Hopson isn’t alone — millions of Americans moved during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accessibility and affordability are two of the major reasons folks throughout the country opted to leave bigger cities and move to the Miami Valley over the past two challenging years. Other determining factors range from family proximity to green space.
Though Hopson had been working in the corporate sector, he dreamed of the day he could devote himself entirely to his artwork. Thanks to some mentoring by Dayton artist Willis “Bing” Davis and a supportive local organization, the African American Visual Arts Guild, Hopson was able to resign from his job in November and is now happily creating art in his studio. Two of his paintings are on display in the Dayton Art Institute’s special exhibit “Black Heritage Through Visual Rhythms.”
“People thought It was a bad idea for me to leave a well-paying corporate job to work as an artist full-time,” admitted Hopson, who lives in the Fire Blocks District downtown. ”But at the end of the day, I believed that Dayton had opportunities that I could take advantage of. It has its challenges, like any other city, but it is also on the brink of a renaissance, especially the downtown area. My goal is to be a part of it and be somewhat of a catalyst.”
Research on moves
Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 2020 and 2021 asked whether people had moved due to the pandemic and why. The list of possible reasons ranged from the ability to work remotely to being near family.
In 2020, according to the survey, millions of Americans relocated because of the outbreak, moving out of college dorms, communities they perceived as unsafe or housing they could no longer afford.
“A small share moved permanently or temporarily due to the virus,” said D’Vera Cohn, senior writer/editor for the center. “It worked out to about 5% of American adults who said they moved for reasons related to the outbreak.”
In June 2020, the biggest reason people gave for moving was COVID, Cohn says. They felt the risk was greater where they were living than where they decided to relocate.
In the June survey, she noted, more people said they had moved for family reasons. “Among those who moved, 20% said they moved to be near family,” she says. ”By November when we asked, the number went down to 17%, and the number who said financial reasons went up by a larger amount. In June, 18% said they’d moved for financial reasons; by November that number was up to 33%, and that included people who lost their jobs.”
One big takeaway, Cohn says, is that as the pandemic went on, financial issues became a bigger factor in why people decided to move.
From Manhattan to Kettering
One night during the pandemic, Mike Rogers, born and raised in Ohio, turned to his spouse over dinner in their 30th floor Manhattan apartment and said: “I’m looking at real estate in Dayton. This isn’t fun anymore, let’s leave.”
As the national director of development for a nonprofit tech company, Democracy Works, Rogers could work remotely.
For his husband, John Capobianco, that meant leaving a good job at the Illustration Museum where he’d worked for a decade and saying goodbye to coworkers, friends and family.
“I realized, sometimes the universe steps in and changes things for you, and you just have to accept it,” Rogers said.
When COVID took hold in March of 2020, the couple watched Manhattan empty, as thousands left their small dwellings for larger living spaces.
“Being quarantined was not something anyone wanted to do in under 1,000 square feet, with no outdoor space,” Capobianco said. “Going outdoors in Manhattan looked completely different. The largest city in the country was a ghost town.”
The two had visited Dayton a few times each year for events and holidays. “Each and every time it grew on me,” said Capobianco, who is now director of Webster Street’s Top of the Market Catering & Events, The Bar & Bistro and Gourmet Deli. ”There is a strong sense of pride and community here in Dayton.”
He was especially impressed with the revitalization of downtown Dayton, its industrial history and the way people relate to one another. “People, strangers, said ‘hello’ and asked how your day was,” he noted. “Coming from a place where your guard is up and you never stop to talk to a stranger, it took me a period of time to drop my shoulders and exhale.”
The couple purchased a house online and didn’t see it in person until they drove up the driveway in Kettering on the day of the closing. The cost of living, Capobianco says, is a fraction in comparison to New York City.
