You Can Come Back, But You Can’t Call It Home

We were all sitting around the table in the house my dad rented on Point au Fer, just south of Rouses Point. Turkey, mashed potatoes, grandma’s bacon-topped baked beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce. It was all there, a Thanksgiving like every one we’d done before it, except instead of having it at grandma’s house like every year of my life prior to today, we did it in a house that a stranger rented to my father. And everything felt very foreign. Maybe it’s because I watched Garden State for the first time in a long time not two weeks ago or maybe it’s because I feel like Roanoke, now more than ever, is home for me. Whatever the cause, everything felt different, like I was thrust into a place outside the realm of time.

Just after getting into town on Wednesday, I drove through Rouses Point. I wanted a sense of familiarity and comfort, but what I got instead was a glimpse of reality: the things and people who are familiar to me are passing from the scene. Lake Street in Rouses Point is dotted with empty storefronts, the old Wyeth-Ayerst complex across from my elementary school, now housing Pfizer, is a shell of what it was, and it seems like there was an ungodly number of homes for sale. The weather was bleak. Rouses Point was bleak. And it was depressing. And for the first time, where I had grown up no longer felt like home. Rouses Point felt like it was struggling to breathe and as much as I wanted to provide resuscitation to it, there was nothing I could do.

I tried explaining this to my sister and she seems to think I’m nuts. That may be true. Rouses Point is a small village that relied on one large business for too long. Wyeth-Ayerst/Pfizer allowed Rouses Point to continue existing without creating a more diverse economy. And when that leg supporting Rouses Point got kicked out from under it, Rouses Point fell. And having seen Rouses Point fall, I wanted to lift Rouses Point back up, yet felt powerless to do anything. I have no capital to offer, only equity in sweat and ideas.

More confusingly for me, this wasn’t the way my mind had remembered Rouses Point. So I gave it a day. I drove around Rouses Point again on Thanksgiving. I drove up Academy Street, the street separating the elementary school from Pfizer, towards the railroad tracks that effectively demarcate the village’s western bounds. I don’t know what I was preparing myself to expect, if I was hoping that I could see something differently, if I missed something.

But I didn’t. I drove up Academy Street to find a huge portion of the Pfizer campus’ buildings gone, with pipes sticking up out of the ground where laboratories stood. The parking lot on the other side of the street gave the appearance of abandonment and nascent blight; grasses grew in clumps through the tarmac in random locations. That in and of itself was depressing.

What hit hardest, though, was making the left turn on to Academy Road Extension. To my right, between the road and railroad tracks, stood a water tower that had gone in at some point around my high school graduation (2002). In front of that water tower was a plaque commemorating the completion of a water system improvement project. That got a plaque. Homes for sale, empty storefronts, and a plaque.

Meanwhile, I circled back around down Champlain Street to get back on to Lake Street and was staggered by the view of Lake Champlain and the hills of northern Vermont at the horizon. That is how I remembered Rouses Point. Sitting on the rocks at the tip of Sportsman’s Pier on a windy day, with waves breaking hard against the rocks and covering me in lake water. Nature was what came to mind: the sound, the rhythm, the beauty of home. It was nature and the surroundings that made Rouses Point feel less foreign to me.

But it’s not nature that makes a community, it’s people that make a community. And by all signs, the community was gasping for air. I shared that feeling on Facebook and the responses were a pessimistic as I expected them to be. Pessimism has no place in my heart, so I tried to steer to conversation by asking questions. What are community assets? Who has ideas? Where are they going to build on those ideas? What are village leaders doing to stop the annual release of what I assume is plausibly half of the village’s graduating high school class from going into the world without intending on ever coming back for good? I am one of those people. I left without ever intending on making Rouses Point and upstate New York home. I believed that I read the tea leaves and saw a place where there was no future for me. Where are the people who want to work tirelessly to make Rouses Point a place where people want to stay after high school?

Maybe this isn’t a problem unique to Rouses Point. I hear of kids complaining about how terrible Roanoke is and how they want to get out as quickly as they can. Maybe I see Roanoke through rose-colored lenses, because Roanoke is a place where I want to be. Roanoke is a place where I want to raise a family. Roanoke is my home. This isn’t to say Roanoke is without problems, it certainly has its share of poverty, drug usage, some violent crime. But it’s not any different from any other place. Moreover, what has made Roanoke different, for me at least, is that there are people and organizations who are dedicated to making life better for people in Roanoke and the Roanoke Valley. The city is working hard to ensure that talent from Virginia Tech decides to make Roanoke their home. Roanoke offers collaborative business space and a fantastic opportunity for start-up businesses.

What does Rouses Point offer? It seems to me that all that Rouses Point and its civic leaders are offering right now is a good view over Lake Champlain. Because everything else about it, honestly, feels terrible. The Civic Center in Rouses Point looks like hell. There’s a large lot on Chapman, on the western side of the railroad tracks, that is littered with history – the history of when railroads meant a lot to the village. In a sense, Rouses Point and Roanoke have a shared history when it comes to railroads, except Roanoke’s relationship with the rail is far deeper than Rouses Point’s. Norfolk Southern has more or less left Roanoke for Atlanta. It’s a damn shame, but it’s not going to kill Roanoke. Roanoke has a diversity in economy that the North Country of New York should justifiably envy. But when the last pills come off the line at Pfizer, there is no fallback for Rouses Point.

So that brings me back to the question I asked: what is the village doing to keep people from leaving? Every business has its start as a small business. Rouses Point is located less than an hour away from a major international hub in Montréal. What’s being done to encourage people to develop ideas, stay in Rouses Point, and generate those start-ups? Excessive property taxes may be a cause. Someone on Facebook mentioned the cold and bleak winters. I reject the argument of cold and bleak winters. Look north to Montréal and Québec City and you have two large cities well north of Rouses Point with winters more intense. Yet they survived and thrived. What’s missing? What are the connections that aren’t being made?

Those are questions to and for which I don’t have answers. I wish I did, because I want my hometown to have a future and not be a moment frozen in time.

-R

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