‘The only this.’ How the Gem City can and will keep shining

Editor’s note: One month ago, Dayton came together in the aftermath of the tragic Oregon District Mass shooting to shine. Gem City Shine, a historic event organized by resident celebrity Dave Chappelle, aimed to help support the victims’ families, help the community reclaim its beloved Oregon District and shine brightly once again. Today, we share this essay reflecting on the event and the lasting message to Dayton and the world.

“Don’t forget what this place is about,” Dave Chappelle begged tens of thousands of Daytonians from the massive stage he paid to build at the end of a street that, three weeks earlier, had been the scene of a mass shooting that killed nine and wounded 27 more.

His event, "Gem City Shine," held on Sunday, Aug. 25, was meant to raise money for the victims' families and to give the community a chance to reclaim a space that was taken from them. Bars and shops that once were overflowing on weekends had been struggling to bring people back in. The Oregon District, a cobblestoned stretch of bars, shops and apartments, our city's place of power, possibility and acceptance, had been changed. No one was sure if it could ever be the same.


Before, on any given night, you might catch Dave Chappelle making an appearance on this street to drink or sing karaoke at one of the bars. He lives on a small farm a short drive from the city and appears so often and with so little fanfare that many of us simply know him as "Dave."

>> 5 shining moments from Gem City Shine

Don't forget what this place is about. Dave was talking about how mankind learned to fly in Dayton, Ohio, about how slaves fleeing the South found their freedom here. But memory is rarely so selective, and remembering is not a small request. I've talked to many who would like to forget.

"I should've stopped him, I saw him walking right there," my friend, a towering bartender, extends a massive hand toward the alley behind the patio where we were standing, the alley he took. His eyes are red and swollen.

“I can’t f****** sleep, man,” his voice shakes. “I keep seeing this girl’s face, the blood. I ran out after I heard the shots. I tried to save her, but I knew she was already gone.”

Someone nearby summons the rest of the patio to embrace him. A dozen strangers close around and share themselves with open arms.

I don’t go to church. I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but Kanye West did not come to convert me. He came because he, like many other friends of Dave, was called to help people who were hurting. And so Kanye West quietly brought his Sunday Service to Dayton the morning of Gem City Shine to begin a day of healing.

Shamefully, I attended Sunday Service because I was curious. Because the tantalizing idea of being close to celebrity and fame does something strange to my mind. I did not go to heal or be healed, I went because I heard Kanye West might be at a small, urban park down the street from my apartment. We call the park “Dayton’s front porch” because it is where we go to meet and greet each other at festivals and community events. As any proper Midwesterner would, I wanted to greet a guest on my front porch.

At nine in the morning, I approached the park’s covered pavilion with only a few hundred other guests patiently waiting around the fenced perimeter. A white organ, drums and small stage had been placed in the middle. The families of victims were brought in first to gather around it, followed by members of local choirs and choirs flown in from LA. Finally, the eager crowd of the curious was allowed in behind them.

A pastor led the small gathering in worship, conducting the surrounding choir with hands waving and cutting through the electric anticipation in the air. With a downward gesture, he pushed the congregation low to the ground as he began to sing hallelujah. All joined, voices building up, up, up, singing hallelujah louder and faster as they rose. Jumping up and down, hundreds of hands reached skyward as if to pull something from above, greedy. The pastor sliced again and the chorus reaches its apex, a word repeated, screamed, a vessel filled with the joy and the grief of all those who breathed it into life again and again until the collected voices finally fell quiet.

“Turn to your neighbor and greet them!” The pastor said. “Find someone you do not know and thank them for their presence.”

Wide smile met wide smile and strangers hugged one another. It was then I realized I had started to cry. Whatever was in that air, whatever we put into it or took from it — energy, electricity, community, God or otherwise

— I needed it.

A drumline started to play and the choir joined them as cell phones raised above the crowd. Kanye West, wearing a navy shirt with “State of Ohio” printed in gold on his back, took the stage. The choir assumed a familiar chorus, his head nodding along with them before launching into the second verse of “Jesus Walks.”

I know He hear me when my feet get weary and I see the piles of shoes found behind the bars, flung away as people scaled patio fences to escape.

The only thing that I pray is that my feet don't fail me now and I see the bloodied couple emerging from the Oregon District as I approached, saying there was a shooter at the bar where I was headed to meet a friend. Sirens and lights as police cruisers began to arrive from every direction. The police yelling for everyone to get back.

God show me the way because the Devil's tryna break me down and I'm on my phone trying to reach my friend. No response. Getting texts and calls from others. Calling again and again, texting others.

