1996, the local businesses began to feel as if the support from the city was being slowly withdrawn.
“The focus of the city’s efforts went elsewhere, which is not a criticism. There were times when there could have been some support, but there almost seemed to be an abandonment.” says Joe Dierkers. “The city made an effort in the beginning. They installed the awnings, lighting, parking lots and improved the sidewalks. They started a community based policing program. I even provided an office for them to use, rent-free. We had a community-based officer who really got to know the business owners and the neighborhoods. She got rid of the panhandlers, who were one of the main problems in the area at the time. A year later, they (the city) switched from supporting it to giving it lip service. The community officers were pulled off and placed elsewhere. I took back the office that I had let them use because nobody was ever there.” In an almost despondent tone, Joe finished by stating that, “In retrospect, the support probably went away much quicker then we realized, but at the time, it seemed like a slow distancing.”
Jeff Rutledge remembers the slow retreat of support as, “…ending very quietly and with no warning and no explanations, like a thief in the night. They didn’t want to admit that they were changing directions. It was rude and very unprofessional and sneaky. They didn’t want to talk or explain it to us. That was the killing blow and we lost momentum and morale. I don’t trust the city anymore.”
Jim McCarthy, the owner of ‘Q’ located at 1966 N. Main St. reflects that, “The City had a good thing going when they were encouraging small businesses to move into the district and made funding available to assist the businesses with signage, awnings, and other amenities that made for a more attractive, walk-able business district. But then all of that funding dried up…”
There were other issues that the area was dealing with besides the slow withdrawal of city support. The residential neighborhood itself was changing radically. There were more and more abandoned properties, absentee landlords and a pervasively negative element moving in. Violent crimes and crimes against the properties became more of a day to day issue for the local businesses. Our very own paper once resided in the corner building at Santa Clara Ave. and N. Main St., but were forced to move from the area do to the increase in criminal activity.
According to the current publisher of the Dayton City Paper, Kerry Farley, “The reason we left the district was pretty simple. Three incidents of theft… an office load of computers stolen each time in less than two years. Police quite simply told us it was the work of local crack addicts. (The) insurance company simply refused to allow us to continue filing these claims as, at some point, it becomes sheer irresponsibility on our part to continue staying there.”
Jim McCarthy explains that, “…the “usual suspects” of any area that is struggling with high poverty rates crept in; including prostitution, petty crime, vandalism, and drug trafficking.”
Jim Haskins, the owner of The Color Purple sums up the overall feeling with, “What ultimately caused the complete demise within the area was the crime and the decline of the residential neighborhoods.”
Currently, the ORION Solution Project is targeting the Santa Clara, Riverdale and Wolf Creek/Old Dayton View neighborhoods. The program is being met with well earned praise and support from the local communities. The ORION Solution has allocated more police officers to identified problem areas and initiated walking patrols for the officers. They are boarding and securing the abandoned properties and have developed youth mentoring and skill building programs. In deference to all that is being done by this project, one has to ask why the community based policing program initiated and effectively proven in the early days of the Santa Clara Arts District was abandoned. From all accounts, it was a program that worked and had the endorsement of the local businesses and neighbors.
There are other programs that various city offices and development groups are working on in adjacent neighborhoods. There was a recent survey and identification of historical properties in the Five Oaks area. There is the Great Miami Blvd. Connector which is proposed to create a business corridor along the lower section of N. Main St. Dayton Public Schools plans to invest 20M in a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school at the site of the old Julienne High school, which has just been recently added to the National Historical Register. While all of these projects and plans are fantastic news, the spillover effect may not even be felt in the Santa Clara area.
Joe Dierkers related this story to me, which seems to sum up the propensity for the city to take up a project, only to abandon it in midstream in favor of a new project. There was a store owned by Mel Smith located on W. Fairview Ave. Business had been slow for Mel lately and Joe offered him a large storefront in the Santa Clara area. Mel’s Fine Furniture and Interior Design’s business picked up substantially. Shortly thereafter, the city, in an effort to bolster a shopping center development on N. Gettysburg, offered Mel certain incentives to move his established business there.
“They (the city) paid for the move and made him some type of deal concerning the rent, but he was unable to maintain his business in (that market) and soon went out of business. Now it seemed that the city was not just ignoring us, but working aggressively against us.”
With the recent coverage of Dayton being ranked 84th in America as a desirable place to live in the latest edition of Cities Ranked & Rated, there are a few questions that enter my mind. With the most outstanding ratings being in the “arts & culture” area, I wonder if the city is planning to capitalize on this fact. They could start an arts district, replete with galleries, restaurants, and unique boutiques. I know just the place.