Oregon District | Photo by Kayli Thompson | The Wright State Guardian
This phrase has been seen and heard all across the Greater Dayton area and holds a special place in our hearts. For those not familiar with the phrase “Dayton Strong,” it symbolizes a city of people rising up and coming together in the face of a tragedy that rocked us to our core.
On Aug 4, 2019, a lone gunman shot into a crowd at Ned Peppers, a bar in the Oregon District of Dayton, and killed nine people and injured 17 others before Dayton police apprehended him within 32 seconds.
The Dayton community has faced many hardships over the past year and a half, from $650,000 to provide security in preparation for a KKK rally to the Memorial Day weekend tornadoes to one of the deadliest events to happen in the bustling Oregon District.
Dayton, with its population of roughly over 140,000 in 2018, is one of the smallest cities in Ohio, and the idea that numerous catastrophic events like this could happen in a single year is unheard of even in bigger cities.
Many students at Wright State University (WSU) have visited the Oregon District, Dayton’s historic district and nightlife hotspot. The spirit of Dayton lives and breathes on those twelve blocks. For a mass shooting to take place right at the heart of the city is heartbreaking.
Kara Donbrock, an Intervention Specialist graduate student and Fitness and Wellness manager at WSU, was there the night it happened. She shared her desire for people to support each other and mourn the lives lost.
“[The event] was hard for anyone to understand. Whether you were there or not, it was hurtful for everyone in our community,” said Donbrock.
Donbrock is extremely appreciative of her family and friends, but especially of her Raider family that reached out. She grappled with the survivor’s guilt that she and many other people have felt since that night.
“I feel like everyone should take that as an example or a push to tell your story and help people with it. That’s all I want – to just help people.”
Education grad student Allie Mann lived downtown at the time of the tragedy. For her, the first few days afterward were a blur.
“It was very numbing, and I honestly went through many stages of grief. The Oregon District is so safe. The people downtown are MY people. It felt like a personal trauma even though I was a mile away,” said Mann.
“It was very numbing, and I honestly went through many stages of grief. The Oregon District is so safe. The people downtown are MY people. It felt like a personal trauma even though I was a mile away.”
On Aug 25, mere weeks after the shooting, Dayton made headlines across the country again, only this time, for something remarkable. Local comedian and Yellow Springs resident Dave Chappelle hosted an event called the Gem City Shine to “reclaim the Oregon District,” where dozens of performers and actors volunteered their time to commemorate the shooting.
Among the many performers in Dayton were Stevie Wonder, Chance the Rapper and Kanye, the last of whom gave an intimate Sunday service at the RiverScape MetroPark just hours before Chappelle’s event.
“[The Gem City Shine] showed how much love and support Dayton has, and although they took that time to mourn, … they also made it fun. They said, ‘do not let this person who caused this ruined the atmosphere of the Oregon District,’” Donbrock said.
Donbrock believes that Dayton did a great job of taking those set-backs and going further and trying to make the best of it. She is also extremely appreciative of WSU and its staff for being there for her.
“Wright State was wonderful and offered great services [after the shooting]. Counseling and Wellness did an amazing job putting opportunities out there,” Donbrock said.
Heart Mercantile, a shop located in the Oregon District known for its quirky and comfortable clothing, was among the many stores to open up their doors during the event.
“All businesses already have such a great relationship and are always looking out for each other, but this really strengthened our bond,” Heart Mercantile’s social media manager Tailor Curtis said.
So many shops and restaurants in the Oregon District came together after the event. Curtis says that if another event takes place in the future, they would absolutely stand with the Dayton community.
Within 24 hours after the shooting, Heart Mercantile designed “Dayton Strong” T-shirts – proceeds of which went directly to the tragedy fund.
“Our first response was that we had to do something for the community,” Curtis said.
When Mann had the opportunity to go to the event hosted by Chappelle, she walked on the Oregon District streets among the 20,000-25,000 attendees.
“The Gem City Shine event was the first time I saw people smile since the incident. It almost felt like a group therapy session. Strangers were hugging and crying on each other’s shoulders; some were sharing laughs and smiles. There were thousands of people there, but we were all experiencing the same traumas and the city felt like one big support system that night,” Mann said.
Mann says although those events will always be a part of the Oregon District’s history, she refuses to let one person ruin such a beautiful place for her. She recalls the many heroes that night: Jeremy Ganger, the bodyguard at Ned Peppers who stepped in during the chaos, and the police officers that acted quickly to apprehend the shooter.
“Every time I hear ‘Dayton Strong’ I think about that sense of community from the Gem City Shine event–how strangers joined together to collectively go through the motions together.”
“Every time I hear ‘Dayton Strong’ I think about that sense of community from the Gem City Shine event–how strangers joined together to collectively go through the motions together,” said Mann.
“I really love that people are open to talking about mental health now. I’m so open. Trauma can be so many different things. The tornado was trauma. COVID is trauma. The shooting was trauma. This is such a weird time in life. Let’s talk about it,” Donbrock said.
Donbrock now spends time hiking with her pitbull, Cash, and boyfriend and listening to true crime podcasts. Before the pandemic, she and a friend had an outdoor yoga retreat in the works focusing on heartfulness, mindfulness and other counseling services. Donbrock hopes that after the coronavirus, the Dayton community will be able to come together more often in remembrance. If there was ever an opportunity to do another event, she said she would “100% like to be involved.”
“I’d love to see speakers for mental health and just remind people of Dayton’s awesome community. It should be a positive event. That’s how I always want it to be,” Donbrock said.
It can be hard to move on from such an event, or to even imagine that something like this would happen in your own backyard. And while witnesses and victims are still picking up the pieces over a year later, there is a newfound meaning of community here in the Gem City. On the first anniversary, they had a memorial wall that visitors could put notes and messages on as well as a candle-light vigil.
After that night, many stores, restaurants and families in Dayton came together and continue to support each other. Today you can still see signs commemorating the lives lost that day and feel the energy in Dayton and its people. There’s a reason why we’re called the Gem City, and no matter what happens, our city will keep on shining.