The wide valley lies dark, its river silent beneath a plane of ice stretched all the way to Canada. Nine degrees below zero with snow coming down. A February night perfect for sleeping, and everybody in the blue house on Greene Street needs rest. Nobody sleeps.
Alan Montroy, feeling anxious, walks outside to smoke. The front door rubs the wooden floor as it opens, waking all four dogs. The pacing man, the huffing dogs and a plume of cold air awaken Carrie Demers, who’s taken to sleeping on the living room couch to keep Montroy out of trouble.
“I worry about a fire with him outside, throwing cigarettes against the house,” says Demers, 58. “And going out in the middle of the night alone in our neighborhood is not safe.”
For years before the pandemic, life in this little border city was hard. Deep into April, straggler snowstorms march up the St. Lawrence River Valley like approaching armies, closing the roads to New York City, 370 miles away, and leaving the citizens of Ogdensburg to feel very much alone. As a girl, Demers remembers seeing a lot of her father. The factories where he worked would close, open for a little while, then close. After that, the best way to make money in Ogdensburg was to help people who had none. Demers worked as an administrator at a nonprofit for adults with developmental disabilities, and later as a chef and a Presbyterian pastor. To supplement their income, Demers and her wife, Marilyn Cota, receive a monthly stipend from the state to care for Montroy and two other men with severe mental illness.
The arrangement worked fine until last spring, when COVID-19 forced mental health services in Ogdensburg to close. The men had nothing to do all day but watch television and nap, nothing to do at night but pace and smoke.
“Since COVID I am probably getting four to five hours a night of sleep. I just feel exhausted all the time. I call it COVID brain,” Demers says. “Every little piece of our lives is affected by the pandemic.”
Ogdensburg: Helping others in a remote city struggling with poverty
Carrie Demers of Ogdensburg is a care-giver in that troubled city along the St. Lawrence River in the far reaches of New York’s North Country.
Michael Karas, USA TODAY Network
There are signs that in some parts of America, especially the well-off ones, the pandemic that dominated life these last 13 months may finally be loosening its grip. More than 30.8 million Americans have been infected by the coronavirus, and more than 555,000 have died, according to data tracked by The New York Times and Johns Hopkins University. About 107.5 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; of those roughly 62.4 million are fully vaccinated.
On Wall Street, investors are buying up stock in manufacturers and banks, claiming their positions for an economic boom many predict will arrive by summer. In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Labor reported the lowest number of first-time unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic. Joe Biden spoke for 62 minutes late last month during his first press conference as president. None of the journalists asked a single question about COVID-19.
Far from the seats of power, in poor cities like Ogdensburg, the pandemic and its recession show few signs of letting up. In the pandemic’s early days, people who live in counties with median incomes below $60,000 contracted COVID-19 twice as often as those in wealthy counties, and were 2.5 times more likely to die, according to a study of 158 metropolitan areas published by the American Medical Association.
Ogdensburg is remote — two and a half hours to the nearest Level 1 trauma center in Syracuse, and that’s in perfect weather — so here the spike arrived late. New COVID-19 cases in surrounding St. Lawrence County hit 152 a day during the first week of January 2021, according to The New York Times and Johns Hopkins University. Even as more people get vaccinated, Johns Hopkins found, the risk of infection in the county remains dangerously high.
“People up here are divided,” says Karen Easter, director of Reachout of St. Lawrence County, a mental health crisis hotline. “We have people who think the pandemic was a hoax, and people who are scared to death about getting a fatal disease, so they’re still isolating. So a lot of people still aren’t vaccinated.”
The pandemic continues to fall unevenly on the rich and poor. By fall, 56% of low-income workers who lost jobs during the pandemic remained unemployed, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center, compared to 42% of high-income adults. The disease cost 75 million Americans their jobs by March 2021, according to the labor department, with the majority of layoffs hitting low-wage industries like retail and restaurants. In March, poor people told Pew that the pandemic forced them to spend money they’d saved for emergencies, take on extra debt, work side jobs, and delay paying bills at more than twice the rates of high-income families.
Ogdensburg is tiny and desperately poor, so it experiences these national trends in concentrated form. The median house in this city of 10,000 people sells for $68,000, according to the U.S. Census. The average family earns $42,000 a year, and 2,300 residents live below the federal poverty line, giving Ogdensburg a poverty rate 75% higher than the rest of New York State.
Then the economy closed. The governments of Canada and the United States tried to limit the spread of COVID-19 by shutting the international border, including the curvy suspension bridge between Ogdensburg and Prescott, Ontario. In the small industrial park east of town, the few remaining warehouses and Canadian-owned factories shut down. The hospital in Ogdensburg furloughed 174 people. Most restaurants and grocery stores stayed open, primarily by firing every person they could.
