140 Toledo, OH: It Hasn't Come Back

[Toledo's Terminal]

Though populated by roughly 300,000, Toledo's downtown had the feel of a town defeated--one that had gone through a couple generations of deterioration. The roads were mostly blanched asphalt and potholed. The few good ones led to malls. At the art museum, a guard had told me, "Our downtown, I can't say that they wrecked the downtown, because it wrecked itself actually. But they changed it. They put down pedestrian walkways or malls in the fifties. They closed certain blocks of the streets. They put planters in. They tore down buildings for parking. Now it's no longer as vital as it was. And they thought they were doing the right thing."

As I passed people on the streets in the early morning, each eyed me suspiciously from ten feet before to ten feet after. The man behind the counter at the art museum's store, dark-skinned with a beard accentuating the lines of his pecan-shaped jaw line, nodded vehemently when I asked about isolation in Toledo. "The people around here go out, but by seven o'clock they're home. They block themselves from each other." A film was being made while I was in town had the Hopperesque title, "In the Company of Strangers." I sought someone who would be more amenable to strangers like me.

The woman at the Visitors Information Center was young and blond, with big blue eyes and thick pancake make-up. When I asked what to do in Toledo, her first answer was, "You should check out the art museum. It just turned a hundred and has an excellent collection." When I said that I had already been there, she added, "The Botanical Gardens has one of the largest collections of litho-paints--pieces of glass with the painting in between." When I asked what else Toledo was known for, she sighed, "Automotive support plants."

The commercial development along the Maumee riverfront in downtown Toledo was called Sea Gate. If it's a gate to the seaway, it's a long way from the barn. Across from there stood Fort Industry Square, an early business district in Toledo that had a series of frontier-era storefronts nicely preserved. But it was not that they were preserved, so much as nothing had replaced them.

To overcome isolation, the city sponsored a lunch trolley. For a quarter, it would shuttle me to one of the few remaining downtown restaurants. The Green Lantern Diner (one fit for a Hopper painting) advertised "Hamburgs [sic] and F-Fries." I ducked into the Arcade Building to see the old-time Morris Restaurant, but it was closed. In the lobby, a wiry African American guy about sixty wearing a tattered T-shirt looked at the list of tenants and barked out the list names. A woman in a threadbare jacket and hair askew yelled as she passed me: "Don't yell at me; don't talk to me. I've got to go. I've got too much business to do today."

Oliver House opened in 1859 as Toledo's premiere hotel, using such advances as water closets and mechanical call buttons. It's a brewery and restaurant now. Bernie had told me, "I had a little coffeehouse a long time ago over at the Oliver House hotel. I did the sandblasted glass at the entryway. In fact, those people buy pieces from me. They've been really nice to me. Of course, they threw me out when they bought the place, but it was well understood. They were going to save the building, you know, restore it.

"Our place was called The Lobby. Because it was in this grand old hotel lobby. It was becoming a hub. What we had going on was bringing people to us from up and down the East Coast. We had Leon Russell. We had Richie Havens. And Eric Burden. Geez, we were having a good time. And a lot of good art. It's a shame because it dissipated, and it hasn't come back."


139 Toledo, OH: The Black Swamp

After the museum, I headed back to the heart of Toledo. In 1833, two rival villages where the Maumee River comes in off of Lake Erie merged to form Toledo, named for the Spanish cathedral town famously painted by Van Gogh.

The local Natives defeated two U.S. armies sent to oust them but were finally defeated just outside Toledo at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, right near my uncle's house. The winning general was so ruthless and unpredictable that he was dubbed "Mad" Anthony Wayne, and many local streets, schools, and other institutions now bear his name.

Toledo was the Lucas County seat, named for Governor Robert Lucas, who championed Ohio's cause in the "Toledo War." Both Ohio and Michigan claimed this area. The Ohio legislature created Lucas County in 1835, and hurriedly convened the first court session knowing that the Michigan Militia was on its way to claim the land. Luckily, the Michigan Militia got lost in the local swamps. By the time they arrived, the Federal government had intervened in Ohio's favor and granted Michigan the Upper Peninsula as compensation.

During my visit, the city corners were dotted with the local variation of Chicago's 1999 "Cows on Parade" sculpture exhibit: frog sculptures. Toledo was founded in the Great Black Swamp. The muddy roads through here were so bad that this part of Ohio was developed 100 years after the rest of the state. It also earned Toledo the nickname "Frog Town" and their baseball team the moniker the Mud Hens.

