HUNTINGTON - When the first section of Northcott Court was demolished two years ago, Tyler Collins' past came down in a heap of brick and metal with it. So much had changed in the nearly four years since the 22-year-old had enlisted in the U.S. Army Airborne, coming back to find nothing but an empty grass lot where Unit 41, his government-issued childhood home, had once stood.
But emptiness, and what that means, is subjective. To the eternal optimist, emptiness can mean a clean slate; a fresh start and a future waiting to be written.
That's what Collins saw, and that's all he's ever wanted. From a childhood bounced between broken homes and foster care to growing up with a doctorate in street knowledge through his days at Huntington High School, Collins knew what he wanted - a future.
"If you focus on the negatives, you're going to have a negative mindset," Collins said. "You've always got to focus on the positives and the future."
It would have been easy for him to grow into the negative mindset he's spent his life trying to avoid. Born in Altamont Springs, Florida, Collins bounced between foster homes and living with his dad in Neptune Beach, Florida, while his mom struggled with her own problems back in Huntington.
At age 10, Collins watched U.S. Marshals "bust down the door" to arrest his father in Florida on charges he's unclear of. In fact, there's a lot about his father, who's still in prison, that Collins doesn't know about, and the two have never been close.
Collins returned to the full custody of his mother at age 12, living in the now-destroyed Unit 41 with his mother, Christine Sweat, and little sister, Hannah Tyler. He now takes pride in growing up rough, but Collins said the circumstances were especially crushing when he started stacking his hard life up against his better-off classmates.
"You think 'These other kids don't have to go through this, so why do I?'" Collins said.
Growing on into Huntington High School, Collins had to take odd jobs and work for the nice things his classmates had seemingly without effort. It was in an AP Literature class alongside upper-middle class students, who grew up with Northcott out of sight and mind, that Collins said he first began to twist his mind toward politics.
"I thought if anybody's going to get into politics, it's going to be these kids," Collins said. "So they're going to represent the area that includes the area (where) I grew up, but they're not going to know the challenges that people ... face."
"I feel like people from where I come from never have a voice," he added.
Graduating from Huntington High in 2012 without a plan and few real options, Collins enlisted in the U.S. Army Airborne in September that year, and was assigned to the 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls, precise bed-making and other strict nuances were a world of difference from the apathy Collins had become accustomed to as a civilian, and he grew to like the Army's structure and discipline.
"You knew the person who was giving that discipline really cared about you, or else they wouldn't be giving it to you," Collins said.
As his enlistment started to wind down, Collins finally had a plan in life and the money saved to do it, a feeling he called "accomplished, yet surreal." After three years and nine months, Collins was discharged in March with a handful of college credits from nearby Fayetteville State University, money in his pocket and an acceptance letter at the University of Charleston.
Immediately after his discharge, Collins took an internship with the Jim Justice gubernatorial campaign, during which he met Justice and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, and he stayed at The Greenbrier Resort in his short time as a civilian.
Now enrolled with nearly sophomore-level hours at UC, Collins is in the process of founding the university's chapter of the Young Democrats. Stable for the first time in his civilian life, Collins said it hasn't really set in yet, being not too far removed yet from his slow start at Unit 41.
"Before any of this, I was just Tyler in Huntington," Collins said. "It's surreal because I just remember being a kid in Northcott."
Northcott Court is still there, but it's not what he remembers. Unit 41's ghost haunts a grass field, and the tenants' faces are now strangers. A neighborhood, Collins said, isn't the buildings; it's the people, and he estimated the average Northcott tenant only stays for a year or two.
When he returned to Northcott a few weeks ago for the first time in nearly three years, Collins said people were on the street "chirping" about him, now an unknown in his former neighborhood, standing outside, mistaking him for a police officer and openly yelling at him.
"It's not like the same faces as when I grew up," Collins said. "So do I feel safe there now? No, because I don't know anybody there."
Despite it all, Collins expressed a deep love for Huntington and a desire to return after graduation. He used the phrase "getting out" to describe bettering his life and explained what that meant to him.
"'Getting out' is getting out of poverty and getting out of Northcott. Huntington though, I love Huntington. Huntington means a lot of me," Collins said. "No matter what I do, this will always be home to me."
Even with that, Collins admitted that living outside of Huntington was best for him right now in life, a 45-minute drive from the drug-dealing, street-fighting ghosts of his childhood.
"I love this area, but I don't think it would be good for me to move back to Huntington right now," Collins said. "I still know a lot of people, and I'm still a human being."
Double-majoring in English and political science, Collins said he could see himself as an English professor or teacher back in Huntington someday while still keeping a hand in politics.
Whatever happens, Collins remembers where Unit 41 stood on the empty grass lot, and the hardships of the people around it. That's something he can't forget.
"I'd like to see myself as a person who's in a position, whatever that position (is), where I've really done a lot to help the community," Collins said.
Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.