Employers in the North Country, which includes Ogdensburg and seven counties across the northernmost tier of New York, laid off 9,200 people in 2020, according to the state Labor Department, shrinking the labor force by 8.3%. The largest layoffs occurred in the hospitality and health care industries.
“When I was growing up, the city was starting to show some decline,” Demers says. “Now there’s no work. You either work in health care or in the restaurant business, or you don’t really work.”
The economic collapse fueled further crises. Ogdensburg’s city government is nearly bankrupt, says City Manager Stephen Jellie. Stores that depend on customers crossing the border from Canada are nearly empty. The pandemic closed 12-step groups across the St. Lawrence Valley, causing a spike in narcotics overdoses and deaths.
Ogdensburg’s struggles started 62 years before the pandemic, when the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway destroyed the city’s port. Now the city faces so many problems simultaneously, it’s difficult for people here to imagine what “recovery” even means.
“People are really suffering a lot, trying to stay fed and keep heat in their homes. That won’t get easier,” says Easter, who has run the emergency hotline for 49 years. “I think the worst may be still to come.”
The Toyo Tires company mailed four bus tires on March 3, 2020. Thirteen months later, the tires are not on a bus. They’re on the floor of Laurel Roethel’s warehouse, still wrapped in opaque plastic from the factory. Above the tires, steel shelves filled with dusty boxes rise nearly to the ceiling. A gym set postmarked February 2020. A box marked FRAGILE — possibly tableware? — that arrived in December 2019.
Someday the tires, weights and a thousand other things will reach their destinations in Canada. They’ve been stuck inside Roethel’s warehouse since March 2020, when the Canadian government closed all crossings to the United States. It all might remain there for a long time to come, as Canada’s slow progress on vaccinations recently led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to say his government may keep the border closed indefinitely.
Her warehouse is full, but Roethel’s store is empty. The windows of Roethel Parcel Service overlook what remains of Ogdensburg’s port. Built just upstream of the Galop Rapids, which blocked Great Lakes ships from sailing to the Atlantic, Ogdensburg thrived for two centuries as an international port until the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, creating a deep river channel that obliterated the rapids and the city’s reason to exist.
Roethel opened her store in 1984 on Ford Street, Ogdensburg’s main drag. She attracted a constant stream of Canadian customers, who’d rather cross the bridge to retrieve packages in Ogdensburg than pay customs and Canadian postage.
“Before the pandemic, people were coming and going, and my phone was ringing all day,” says Roethel. “Now you could shoot a cannon down Ford Street and not hit anybody.”
FedEx pays Roethel 75 cents to handle a regular package, a buck for express. On a Tuesday last month, she earned $5.25. Her only other income is $641 a month from Social Security. Before the pandemic Roethel employed two people, including a handyman who worked at the store for 30 years.
When Roethel laid him off, she cried.
“It’s really hard to pay somebody $15 an hour when you’re not making that in a day,” says Roethel, 66.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently allowed yoga studios to reopen in New York state, and ended an 11 p.m. curfew for movie theaters. Ogdensburg has no yoga studios. Its cinema, which replaced a row of charming Victorian banks and hotels with a windowless concrete bunker during an especially disastrous attempt at urban renewal, closed years ago. On the edge of town, The Dollar Tree remains open in the strip mall, but the Game Stop and the bagel shop closed permanently.
“You used to go to the grocery store and see all the blue Canadian license plates. Jo-Ann Fabrics, that was all Canadians,” says the Rev. Laurena Marie Wickham Will, lead pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Ogdensburg. “Now it’s empty.”
Closed businesses and lost tax revenues exacerbated the fiscal crisis facing local governments. Flights from Ogdensburg International Airport dropped 90% after the ban on nonessential travel, as did traffic on the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge. Both facilities are owned by the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, which ran out of money to pay Ogdensburg police officers for security. The authority fell into debt with the city, which owes $825,000 to the county for its backlog of abandoned properties.
“If we didn’t receive federal help, probably our airport would be closed,” says Vernon “Sam” Burns, chairman of the port authority, which received $2.4 million from the federal coronavirus relief act, which passed in April 2020.
At city hall, the pandemic turned a fiscal crisis into an existential one. Jellie, the city manager, ordered layoffs for up to nine police officers and firefighters, eliminated the recreation department, took a 10% pay cut, and agreed to serve as fire chief for free.
“Listen, the city is near bankruptcy,” Jellie says. “Ogdensburg is in big trouble.”