In its heyday, Toledo was a key port with a shipbuilding company down on the docks, just like in Hopper's hometown of Nyack, New York. It was also known for the scales, auto parts, and, most of all, glass. In a downtown plaza, signs for "The Glass Capitol" honored the inventor of the first automatic bottle-making machine and other local inventions like glass tubing, fiberglass, and sheet window glass. In Hopper's day, plate glass was a relatively new invention. Glass making technology was fairly primitive until the late 1800s. Single plates were made in square forms that were essentially pans. The resulting panes were held together by grooved wood tracks called mullions. Machines that could roll out glass in long sheets only were invented around the turn of the century. For an artist in general and one as voyeuristic as Hopper specifically, this afforded a look into people's domestic scenes that was previously unthinkable. The lack of glare on Hopper's windows reflects how clear it might have looked to someone used to old mullioned windows.


138 Toledo, OH: Sink or Swim

To visit the files, I had to go to a building designed by Frank Gehry. Its modern glass walls laced with metal grids looked terribly out of place next to the museum's original white classical building. But it did seem like Bernie's sculptures, which grow organically out of the industrial history of Toledo.

While I waited to be led to the files, I interviewed a woman behind the information desk named Barbara. Her platinum white hair was dark at the roots and pulled back tightly. Her bright red lipstick was not quite in line with her lips. She wore white pants with a black belt and a denim shirt whose cuffs were rolled back to the middle of her forearms. She also wore a lot of large gold jewelry. As she answered my questions how the Hopper painting might relate to Toledo, she looked away at the ground next to me, as if she were finding her answers there.

"In downtown Toledo," she began, "we have renovated our old Valentine Theater, which was built in the early twenties. And we do have, on both floors, box seats like those in the painting. And we still have our widows and our widowers, and our divorcee syndrome. I have a box. And, having been on all sides of the coin of being divorced, widowed, and married, you know what the social statuses are. In my community here in Toledo, when you have a widow or a widower, the community makes every effort to include them in theater events and home parties. They don't let people stay alone."

"In Toledo, we have very distinctive communities, definitely. But Toledo is a fantastic melting pot. A friend of mine married a very prominent Greek five years ago. And a few of the Greek ladies got together, and they taught her how to effectively function in the Greek community. They did it for friendship, because they respected very much the gentleman in this case, and they did not want his wife to be an outsider. I don't know that much about how the Lebanese or the Syrian communities are, or whether or not they are inclusive," she whispered, "The Irish community was assimilated years ago, as were the Germans. Although I would have to say they did not lose the stigma of being German in our community until probably the seventies, because of actions going back to World War II."

"The community I live in, our neighbors are from every country, and there is no racial problem in that community. Our neighbor to the west is of Polish descent, our neighbor to the east, English. The people across the street are of Italian descent. I don't know what the Sancas are; they're nuts! My husband graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. Andre, our oncologist neighbor next door, graduated from Stanford. And we also have people who are graduates of Bowling Green University, University of Toledo, and have gotten a wonderful education here."

"We have always laughed because, when people come to Toledo, we get pooh-poohed. 'It's a small community.' 'You don't have this; you don't have that.' Once we have people within the community, we've got you. You don't want to leave. It's a big small town is what it is. With what I do at the information desk, I've had curators from the Louvre and all over the world walk through the door unannounced."

"I'm sorry," I apologized. "I'm keeping you from your duties."

"I'm okay," she waved me away. "There's a young man back there being taught how to run the computer, and he's very nervous about it. So the best thing I can do is to let him sink or swim."


137 Toledo, OH: Its Hopper Fans

Two women approached. They looked like friends in their mid-fifties. I asked what they thought of the painting.

"I view it as nostalgia," one said. "I look at that and just think, 'I hate strip-mall theaters!'"

"If that was my husband," interjected the other, "he would be looking for all the other corporate execs. And I'd be thinking, 'Oh no, I thought these were good seats, and now we're going to be staring at the rail all night.'"

"Are you two from Toledo?"

"No, we're from Cleveland."

"Oh. I go there in a couple of days."


"Same reason I'm here. I'm touring the country asking people what they think of Hopper and his paintings."