“The quality of life and the conveniences have surprised every single friend and family member who has visited from New York,” Capobianco said now. “My daughter came to live with us while studying for the bar exam and commented to us and all her friends throughout the Northeast how amazing the Oregon District, The Neon movie theater, the restaurants and small businesses are, and thinks they have the same feel as the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She says the DPAA (Dayton Performing Arts Alliance) offers everything that Lincoln Center in NYC has to offer — philharmonic, ballet and live theater. She may be a future full-time resident and practicing attorney in Dayton, Ohio!”
For some, the pandemic accelerated a move
Leigh Sempeles and her husband, Mark Ording, both grew up in this area but were living in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., when the pandemic hit. Because of the higher cost of living on the East Coast and other factors such as congested traffic on the Beltway, the couple had always planned to move back to Dayton when they reached retirement age.
Living 500 miles away during the pandemic made it difficult for her and her husband to travel back and be with and help family and friends
“The pandemic affected our decision by accelerating the relocation plan to move back home,” said Sempeles, a former executive director of St. Vincent de Paul.
They are now enjoying Miami Valley amenities — from exploring historic neighborhoods to walking through parks and attending cultural festivals. One of their favorite spots is Carillon Historical Park.
“My mother used this type of cash register growing up in Hamilton at her father’s business, the Ohio Ice Cream Company,” she said, pointing to one of the historic cash registers in the park’s collection. Now Sempeles is keeping busy as the newest fellow for the Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative.
For actor Charity Farrell, 31, the move to Dayton was all about the people.
She’d grown up in the Five Oaks district of Dayton, and had always been active in community theater. She moved to New York at the age of 21, then to Los Angeles in 2019.
“When the pandemic hit, I waited it out for a bit, but then got the vibe it was going nowhere,” she recalls. “So I decided to come home to be closer to my family, my grandmother and my sister.”
Her original plan was to buy a home in Belmont as an investment, wait out the pandemic and then rent out her house. But before she knew it, she had settled in.
“Dayton feels like home,” said Farrell, who received raves as Sally Bowles in the Dare to Defy production of “Cabaret” and will direct the group’s production of “Company” this month.
“Truly, it’s the people. There’s a sort of competitive nature in larger cities that’s not conducive to long friendships or relationships. In order to survive, you have to be so focused on yourself,” she said. “The connection you get in larger cities is transactional; people tend to connect more for what you can do for me. It’s all about still serving a purpose, rather than just being together and appreciating people for who they are.”
Farrell, who will continue to audition and perform in other cities, has a whole new circle of friends. “They welcomed me with open arms,” she said.
As a result of the pandemic, folks everywhere began to reflect on their lives and rethink their priorities. For many, that meant moving closer to family.
That was the case for Floridians Julie and Philip Goldstein, who said COVID was an eye-opener.
“It made us realize the importance of being close to family,” says Julie Goldstein, whose daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren live in Centerville. “We felt helpless, not being able to see the family for well over a year. We were missing out on their day-to-day activities, but most importantly, we missed their hugs and kisses. We moved here right before the arrival of our third grandbaby, and we couldn’t imagine not being able to see her on a regular basis.”
The Goldsteins have just moved into a new home they built in Miamisburg. Julie Goldstein loves Dayton’s amenities, including “fantastic restaurants, good medical care, and the kind, considerate people.”
Their children, Marcie and Michael Sherman, are a military family. After living in Colorado Springs and Las Vegas, Michael Sherman was stationed here to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology. They decided to make Dayton their permanent home.
“Dayton has the best quality of life,” Marcie Sherman said. “Everything here prioritizes family — from daycare closing as early as 5:30 to children riding bikes here in neighborhoods. We never thought we’d be able to raise our children in such a family-focused, safe community.”
She’s felt supported in her job as a public defender as well.
“My office supported me during maternity leave and even threw me a magnificent baby shower,” Marcie Sherman said. “And I’ve had the chance to get involved in the local community. I sat on the Dayton police reform committee, and I was also recently asked to participate in a committee through my religious organizations.”