Anyone reading local news about Ogdensburg might reasonably conclude the pandemic is driving the city’s political class insane. In May, Mayor Jeff Skelly arrived at city hall to find the doors locked. Skelly pounded on the doors, demanding to be let in, but police officers and other workers inside refused. In September, as Jellie blocked the door to city hall to maintain social distance requirements during a council meeting, a firefighter allegedly shoved him. In December, a scuffle between the mayor and a firefighter ended with the firefighter on the ground. City employees have filed 13 complaints of workplace violence, according to the state labor department.
Skelly owns the defunct cinema downtown, where he’s transformed the marquee into a permanent political billboard. On a cold night recently, the sign’s orange lights read, “City Goals for 2021 … Rebuild Ogdensburg.” The effect was deeply strange, as if a North Korean propagandist had escaped Pyongyang and landed in a sleepy American village.
“It’s embarrassing, quite frankly,” Jason Bouchard, an Ogdensburg firefighter and president of the department’s union, says of the town’s violent politics. “The attitude of this city is at an all-time low.”
When cities fail, it’s common to find local politics in disarray, says Don Carter, a senior fellow in urban design at Carnegie Mellon University who has led planning campaigns for thousands of communities. Many poor cities face issues similar to Ogdensburg — a shrinking tax base, high unemployment and an aging population with high rates of poverty, obesity, drug addiction and despair, all of it worsened by the pandemic shutdown.
Those problems can be overcome. First, Carter says, politicians, church leaders, nonprofits and citizens must agree on some strategic goals, and a plan to reach them. But in Ogdensburg, council meetings often devolve into screaming arguments. Outside, dozens of protesters wave signs urging Mayor Skelly to resign.
That kind of dysfunction takes years to heal, Carter says, with or without a pandemic.
“Cities like Ogdensburg were very fragile to begin with,” Carter says. “If they’re fighting with each other, they haven’t even come to the starting line. They’re still in the locker room.”
Nine degrees below zero and Alan Montroy has been outside a long time, cursing people who don’t exist. The voices talk all the time. When he’s in a crowd, Montroy doesn’t engage. But tonight he believes himself alone, just the voices in his head, the dirty ice on Greene Street, the white snow falling down, his coat pocket full of loose cigarettes so strong they burn like sandpaper. He flicks a stub at the ice, lights another, and returns to his angry monologue.
He is not alone. In Ogdensburg the old unpainted houses grow closer as they sag, hugging the sidewalks and each other, scrums of late-night drunks huddled for mutual defense against the cold. Awake on the couch, Carrie Demers can’t hear the words, only the exploding consonants of Montroy’s rage.
It’s this damn pandemic. Every morning at 6 a.m. Demers delivers Montroy fistfuls of pills, blood pressure and cholesterol medicines mixed in with the anti-psychotics. The drugs, plus spending his days in support groups with other mentally ill people, usually keep the voices quiet enough for Montroy to sleep.
Then the pandemic forced the support groups to close. Montroy has nothing to do but nap or walk a mile to the Burger King, where the constant supply of coffee and TV news on the television froth him into terror.
“Alan’s obsessed with news about the pandemic. He’s worried about getting it and dying from it,” Demers says. “His counselor called us up and said, ‘Please don’t watch the news.’ So he goes to Burger King to watch it there.”
Some people live in Ogdensburg because they grew up here. The others have no place else to go. Montroy’s housemate, Will Fietek, arrived here from Minnesota by way of Alabama when his mental health caregiver decided she just couldn’t stand him anymore. She delivered him to the state psychiatric hospital in Ogdensburg, left him with a few pairs of underwear and drove away.
The hospital once was rambling and beautiful, with dozens of ornate stone buildings on a bluff overlooking the river. Beginning in the 1980s the state joined the national movement of deinstitutionalization by evicting most of the residents. It built a small modern hospital, which resembles a prison, and let the old buildings rot.
The campus also received two actual prisons, one a medium-security facility for men, the other for sex offenders. Ogdensburg is located so far away from any other city in New York that many of the inmates’ relatives decide to skip the long bus ride and move to town.
Which means when they’re released, many former inmates stay. So do many psychiatric patients, who spend their lives cycling between the state hospital, residential treatment, in-home family care provided by people like Demers, and “third floor,” the locally infamous psychiatric ward at Ogdensburg Hospital.
“You see this in a lot of these older cities that didn’t pivot their economies” after their ports and factories closed, says Mac McComas, director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative at Johns Hopkins University. “Low-income and minority people have gotten stuck.”
During the pandemic, people with less severe addiction and mental health problems tended to stay home and avoid getting help, says Nicole Lovass-Nagy, a caseworker at Transitional Living Services, a nonprofit for homeless people in Ogdensburg. Those who remain need more of everything — more hospital visits, more intense drug counseling, more help finding apartments and jobs.
“The people we’re getting from the prison and the hospital are in a harder position. More serious issues, harder to get services for,” Lovass-Nagy says.