The second woman looked at me. "I work at the museum, at the front desk. When you get there, look me up."

"Thanks," I said, "I will," and they wandered into the next gallery.

The next two women I asked to interview turned out to be from Muskegon. Despite assurances that locals love the museum, I didn't find any here. Everyone instead was from nearby towns that also had Hoppers.

[Toledo Museum Wing]

I approached a man walking authoritatively through the galleries. A natty tie dangled down his dapper pastel shirt draped in a crisp blue sport coat. He had a thin mustache, and his hair swept to one side in several undulations.

"I wouldn't say his people are isolated really," he pursed his lips. "Not in this painting. He's taking his coat off, and looking around, getting a feel for the place. She's putting her coat on the chair. It could be dirty. They're probably not leaving because she's still reading the program. Is she thinking, 'My God, we're the first one's here. You told me to be here at seven. It's now like ten 'til nine.'? No, I don't see isolation there myself. I see the woman in the box seat maybe feeling isolated. If that's what it's supposed to be called, then it is isolation or something of that nature.

"He definitely frames his paintings so that you're in them. Although all three of these works work in that way." He pointed to the O'Keeffe and Wyeth, and I noticed that each was painted so that you are in the painting: in the boat for O'Keeffe and in the tree for Wyeth.

"As far as the people in Toledo being isolated:" he summed up, "no more than any other towns. I've been in a lot of towns. I grew up here, but I traveled abroad, went to college. And I did travel quite a bit, too, within the United States. I think that people are very friendly. I found very helpful people, for the most part. People want to help you if they can."


136 Toledo, OH: Libbey Libbey Libbey

The Toledo Art Museum was in Collinwood, a neighborhood that reinforced Andy's point about the mixing of people. Here, it was a mixing of ethnicities, but more obviously of wealth. Gentrified mansions on sprawling lawns co-existed with derelict homes and gang gunfire. Collinwood also boasted the United States's only Plateresque Cathedral, a style from sixteenth-century Spain.

As Andy mentioned, Toledo was famous for Libbey glass, which, in its heyday, was second only to Tiffany in prestige. Libbey was the largest cut glass factory in the world during the late 1880s. The head of the company, Edward Libbey, and his wife Florence organized Toledo's art museum. As might be expected, the museum collection highlight was its glass art, most donated by Libbey himself.

The Hopper here, Two on the Aisle, shows a theater with three patrons. In the foreground at right, an elegant woman sits alone in a box seat. In the distance, a woman drapes her coat over a seat, while a man in a bow tie and black coat stands beside her and looks back toward the empty seats. Or he looks at the woman in the box seat. Even though the couple's together, they're not looking at each other. Hopper chose to paint not the production, but the drama of the humans as they arrive. In the bottom right corner is the edge of a box seat, as if you were viewing the scene from there; Hopper gives you a front-row seat.

Jo modeled for both female characters (as usual), and the name was Jo's suggestion. Rehn sold Two on the Aisle within a month for fifteen hundred dollars, Hopper's highest price to date. Ironically (for a painting of theatrical subject), it was obtained for the Toledo Museum from the Macbeth Gallery. Two on the Aisle was Hopper's first significant painting of a theatre scene.

One note in the files misspelled the title, and I realized that, like other Hopper painting titles, this could be taken as a pun. Take the "a" off the last word and the painting's title becomes "two on the isle." Knowing Hopper, I presume he meant the isle of marriage that he washed up on just a couple of years previously. Perhaps a life preserver is suggested by the white, rounded form of the loge (and by extension, the woman in it). Maybe influenced by others' slips, I made one of my own. In transcribing the information that the painting's frame was "gilt," I mistakenly wrote "guilt."

On my earlier visit, they had hung the painting at the end of two long shotgun galleries, and it looked perfectly real from far away. On this visit, it hung next to a Georgia O'Keeffe titled Brown Sail Wing and Wing Nassau. Rather than her nebulous flowers or skulls, this shows a crisply geometric brown sail against a blue sky with a lighthouse in the bottom right corner. The sharp lines and sea motif make the painting look like something Hopper might have painted. On the other side of the Hopper was his friend Andrew Wyeth's The Hunter, which shows a bird in a tree, looking down on a passing hunter. The joke on who is hunting whom Hopper would have appreciated.


