Fresh Ideas: Turning the tables by going back home
When my parents and I lived in the apartment in the Rasmussen Building on Lafayette Street, we were new to Greenville, Mich., as well as to America. Three and a half years later, in 1953, we left the apartment above Kresge’s dimestore and moved into the house on Bower Street, a new, freshly paved street on the west side of town. I don’t remember having any pangs of regret. I was 10 and excited to live in a real house with a basement, a dining room, a fireplace, my own bedroom with two windows, and a kitchen without cockroaches. Lafayette Street was mine only in dimly lit dreams where deep shadows darkened every storefront’s entry and caused my heart to race.
Years passed and Lafayette Street lost its former magic and mystery. I could look with dispassion as Kresge’s morphed into an insurance office, and the drugstore that sold. Sealtest ice cream gave way to a pet supply shop. There came a time when apartments like ours no longer had renters, and businesses here and there began to fail that I, too, felt a hopeless nostalgia for everything that had once been. But by then I was gone, home only in summers or on holidays.
At some point Rasmussen boarded up the grand double door that led upstairs to the dentist’s and photographer’s offices with their floor-to-ceiling picture windows framing expansive views of Lafayette Street — unlike our former apartment which boasted a view to the alley below and the Congregational Church’s spire half a block away. Only then did I realize my former life was literally closed off — our narrow windows onto the alley boarded up, the rickety wood staircase removed. And the alley, too, transformed into a parking lot with backdoor access to all the shops facing Lafayette.
Now that all appeared to be lost, I yearned to re-live it — as if my life was a book and I could turn the pages back and immerse myself in the beginning. At times I thought I was as ridiculous as those teen-agers who drive past houses where their secret crushes live, hoping against hope somehow that act of worship might unlock the doors of their hearts.
This past August I was in Greenville again. Together with my childhood friend Ruth who dates back to our days in a refugee camp in Germany, as well as from our early years in Greenville, we sought entry to the upper floor of the Rasmussen Building.
Mr. Rasmussen is long gone to greener pastures, as is his wife. Their family home on Washington Street has changed ownership several times. Less than 10 years ago I almost thought I would like to buy it myself, forgetting money can’t buy childhood’s breath.
At any rate, the Rasmussen Building, too, has a new owner who told us the town fathers are interested in refurbishing many of the old apartments above the stores lining Lafayette Street. Pavers, trees, and a little park where the old police station once stood have already spruced up and “gentrified” this dear midwestern town.
But the new owner said he didn’t think he had the funds to restore the apartments.
We walked through every single room upstairs, I serving as his guide, as if I was a docent at some museum, telling him stories about who lived where, explaining, among other things, the sink he thought belonged to a photo lab was actually the sink my mother kept running with cold water to keep the butter fresh in summer because we didn’t yet have a refrigerator.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.