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.