135 Toledo, OH: The King

Rudy's is one of Packo's rival hot dog stands across town. The owner, Andy, was the brother-in-law of the man who worked next door to my office in Chicago. The restaurant was a 1950s-style drive-in, like you might find in a Hopper painting. It had large plate glass windows on three sides. Inside, vinyl slide-in booths bookended linoleum-topped tables.

Andy was working in his office when I arrived, but he came out to greet me. He was in his fifties, meaty and dark-skinned, with big ears, and weary brown eyes behind thick-lensed glasses. The red skin of his neck bore a white surgical scar. He spoke with a deep compassionate tone and an accent belying his Greek origins.

"Let me get you some ice tea, and we'll sit down." We sat in the first booth by the door, mysterious mismatched partners like Hopper characters. In fact, like the title of the Hopper painting here in Toledo, we were "two on the aisle."

"You won't be able to find much isolation in Toledo," he warned me. "It's very diverse. The people of Toledo, they like variety. You go to certain small towns, all the restaurants is hamburgers. In Toledo you find anything. For a while Toledo was used by most of the big chains as a testing ground. 'If we don't make it in Toledo, we won't make it anywhere.'

"In the summertime, every week there is a festival. This weekend coming up, the Islamic Center has an open house. Two weeks ago was the Syrian-Lebanese. A week after was the German-American Festival. Two weeks after that is Greek-American." He chuckled at the extensive list. "In every language, they have these things.

"What else?" he asked, shrugging.

"I'm surprised," I said, "that it's so small a town yet so diverse."

"Yes. So am I."

"Do all the communities get along?" I prodded.

"No problems as far as I know. There was a report in the paper about a week ago or so about the census. They say a neighborhood is 90% black. Or it's 90% white. But it just shows you where people live. It doesn't necessarily reflect their attitudes. Well, just to give you an example. The young girl there behind the counter?" He pointed to a lanky blond teen laughing along with her weary-looking thirty-something female co-worker during the dead mid-afternoon hour. "She's from Russia. The other girl is white, but she has two kids from a black man. What I'm trying to say is: The mixture is getting in such a way that you don't find people in isolation. In my place it is not recognized, the racial lines. I work with all kinds of people all day long. And I see all kinds all day, as customers. You have Hispanic customers, you have the black, you have the white, you have all kinds. You have some little problem with them, if you fight it, you lose your best friend. That's what community's all about."

He rubbed his hairy hands together and looked me in the eye. "I been doing all the talking. Tell me what else you want to know."

"How long have you lived in Toledo?" I asked him.

"Since 1969. It's a nice city. Love it. Toledo, back when I came, it was known for the glass, and Toledo Scales. They're not here no more. Well the glass company keeps changing, Libbey and Owens, but it's the same one. For example, this is from Libbey." He picked up the glass my iced tea was in. "Some of the changes that you see, they hit you right away. I just came back from West Toledo. And I looked to my right on the corner of Sylvania and Lewis there. And I remember back in the old days there used to be an old bar there. I used to sell to those people. A big Rite-Aid Pharmacy now. They demolished the whole block. One of the changes that I think is most noticeable is that the Greek Community then, they were more or less concentrated in one area of the city. Now, they are all over the place. Same thing with the Polish Americans. Everybody's everywhere. It is changed a lot. I think for the good.

"America is a melting pot," he continued. "Toledo's a pool. You get to Chicago or you get to New York or one of the big cities, and you find Chinatown or the Greek Town and you find them isolated. The ethnic communities are in certain areas of the city. That is not the way it is here.

"Uhh, what else?" he mused and rubbed his chin. "Basically that's it about the town. Small enough but have everything."


134 Toledo, OH: Glass Houses, A Different Way

Bernie's place was on a deserted street, next to a shuttered diner sided in rough-cut paneling painted lime green. His studio turned out to be a walled off section of the second floor in a former factory. Sunlight leeched through a yellowed safety glass window onto chipping linoleum tiles. Long work tables between heavy machinery held up what were presumably examples of his work: iron balls suspended in glass squares, metal rods bent around each other or piercing other forms. "My sculptures have real simple exteriors, and the difficult part is the internal workings. This one here, the simplest looking one? That's not easy to float that ball in there.