In Ogdensburg, all signs point to a broad mental health crisis. Since the pandemic started, police have found meth labs dumped at Kid’s Kingdom, a playground by the river. Another lab caused a fire in a midrise apartment building for low-income senior citizens in the heart of downtown. During the height of the pandemic, Ogdensburg police discovered 41 used hypodermic needles and 20 meth labs in 51 days.
“I think that’s a pretty extraordinary number for the size city we are,” says Ogdensburg Police Chief Robert Wescott.
In September 2019, emergency responders in St. Lawrence County delivered Narcan 9 times to stop narcotic overdoses; in September 2020 they administered the drug 41 times. Monthly calls to the mental health emergency hotline tripled to 47.
The last year brought sadness and isolation to people around the world. But for many in Ogdensburg, the pandemic burned up what little hope remained.
“We already had a really bad addiction problem up here, and then COVID shut down all the recovery programs,” says Phil Farmer, who organizes Narcotics Anonymous meetings around Ogdensburg. “You can’t just close meetings. We become family in those rooms. We’ve lost a lot more people to suicides and to overdoses than we ever did to COVID.”
Just like elsewhere in the country, Ogdensburg’s experience of the pandemic isn’t entirely negative, especially when it comes to housing. Winter temperatures here drop to 20 below. So Tom Taillon survived half the winter of 2019 by sleeping in a gazebo on Mansion Avenue, across from the hospital emergency room. When he decided to stop using meth, Taillon applied for a bed at Transitional Living Services, but was denied. All the rooms were full.
Then came the pandemic, and Cuomo’s moratorium on evictions. Suddenly the shelter had plenty of beds. Taillon got a room in September 2020. With a stable place to live and some counseling, he stayed only a few months before getting his own subsidized apartment and a job at Lowe’s.
“I was struggling with my sobriety at the beginning of COVID. It was discouraging. I was sober, but it was hard to find a job when everything shut down,” says Taillon, 37. “I was very surprised when I called and they had rooms available.”
For the rich, America’s pandemic real estate boom has arrived in Ogdensburg. Laurel Roethel’s shipping business shares office space with her sister Rhonda’s realty company. In a normal year, Rhonda Roethel sells 50 houses. Last year she sold 120. So many people are leaving New York City, Pittsburgh and California for the St. Lawrence Valley, Roethel says, she often leads home tours using just her iPhone. Some buyers snap up homes without ever seeing the place, a practice common in rich coastal cities, but something Roethel never experienced in her first 25 years as a Realtor.
One recent client was an architect in California looking to buy a 2,600-square-foot house for $104,000.
“Well, to people away, that’s a bargain,” Roethel says. “I don’t understand it. It’s just been crazy.”
In Ogdensburg and across the nation, the boom leaves poor places behind. Homeowners in Ogdensburg pay high taxes and face high levels of property crime. Many grand homes were divided into apartments, then neglected for decades. Most newcomers look to buy homes just outside Ogdensburg or in the nearby countryside, Roethel says, avoiding the city’s problems entirely.
“Fifteen miles in each direction, there is no question that property is moving near the river,” says Jellie, the city manager. “The problem in Ogdensburg is that virtually every street has a crack house or a meth lab on it, or two or three or 10.”
The wide valley glows, its river exposed by two days of sunshine. Ice clings to the shallow bay by the port. Half a mile from shore, a dozen fishermen stand by their holes and dare the sun to kill them.
“People keep fishing up here till the last possible day. As if we don’t get enough ice time,” Wescott, the police chief, says. “Every year we lose people.”
On Greene Street, a brown residue of road salt and sand scours blue paint off the house. More snowstorms will arrive, but today the long pandemic winter takes a holiday. After Carrie Demers was laid off as a full-time chef, she worked one day a week as a short-order cook at the Bayside Grill, where she can watch the ice fishermen from the patio. In March, the restaurant’s owner asked whether she could work more hours. Demers said yes.
Treatment services reopened in the city, giving Alan Montroy something to do with his thoughts beyond arguing with voices and fearing death.
“I’m getting a little more sleep now,” says Demers.
In other ways, the pandemic and its many crises will linger deep into summer. Managers at the Price Chopper grocery store donated 150 pounds of meat last month to the food pantry, which Demers runs from the basement of her church. She’ll need it. Before the pandemic, she served 25 people every Saturday. Now she serves 85.
“I’ve got a full freezer of meat now, and that’s good,” Demers says. “We’ve still got a lot of hungry people up here.”
Christopher Maag is a columnist for the USA TODAY Network. To get unlimited access to his unique perspective on the northeast’s most interesting people and experiences, please subscribe or activate your digital account today