Brain drain. Population Death Spiral. Whatever you call it, one of the harsh realities facing many of the nation’s former industrial cities is the loss of its residents.
But at least one rust-belt town may be on its way to bucking that trend. After shrinking by 100,000 people in the past half-century, Dayton, Ohio has recently witnessed a small growth spurt. According to the most recent numbers, Dayton’s population is 143,355 and (the city hopes!) counting.
One of the forces behind Dayton’s recent growth is evident when you drive down the streets of Old North Dayton. A haven for eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century, the neighborhood has since seen many years of decline. It’s easy to spot the boarded up house, the abandoned lots and the empty store fronts that have come to define so many former-industrial cities. But in the eyes of Adil Baguirov, who moved to Dayton a few years ago, those sights are all backdrop to the real story.
He points at a freshly painted house, white with bright red trim. And then a block away, another, painted bright yellow. And down the street from that, there’s another house with a fresh coat of blue paint.
“Most of the houses that are newly painted or have a white fence next to them or have an orchard are owned by Ahiska Turks,” he tells me. “Like every fourth house is owned by an Ahiska Turk.”
Ahiska Turks are a group of ethnic Turks from the former Soviet republic of Georgia with a long history of displacement. In recent years, many have been granted refugee status by the U.S. government. Baguirov, who is not Ahiska himself but comes from nearby Azerbaijan, has emerged as a leader in Dayton’s burgeoning Turkish American community and was recently elected to the Dayton school board. He says the first Ahiskas came to Dayton almost by accident, in 2006, when six families were placed in Dayton by the U.S. State Department.
“Of course every refugee thinks they’re going to be sent to Hollywood or New York,” Baguirov says. “They’re like Dayton? Where is that?”
But then those six families decided this Dayton place wasn’t so bad. And they started telling their friends.
“Life is cheaper here,” says Ali Shakhmandarov, who was originally placed in Salt Lake City but moved to Dayton a few years ago. The usually discouraging parts of Dayton—urban blight, abandoned houses, a dismal real estate market—were part of the appeal. He says he kept hearing stories of friends buying homes for a few thousand dollars.
“Since we were not rich,” says Shakhmandarov, “We can buy those thousand dollar houses.”
Now, some 2000 Ahiska Turks call Dayton home.
Compared to other cities, Dayton still has very few foreign-born residents, according to Tim Riordan, who recently retired as city manager. Inspired by research that showed immigrants have disproportionately high rates of entrepreneurship compared to their native-born counterparts, in 2010 Riordan helped start a city initiative, called Welcome Dayton, to make the city more friendly to immigrants.
“What we need to do is create a culture that says we’re welcoming to immigrants. Come and try to do your thing here,” he says. “There’s a couple of small companies you might have heard of—Yahoo, Intel, eBay, Google—that were created by immigrants.” Riordan thinks those stories should be models for Dayton.
No multibillion dollar Dayton-based tech companies have emerged from the initiative, yet. But there are smaller stories of success.
Several Turkish immigrants have recently started long-haul trucking companies in Dayton—companies that need people to drive the trucks, to dispatch them, to repair them.
Adil Baguirov named his trucking company American Power, “because we’re able to realize dreams,” he says. There is a giant sign in front of his warehouse with the word, “HIRING!”