The only thing that I pray is that my feet don't fail me now and I'm running to his house blocks away. Pounding on the door. The breath I took when he and his girlfriend groggily approach and open it.

“What’s wrong?”

A few days after the shooting, a reporter from New York joined some friends and I as we were drinking at a bar in the Oregon. She talked about how it feels to cover mass shootings, how painful it is to see the damage done to the communities.

“Is there anything different about us?” one of us asked.

She paused before answering: “No.”

Almost desperately, I repeated the question. “Nothing? Anything you’ve seen here that feels different?”

“Honestly, no.” She paused again. “You want your pain to be special, or different, but I’ve seen this before. Too many communities have this same pain.”

I felt defeated. I wanted this stranger to see some unique resiliency about us, something distinctive born out of the recent experience of rebuilding after 14 tornadoes ravaged the homes of my friends and neighbors, or of the grit in having protested against the KKK. I could feel it, a sense of forced anonymity, invisibility, of becoming numbered and not named. 9 dead, 17 shot. There was another mass shooting across the country earlier that day — there would be another soon.

“You think it hurts now, with the constant media attention and not being left alone,” she said. “But you don’t want to be left alone. I’ve heard it’s worse after we leave and the country moves on. You feel forgotten.”

Forgotten, left behind, neglected, lost. After living in Dayton nearly my entire life, I’ve gotten used to hearing the city described in these terms. You start to feel them describe yourself. In truth, I have not always loved my city. My friends would tell you that I, after graduating college at the height of a recession and finding no job prospects in larger, more “exciting” places, dreaded the idea of going back. Why would someone want to live in a place the rest of the world has willfully forgotten?

In the last half-century, Dayton has lost nearly half of its peak population. Its longstanding industries abandoned their factories and headquarters. Most of those with the means fled the urban core for the suburbs and raised their children to believe the city was a dangerous place. Opioid addiction and despair tore through those that remained. Foreclosure, segregation, disinvestment, rust. In the 10 years since I moved back after school, the city has shown promising signs of recovery, but we still have a steep hill to climb.

“When I’m out in LA, people always laugh at me and say, ’Dave, why do you live in Ohio?’” Dave said on stage as he kicked off the event. “You know what I tell them? ‘Why the f*** not?’”

It’s a joke, but it’s an important non-answer that resonated with the crowd. We’ve all been met with the same question, posed by people from places that have not been forgotten. Dave goes on to mention the 250 other shootings this year, 250 other places that we will soon forget.

"But this," he points out to the crowd and beyond as he finishes. "This is the only this."

The beauty of that ineffable this. No, our pain is not unique. Our community grieves much like other communities grieve. But this is not Los Angeles and this is not New York. This isn't Toledo, or Youngstown or Akron. This isn't Newtown, El Paso or Parkland, either. This is unapologetically, incomparably Dayton. We don't have anything to prove to these other people and places. We have this.

At the end of Sunday Service, the pastor called Dave to the stage to speak.

“Today, the whole world is looking at you,” Dave told us over the cheers.

I’ve talked to many who did not want to be seen after the shooting or the tornadoes, who did not want to be looked at by the world. They have not had time to grieve. They didn’t want more outsiders looking in. Was this event coming too soon?

I’m sure some of them were right. But there was also an inescapable sense everywhere you went that something was still powerfully wrong. In the weeks after the shooting, small gestures of love and patience among strangers had become commonplace. Still, there was this sense of an open wound, of feeling weaker than we had before.

“We’re still here.” Dave continued. “We’re still strong. The best way that we can honor our fallen is by getting up better than we were before.”

And so, to help cleanse our wounds, he gave us his friends for the day. Chance the Rapper blessed us. Teyana Taylor, with her daughter in her arms, tearfully sang as images of the victims played behind her. Jon Stewart said we deserved to reclaim our space. Stevie Wonder reminded the crowd that someone loved us.

A city that has long struggled with loving itself faced a stage of stars that came to let the Gem City know it was not forgotten. At the end of the event, a rolling sea of cell phone lights shone on one man who loved us very much.

As tens of thousands of friends and neighbors made their way home, groups of volunteers formed to collect the litter left behind. On my way out, I saw a woman with a broken leg use her crutches to carefully, but with determination, push trash into piles for the volunteers to gather.

By morning, this place would be clean. Normal, even.

Contributing writer Nicholas Hrkman is a native Daytonian, a product of the Dayton Public Schools, a downtown resident and a regular face around the Oregon District. Contact him at nickhrkman@gmail.com.

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