"I learned about making things from all the factories in the neighborhood. The guy who lived around the corner, he was a geologist. He spurred an interest in science with me. And his son was my science teacher in grade school. That's all right here in this little factory town. Have you ever seen the movie The Deer Hunter? That's what this neighborhood was like. It was one of the most ethnically rich communities in all of Toledo. The immigrant population all settled here.

"I went to high school right down the street. Then I went to San Diego State art school. I got my Master's on the G.I. Bill." [Not his words, but his tone and age told me he was in Viet Nam.] "Then I graduated and decided to come back. Family ties are real strong.

"That's about a three-thousand-dollar wheel," he said flicking a thumb at a pedestal on which he could rotate his sculptures while working on them. "I got it for a hundred and fifty dollars from a factory going out of business. It was the factory that my father worked in. My family worked in the glass industry here for three generations. I'm the fourth. But I'm doing it in a different way."


133 Toledo, OH: Two on the Aisle

Toledo, Ohio: Two on the Aisle

"You will do better in Toledo" - Sign on the Valentine Building removed in 1959 due to deterioration

Besides the scales, one of the most famous things in Toledo is Tony Packo's hot dog restaurant. The character Klinger (portrayed by Toledoan Jamie Farr) on the television show M*A*S*H made Packo's famous. In a town hit hard by the 1970s recession, Packo's became the city mascot.

Packo's lies on a corner along the road hugging the Maumee River in the traditionally Hungarian Birmingham neighborhood in East Toledo. If that sounds like a separate city, it's no accident. A local told me, "Toledo is really two cities divided by the river."

I arrived at Packo's at lunchtime. Fluorescent light muted by dark amber shades fell on deep red wood walls and tables, making it feel like a speakeasy. Exposed heating ducts punctured the lowered wood ceiling. One hanging lamp had written on it the name of local glassmaker Libbey-Owens-Ford. Cardboard cutouts of M*A*S*H characters hung by the blaring big-screen television in the middle of the room. The cast's signed buns graced the wall.

Legend has it that Burt Reynolds was in a show in town, and Nancy Packo invited him to the restaurant. When he showed up, she asked for his autograph but didn't have anything to sign. Reynolds suggested one of her buns. Celebrities passing through Toledo have been signing hot dog buns ever since. The walls are lined with wooden panels inset with oblong plastic bubbles protecting the buns. Bun signees include Zsa Zsa Gabor, Margaret Thatcher, and Big Bird. I didn't find any signed by painters, though Hopper-owner Steve Martin did sign one.

I bellied up to the bar and told the bartender about my project. She was a hefty woman, dark-skinned and world-weary, though only about 30. She pointed with her bar rag to a man at the end of the counter. "He's an artist, this man himself," she said, impressed by it.

A lanky, self-assured guy at the end of the bar was just finishing his beer and hot dog. He had moist blue eyes and a gray mustache the same color as his hair, which was pulled tight along his temples into a ponytail. I introduced myself, and he said his name was Bernie and he was a sculptor.

When I asked him whether people in Toledo were isolated, the bartender and a portly man in a business suit at the bar offered their two cents first.

The bartender laughed, "Not from each other, they're not isolated. Not if you're from the area. everybody knows everybody else."

"I concur," said the portly man, strangely formal.

"Do they know your dirty laundry, too?" I asked.

"Certain things they know," he said darkly.

"It depends on if you have any," the bartender said.

"You should find out about our mayor," the other man said. "Did you see him on the TV get in that fight with that guy the other day." [The mayor, Carlton Finkbeiner, was on TV the night before I arrived, challenging a citizen to a fistfight because the person had a property that needed cleaning up.] "It's not the first time. When the residents near the airport complained of the plane noise, he wanted to move the deaf people there. He's very creative."

"So you're traveling around writing a book?" Bernie asked, wresting back the conversation. "Are you hitch hiking?"

"No. Driving."

"There used to be a time," he said wistfully. "I used to hitchhike all over the West. I never had a problem. But I sure wouldn't do it now."

"In Europe, it's still not that bad a thing to do," I noted.

"No. I don't think it'll ever get that bad over there. There's a different mentality there. Everybody there would know who Edward Hopper is. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in this town wouldn't know who Edward Hopper is. Toledo is a very conservative place. The average guy here is a hard-nose working guy: gets up, goes to work, comes home, raises a family.

