While we're talking about a company "killing" a city, check out a place that was really devastated. More forces than a single corporation were at work.

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Let’s wrap up last week’s “Did Amazon kill Seattle?” (No) discussion with two columns.

The first is the saddest American city story I personally know.

When I became business editor of the Dayton Daily News in 1986, the Ohio city was far different from the Rust Belt portrayed in much of the national media. In addition to being headquarters of NCR, which for a century had been its premier company, Dayton was home to paper giant Mead Corp., which had established a data outfit called LexisNexis. It also had a constellation of medium-sized headquarters, such as Phillips Industries and Reynolds & Reynolds.

Dayton enjoyed the second-largest concentration of General Motors employees in the world. This “ecosystem” helped support scores of machine tool and other companies. Its airport hosted a highly-efficient hub for Piedmont Airlines, as well as an Emery Worldwide freight hub. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was the aeronautical brain center of the U.S. Air Force.

A handsome city nestled in a curve of the Great Miami River, Dayton’s downtown was intact and busy, with two department stores and a stately building for the newspaper. Although the local banks had recently been bought, the owners were Ohio-based and maintained large staffs at their downtown towers.

To be sure, the city had been through Rust Belt hell. Some of its shuttered factories had the majesty of cathedrals. The PennCentral debacle and larger rail crisis before the Staggers Act of 1980 left two large rail yards empty. In the 1970s, NCR stopped making mechanical cash registers at its enormous complex of factories south of downtown, a trauma that laid off thousands and left a huge swath of empty land.  But Dayton had reinvented itself.

It was a city of good bones, the home of the Wright brothers, Charles Kettering and the remarkable efflorescence of American ingenuity at the turn of the 20th century. Like most of the Midwest by the late 1980s, it had come out of the roughest Rust Belt years more productive and more competitive than ever. State and local government invested millions of dollars in incentives for such assets as a new GM truck assembly and the airport hub. The United Auto Workers and electrical workers unions were both progressive and committed to helping GM recover.

Now, with the exception of Wright-Pat and a few others, it’s almost all gone.

Dayton remains, of course, but a shadow of its former self. Like almost every ailing city, its largest employers are health care and low-paid services such as Kroger stores. Mead merged and left. UPS bought Emery and closed the Dayton hub, killing 1,400 jobs. USAir bought Piedmont and, despite the CEO’s promise to Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, shut the passenger hub.

From nearly 80,000 manufacturing jobs in 1990, metro Dayton now has barely half that. From more than 262,000 people in 1960, the city held only 141,527 in 2010. Nobody complains about the traffic.

A brutal hostile takeover of NCR by AT&T wounded both companies. NCR was spun off again but later decamped for suburban Atlanta, a particularly bitter loss. Little of GM is left. No downtown retail remains. The newspaper moved to a dull new building south of downtown and a botched teardown took out the oldest classical part of its former home.

What did this to Dayton? Poisoned race relations and white flight. Freeways hollowing out a beautiful center city. The management incompetence of GM, especially under Roger Smith. Merger mania that looted so many cities of their headquarters and economic assets. The race to the bottom in wages, first against the South, then against Mexico and China. Loss of civic stewardship.

This is what it’s like to really see a city you love “killed.” It is a terrible loss to America, one repeated across the Midwest. Seattle has no standing to complain about its “plight.” Other cities would kill to be “killed” by hosting Amazon’s headquarters. But Dayton does offer lessons.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

The rich are less rich

Your portfolio is worse

September, hang on