Going Back, Moving Forward

This summer we traveled West for a vacation with our granddaughter, visiting family in the town where I grew up. I knew much had changed in the area over the forty-some years since I moved out of state and I was curious to see what still remained and what I could remember of certain places. Our visit took us to Virginia City, Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake, and even a day trip over to San Francisco. Indeed much had changed but the overall contours and places had stayed remarkably similar to what I remembered.

In 1970 Reno was a bustling, medium-sized town of 101,000. The growth rate seems to have peeked at 5.1 percent in 1973, perhaps a boom ushered in by Californians fleeing their state. Not at all strange, those fleeing Californians are blamed for many of Reno’s ills (traffic? rising housing costs? You bet!). That rapid growth implied a steady influx of people pursuing jobs and new homes, bringing changes to the quiet urban landscape I remembered. 

Over the intervening years, Reno’s growth rate would slowly drop, peaking once more, at 3.9% in 1993. Since then the rate has steadily fallen. Population stands at 514,000 today, roughly 3 1/2 times what it was when I graduated high school, now with a yearly growth rate just under 2 percent a year. 

Reno Historical Growth from Macrotrends.net retrieved 2021/08/02

For contrast, Loudoun County where I live, has an estimated population of 429,570 with a growth rate of 1.90% in the past year according to the most recent United States census data. Yet we are ranked (and folks complain!) as one of the fastest growing counties in America. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Loudoun County ranks 20th out of 3,142 US counties in growth according to the website https://siteselection.com/issues/2018/may/loudoun-county-10-ways-loudoun-county-virginia-is-no-1.cfm

My family had moved five times during the years I lived in the Washoe Valley region. This summer’s journey began with a drive past our first home in Sparks where we had moved in 1953. Our home, like so many others at the time, was part of a tract subdivision and we were the first ones to occupy it. All the homes looked alike, street after street of small, one story buildings. My parents built the one-car garage and to this day, few of the remaining homes have a garage. But the passage of time and the region’s droughts have been unkind. The house still stands almost 70 years after it was built but appears old and unpainted, the grassy front yard and many of its neighbors’ having been replaced by dirt patches, weeds, and brush. 

We quickly drove on to visit my first elementary school, the painted  cinderblock walls of which still stand out in my memory. The school appeared much as I had remembered it and I was encouraged to see children playing on the playground equipment. The church I had attended growing up, First United Methodist Church, still stands and looks to have expanded over the past half century. That was encouraging too.

We drove past the elementary school and also the first house we lived in after we moved from Sparks to Reno. Roger Corbett Elementary School is located across the street from my high school and it was great to see how well kept they both appeared. The house where we had lived, not so much. 

Perhaps due to the high cost of land and the scarcity of available property “close in” (short commute), many of the older communities and subdivisions here in Northern Virginia are experiencing a second life. Smaller homes are being remodeled and enlarged, or in some cases replaced all together. The area’s mature landscaping contributes to the livability of older neighborhoods and we quite often find people wanting to move in, rather than out, of these neighborhoods. 

In Reno the opposite seems to have taken place. While the shortage of water has had a great effect on landscaping in general, the introduction of xeriscaping has altered much of what I remembered homes and yards looked like. And all the new, much larger homes have been built farther and farther away from the areas I grew up in leaving the older communities appearing…smaller. It’s as if all the two-story homes are located up in the hills surrounding Reno while the bungalows and craftsman homes, the mid century modern and Spanish-revival homes were left behind in the valley. 

Yet there has been an incredible revival in the closer-in areas just beyond the Downtown core. The new area of Midtown is now a bustling community of galleries, restaurants, vintage shops and breweries and cafes, many decorated “to the nines” in a vibrant landscape of murals. 

Quite a few of the stores and even regional shopping malls that I grew up with have closed or are now being replaced with mixed use development. I was surprised to see so many of the large hotel casinos (not—too big to fail) have closed and many of them still stand empty. But some of them have been repurposed bringing new life to struggling areas. One such where we stopped for lunch, the former Riverside Hotel on the Truckee River, is now a building housing artists’ apartments and studios. The six story brick building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, originally built in 1927. Unfortunately many of the other historic buildings in Reno’s downtown have been destroyed, replaced by larger hotel casinos or apartment buildings. 

Our visit began with a side trip to see my kindergarten school and we ended our tour of education facilities with a walk thru the campus of my alma mater, University of Nevada Reno (1974). It was here that the size and scope of change really made an impact on me. The University was founded as a land grant college in 1874; Morril Hall was the first campus building occupied in 1886 and still stands. There were 8,023 students when I graduated in 1974. More than 21,000 students attend now and the university occupies 180 buildings over 290 acres. New buildings sit where before I remembered were only parking lots. Courtyards, walkways, and new intersections abound, as well as multi-level parking garages. A general plan seeks to better integrate the University with the downtown area of Reno just a few blocks to the south of the main campus entrance. Having outlived it’s reputation as the Divorce Capital of the World, the new emphasis on corporate/educational partnerships should help to redefine Reno as more than just a gambling town!

My hometown has changed physically more than I had expected over the past 40+ years; but much of that change has been good for it. I belong to a Facebook Group called “You lived in Reno in the 60s and 70s if you remember …” and there are always posts from people lamenting how much the City has changed. Nostalgia has a way of softening the edges when viewed through those rose-colored granny glasses, I think. I don’t see as well as I used to, and I would agree that you can’t go back to the way things were (thankfully!) But sometimes its nice to turn a corner and see exactly what you had expected would be there, even if its the 7-11 around the corner from where we lived. The indoor shopping mall where I worked while attending college is gone, but the mini mart around the corner from my Dad’s house is still there. Hopefully we will get back out west for another visit before things change too much!

2 thoughts on “Going Back, Moving Forward

  1. Thanks for the post, while not a Reno Native, I have occupied NV for quite a while from 1972-1985, Much has changed in Reno/Sparks over the years/ Being from Brooklyn, NY, much has changed there too. You can never go home again. We leave our hearts in memory!

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