"I actually just bought a book about Hopper," he continued, "a book of his paintings. Edward Hopper was always to me The Grapes of Wrath. But I don't think it's like that anymore. I think the world's pretty wide open these days."

"So what is the art scene like in Toledo?" I asked him.

"My big gripe about the arts in Toledo is that the powers that be and the Arts Commission refuse to buy public art from artists here in Toledo. I had worked internationally before I moved back here. I moved back here, and I can't get an art commission. The shame of it is that that's what nurtures a city's own background or a city's own people. Everything they do here has nothing to do with the city's background or history. And so the talent languishes.

"What kind of sculpture do you do?" I wondered.

"My studio's right down the street if you're interested."

"Well, if you can take a long lunch break."

"Yeah," he said and chuckled. "I'm the boss."


132 Dayton, OH: Can I Help You?

With him behind the counter were two younger employees. One was a pale, pudgy woman, with a lazy eye and a sharp nose. She wore a lightweight pale pink pullover sweater. Beside her was a guy whose face, nose, eyes, and ears looked perfectly round like a cherub's. Even his dark hair curled into perfect circles. He wore a shark tooth choker above his white shirt. I told them I was writing a book about the painter Edward Hopper, and I was surprised when they didn't even recognize Nighthawks.

"Are you looking for a book on Hopper?" the boy asked.

"No, I'm writing one," I repeated, and asked if they thought people in Dayton were isolated.

There was a long silence, then suddenly the boy blurted out "Yeah" and chuckled. "Just a little bit," he added sarcastically. "Dayton is not sure if it wants to be a small town or a big town. They just finally opened a Starbucks. There seems to be a law that every town has to have one. I came from Western New York, near Buffalo, because my parents moved here about a year ago."

"I grew up here," the girl said. "I like downtown. I like working here, but I don't live here. Nobody lives downtown. Urban development is just starting. But it's very much, you know, people here come here only to work. All the people are off the streets right now because work started."

As I left there and left the town again, I saw the museum on its hilltop. It seemed a lonely isolated building, though it contained some pleasing artworks, including the Hopper. In that painting (as in many Hoppers), the moment was frozen. But that can only be true in art or the past. The present is fluid and always moving. And the future is open to possibilities. Including the possibility of healing and overcoming isolation.


131 Dayton, OH: Discounts

I ended my tour of Dayton's brief downtown at Wilkie's Book Store, the oldest bookstore in Ohio, and one of only four in the nation older than 100 years. The city had recently passed legislation to outlaw the bookstore's sidewalk signs, and many thought they were trying to shut them down. Locals and journalists rallied to save the store, and a newspaper column defending the store was posted on the door when I visited. [It has since closed.]

Inside, tables and chairs filled space between sparse bookracks beneath a dropped ceiling with fluorescent light. It was as close as a bookstore could come to looking like a Hopper diner.

The man behind the counter said his name was Jim, and he and his wife owned the store. He was balding on top, but long hair fringed the sides of his head. His face was smothered by a graying walrus mustache. He wore a red T-shirt with the yellow insignia and address of a Santa Fe, New Mexico burrito place.

"Dayton doesn't support the arts," he decried. "They have three world-class dance companies here, and none of them gets supported by the city. There's a suburbanized, discounted mentality here. People don't want to come downtown, and they don't want to pay for quality. They just want everything as cheap as possible. The city claims to want to grow, but they don't allow anybody room for that."

"Are any artists in Dayton well-known?" I asked.

The owner said, "There's a number of print-graphics type people, but you don't see much of them here. Some spring out of the old school at the Dayton Art Institute. It closed down twenty-three years ago," Jim said. "I went there. One day I had to go get my transcripts, and found out the entire school has been reduced to two folders.


130 Dayton, OH: Flight

Downtown Dayton used to hum with industry, most famously as the birthplace of aviation. Local bicycle builders Wilbur and Orville Wright developed the first heavier-than-air flying machine here in 1903. They had to go to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to find enough wind for it to fly. The brothers' legacy permeates museums and landmarks throughout the Dayton area.