COVID really made her and her husband miss being close to more family.
“We were so excited and surprised when my folks said they wanted to make Dayton their home too,” Marcie Sherman said. “It was the last thing we were really missing here. And now we have everything we want and need in one place. And my husband and mom even had the chance to coach soccer together this season.”
The option of working remotely from anywhere in the country offered never-before opportunities to many. For Aly Flagel Goldberg, who has operated her own business in Louisville since 2017, it meant the possibility of returning to family and her hometown.
Her company, Vital Projects LLC, provides management of key business projects, as well as marketing and corporate event planning services. “The pandemic had a significant impact on my decision to move,” Goldberg said. “Working remotely all this time made me realize I could work from anywhere and still provide top quality service to my clients.”
Returning to Dayton for visits, she says, showed her two important things.
“First, time with your parents is much more meaningful as an adult. Second, Dayton has evolved into a thriving place to live,” Goldberg said. “So, when I was deciding where to land for the next phase of my life, this seemed like the perfect place.’
Unique work opportunities
The opportunity to make feature films in a state that offers tax incentives appealed to Dylan Champion and prompted his move to Ohio. So did the opportunity to leave Los Angeles, where he’d grown up but never felt comfortable.
“It was too loud and too boisterous, and people weren’t kind or genuine to each other out there,” says the 25-year-old, who grew up with a film director dad and famous grandparents, dancers/choreographers Marge and Gower Champion. “It was a hard environment to grow up in; I always felt like people were only talking to me to get something from me. They weren’t ever interested in just me as an individual.”
Champion had always envisioned living in “a smaller environment where people were kinder and more genuine.” When researching colleges, he’d visited Antioch College in Yellow Springs and liked what he saw of the Midwest.
He considered Cincinnati, where he knew people, but found it too much of a big city.
“Dayton seemed like the perfect combination for me,” Champion said. “It was big enough for me to have stuff to do, but small enough that I could get to know people and could afford it. "
In June, Champion packed up his clothes, bought a house in Walnut Hills and got a job at The Neon movie theater.
“While I was in L.A., all I had was cheap furniture,” he explained. “The second-hand market is so great here, especially for antiques, that it wasn’t worth the hassle to rent a U-Haul for $4,000 to bring my old furniture.”
Dayton has turned out to be exactly what he’d hoped.
“I’m a stay-at-home person who doesn’t need too much — a couple of good places to see a movie, a couple of good places to eat, grab a beer and get to know people.”
One of the people he got to know? A Daytonian he recently married.
The psychology of the pandemic
New Jersey psychologist Barbara Becker Holstein is the author of the book, “Seven Ways to Help Your Family Recover from the Pandemic: Positive Psychology to the Rescue.”
When it comes to moves made during the pandemic, she believes it’s the primitive anxiety system in human beings that’s really at play.
“We are animals, and this whole situation which came unexpectedly with the pandemic was a shock.” she says. “When we are frightened, we think about protecting ourselves and our children.”
As a result of this anxiety Holstein said people began thinking about their lives and readjusting, asking themselves important questions. Is it important to stay in this city? Do I have friends and family back in my hometown? Couldn’t I live in a simpler place where I could walk in the parks?
She believes those types of questions can lead to important and positive changes.
“Sometimes the best decisions we make can result from being extremely anxious and seeing the world with new eyes,” Holstein said. “We’re adaptive, we have wonderful brains and a lot of wonderful things have come out of the pandemic, along with the hard things. My message: Give yourself a hug! You did great!”
Staff writer Meredith Moss was inspired to write this story after both of her sons and their families moved back to Dayton from New York and Los Angeles during the pandemic.
ABOUT THE PATH FORWARD
Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as pressing issues facing our community. The Path Forward project seeks solutions to these problems by asking how the community can overcome the COVID-19 crisis and prevent another one. Follow our work at DaytonDailyNews.com/path-forward.