You Can Go Home Again, but You Might Not Like What You Find
I went home after 34 years to the town where I grew up. The town is located in central Rhode Island. It was the epicenter for the textile industry in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Because of that industry, a robust business district existed in the town’s center that sold everything from clothing to hardware.
My family came to this town to work in its textile industry and to establish a clothing business. My childhood memories include the busy streets of the town on Friday evenings, when stores remained open until 9:00 o’clock. I assembled mountains of gift boxes during the holiday season in the back of my family’s shop and that activity showed how busy the town’s economy was during those years. The textile industry and the shops that fueled the local economy are now long gone and the town reflects the precipitous decline of fortune through its obvious decay today.
I parked along the town’s main street and the first thing that I noticed was how many empty storefronts there were. Several buildings had been demolished since I last visited the town and many of the businesses that had remained for a time, had departed long ago. A clothing store where I often chatted with the owner had its sign covered by another business that also left town.
The town had apparently become the home to many storefronts that advertised religious congregations. I did not recognize the names of the religious affiliations, but the ramshackle nature of the buildings that these organizations occupied furthered my perception of the community.
Next, I left what remained of the business district and walked along the streets that made up my paper route from so many decades ago. I chatted with the current owner of a house where I remembered a fallout shelter being installed around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he told me that the shelter had long since been removed and the earth filled in around the place where it had been buried. I did not want to consider the fact that the debacle that is now in force in Washington, D.C. could lead to that precipice once again.
I continued walking along the streets that led to my childhood home and was taken by the blighted yards and homes that lined the streets. Some yards were strewn with debris and cars were parked askew or abandoned in many yards. Many houses had vinyl siding where wood boards had once been. An apartment complex that had been constructed near my home looked as if the apartment complex owners had neglected routine maintenance for years. The roofing in several areas appeared dilapidated.
When I was a child and adolescent, many of my friends had parents who worked hard jobs in the textile mills of the town. I knew the jobs were hard because I had worked in two separate mills two summers during my high school and college years. Those families could send their children to college and on to a different life than the parents had lived, with many opportunities. Now those mills and the business district are long gone and the surrounding community is a “perfect” reflection of the changing economic and social demographics.
You can go home again, but the result can lead to very uncomfortable conclusions about what can happen to once-vibrant communities. I am not an adherent of the idea that ignorance is bliss, but reality can help to destroy some illusions of youth.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.