I grew up to the sound of Air Force jets overhead returning to Dayton's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, second-largest air force base in the United States, where my grandfather used to haul us to the U.S. Air Force Museum. The "Dayton Peace Accords" to end war in the former Yugoslavia were negotiated here in 1995. In a way, I was making peace here too--with my past and the town from which I had taken flight.
The National Cash Register Corporation is still headquartered in the area, as were other national corporations like Mead Paper Company and Lexus-Nexus. I learned this while walking downtown along The Miami River, which looked more like a broad, slow creek. Beside the river meandered a new concrete walkway called Riverscape, where you can rent paddleboats in the shapes of swans, dragons, or pirate boats; throw a coin in one of the fountains; or stop in the concrete garden with an homage to the search engine: a series of benches inscribed with the Boolean search words and, or, but, and not. A sign explained, "in 1965 the president of the Ohio State Bar Association contracted with a tiny company in Dayton to create a computer-based system that would allow attorneys to search for legal documents. In only 200 days, the team developed a computer code for a search engine." The company grew into Lexus-Nexus. I had also come to search through data banks: find Hopper AND isolation OR Dayton BUT NOT childhood trauma.

The suburbs now held most of the area's population and an increasing number of the jobs, but Dayton's grand past could be glimpsed through the downtown's present decay and slightly sour smell, like fermenting beer. "When I was a kid I remember downtown was falling apart," Valerie's husband had told me. "It's better now than it used to be. The suburbs [meanwhile] are just full of little castles."

You can travel downtown on Hopper-era streetcar replicas trimmed in mahogany and brass. Or you can travel in electric trolleys--one of only five cities where you can do so.

Several buildings were left downtown that you might see in Hopper's paintings. The Biltmore Hotel at the corner of First and Main, an anonymous traveler's hotel like Hopper might paint, now housed the elderly. Two buildings built in 1902 with the name M.J. Gibbons emblazoned across their tops sported Lions, gargoyles, and arched entrances and now combined to form Arcade Square. The 1866 mansard-roofed Victoria Theatre on Main at First, downtown Dayton's only surviving theater, played host to touring Broadway shows and the hometown Dayton Ballet--the second oldest company in the U.S. and by all accounts an excellent troupe. Hopper client Helen Hayes played the Victoria. Now, for $3.95 on summer weekends, you could see Hopper-era movies there like To Catch a Thief, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Casablanca, and Gigi. It was getting competition soon, though. The Benjamin and Marion Schuster Performing Arts Center was going in on the corner of Second and Main, where formerly stood Rike's, the family department store of Mrs. Anthony Haswell, who donated High Noon. Rike's evaded death by transforming into a store appropriately called Lazarus, but even that eventually failed.


129 Dayton, OH: "Districts"

[Dayton Malleable Metal Factory]

Valerie told me to stop in at the gallery owned by the local metal sculptor who fashioned the railings in the art museum. Ironically, one of Dayton's best-known artists worked in malleable iron, and the man who donated the Hopper was president of Dayton Malleable Iron.

I asked the blasé woman behind the counter about the local arts scene. "It's weird," she said. "But working. It's scattered, but a lot of artists are thriving. They keep trying to rejuvenate downtown," she went on. "They built a new baseball stadium, but it just gives suburbanites a new place to drive to and from. Dayton's the county seat, so it's the center for social services. A lot of people who need help end up walking around the streets of downtown Dayton. Nobody'll mug you, but you'll get a ton of people asking you for money."

Sherry and others had told me artists might be found in the Oregon District. Founded about 1830 when the Miami-Erie Canal opened, the Oregon District was as sleepy as slow-moving canal water on the afternoon that I strolled its brick-paved streets. The lonely sound of a hammer slapping a board rang out.

Along with hip bars, this strip also featured an X-rated book store next door to the Dayton Church Supply Store. Hard times make for strange bedfellows. Behind the business strip lay a couple square blocks of quaint old homes appropriate as Hopper subjects.

A college-aged kid, smiling and red-eyed, stopped playing hackey-sack with his friend in the road and accosted me: "Hey man, they told me Oregon District was like New Orleans's French Quarter, Bourbon Street." We both laughed at the notion. Then we gawked as on the opposite sidewalk an Amish man plodded down the sidewalk carrying boxy old suitcases tied with rope. Two boys in black-and-white Amish attire trailed him.

I walked from Oregon District to the other "districts" advertised by Dayton's tourism board, but most were only a block and some just a building. The Cannery "District" turned out to be the Cannery Building—a largely derelict old warehouse whose rehabbed portions housed retail stores, restaurants, and loft apartments. The Motor Car District on Ludlow Street paid homage to the fact that several famous automobiles of the vintage that might be seen in Hopper's paintings were made in Dayton, such as the Stoddard and the Maxwell. The Neon District referred to the neon trim on the Transportation Center and a nearby movie theater.

Across the street skulked a tiny white-fronted diner with an art deco tile tower that was called a twenty-four hour restaurant, but it was only open seven a.m. to eleven p.m. Apparently, there were no nighthawks in Dayton. Nearby stood two Hopperesque 1930s diners. Yummy Burger had been modernized, but Wympee still had a white glazed tile façade with dark green accents. I chose Wympee.

In the far corner of the narrow room hummed a cooler filled with Wild Irish Rose bottles and Busch beer cans. The man next to me sported a cheesy toupee. Down from us sat a gray-haired African American guy, wearing a floppy black Kangol hat. The cook made it four single males in the diner. Written in white chalk on a green board was a sign advertising the "Tyrone Special:" a pork chop tenderloin with gravy, parsley potatoes, buttered corn, and bread for $3.89.


128 Dayton, OH: Sherry

I followed a lead Valerie gave me and went to meet Sherry, a woman who was trying to galvanize the Dayton arts scene through her Front Street Galleries. The gallery complex was a few two-story brick buildings with roll-down garage doors painted construction yellow. A railroad line spur still ran down the center of the asphalt courtyard. The steel door to Sherry's apartment sported a magnetic poetry set. I knocked, and, though we had never met, she waved me in smilingly as she talked on the phone.

She looked (appropriately) like a portrait subject. She had a heart-shaped face with bright red cheeks setting off her green eyes. Her hair was parted on the left and pulled back into a bun. She wore a pleated dress with a ruffled collar, beneath which dangled an antique necklace dotted with faded purple stones. When she hung up, she answered, talking a mile a minute, as you might expect of a young arts maven.

"Dayton?" she sneered. "It's an incredibly isolated place. That sounds derogatory. And I guess maybe it is. But it isn't. I'm not really the best person to ask because I want to get out of here so bad. Or, well, maybe I am. Actually, I'm going to be moving away at the end of the month. My husband and I are putting our house on the market, and we're going to move to San Francisco." She laughed nervously.

"I think Dayton's being Disneyfied, but I think that's happening all over. You and I and our generation have had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of living through a time when everything was closed on Sunday because you were with your family, and it was the day of rest. Call that a connection to strong religious beliefs or your families or whatever. That doesn't exist anymore."

I asked, "Were you an arts pioneer down here?"

"God no," she scowled, "There have been people here for like fifteen-twenty years. It was purchased in the sixties and, back in its day, it was just wacky. There was a time in the late eighties where, if a kid ran away, this was the place they went," she cackled. "Back when artists started really using the space for studios, it got a little bit more organized. They tried to have a gallery, but that didn't work because they were all fighting amongst each other. I've realized one thing living amongst artists. There are very, very few of them who are not incredibly dysfunctional, on-the-edge-of-society people. Maybe it's because they get no support. Artists or people on the fringe see potential that other people don't. Then everyone goes 'Ohh well, now we want it.'

"I have been involved in the gallery hops since I've been here, and the people who run the building have been supportive mainly because I'm not going to attach my name to anything that's going to be crazy or weird. When we did the gallery hop, my husband's aunt said: 'Well, you're going to have just pictures, right?' There's more to art than that. I'm not a museum, but I've given people the opportunity to see something that they hadn't seen in a long time. A lot of people are looking for something over the couch. A friend said to me, 'Sherry, you know why? Because they don't have to think.' When you go to an art gallery, you have to think. And your average person just doesn't want to do that. Yet they know that they need to have something hanging on their wall. Consumerism is a past-time in the U.S."

"It's a religion," I offered.

She barked a laugh. "I like that even better. I have chosen to not play to that because it will do nothing for me on a personal level. The sad thing is that the people here who can afford to buy good artwork, won't buy it here. They'll go to New York or Chicago. I had a couple who I kept telling, 'Just make sure it's something you're really going to like.' Because, even if it only costs five hundred bucks or whatever, it's not meant to go in a garage sale or be put away when it doesn't match your furniture anymore. What do they do? They buy something that goes with the wallpaper. It's like--'Okay! Hello!' So I think maybe Dayton is just isolating for me. Maybe it isn't for other people."