What's the secret to downtown revitalization? Ask White River Junction
A listener asked Brave Little State how this Upper Valley community became such a thriving place, “when it used to be so bleak.” We talk to some of the people behind the transformation.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public's show that answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience, because we want our journalism to be more inclusive, transparent and fun.
In this episode, reporter Angela Evancie talks with some of the many people who have helped revitalize the small village of White River Junction, and explores the culture of a place where creativity reigns.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio; for accessibility, we also provide a written version of the episode below.
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Patrick Murphy lives on South Main Street in White River Junction. He’s just a few doors down from a hip new mixed-use building – a place where you can get an $80 haircut and then eat a mahi mahi taco while you sit on a patio that’s been furnished with chair lifts and a gondola.
Patrick has lived on this street for 65 years. "From here all the way to the end of this street was all my relatives at one time," he says.
"If it's not for these stores here and these new restaurants, this town would be dead," he says. "They're doing everything they can to clean up White River. Especially this part of town, [which] has a real bad rep."
Even though Patrick can't afford to patronize the newer businesses in town, he's glad they're here — "for the most part."
"The affordability for housing in this town is terrible, especially for low income folks like myself at this point in my life," he says. "[White River Junction] doesn't offer much for that. And when they put in these types of buildings, it hurts it even more.
"But there's nothing you can do for the changes, ‘cuz they are needed. I agree with that. They do need to be changed, but they have to do it in a way that's not going to affect the homeless and the poor folk."
I was talking to Patrick Murphy because I was trying to answer a listener’s question about White River Junction. If you’ve never been, it’s a village in the town of Hartford, in the Upper Valley. And it lives up to its name — as the junction of the White River and the Connecticut River, the junction of rail lines in the heyday of railroads (Amtrak still runs through) and the junction of interstates I-89 and I-91. It’s also right on the border with New Hampshire — so, junction of two states.
White River, as some call it, is a place that’s been through a lot of changes. Which is what our question-asker, Amanda, was wondering about. She told me she was too shy to talk on tape. But here’s what she said over email:
“I’m in my mid-40s, and I feel like I’ve seen its downtown through about three different lifecycles. When I was a kid, the introduction of the interstate highway system meant that the only remnant of White River Junction as a bustling railway village was the old diner my friends’ grandparents went to after church. When I was a young adult, the diner was closed and a strip club opened down the street. And in my adult years, that strip club was replaced with chi-chi apartments I could never afford to live in and a café specializing in healthy smoothies.
“Today, there’s nothing I like more than wandering from a dish of pad thai at Penom Penh to check out the stationary at Post before rounding the corner to look at the pretty displays at the White River Floral Company and pick up vintage candies at Ava’s Candy Corner. I cannot emphasize enough how strange this is to someone who remembers old, wasteland White River Junction.”
Amanda’s question – and the question that you all voted for us to answer – was this:
“Some downtowns in Vermont are really thriving, like White River Junction. How did that happen, when they used to be so bleak?”
David Fairbanks Ford: "That's a good question, Amanda. And the only thing that immediately comes to mind, the only thing I would say, is that I lived here in 1992. My mom's family's from the area actually, my grand aunt and uncle lived right here in town. And I don't consider it bleak. I don't really consider it bleak at all. I consider, there was some income issues. There's some people here who were on assistance, or working class folks, and it was a place for cheap rent."
Before we talk about its evolution … not surprisingly, the matter of whether White River Junction really was “bleak” is up for some debate:
Michelle Ollie: "I wouldn't call it the bleak days. But, you know, a different time in the history of White River, where maybe the economy was struggling more."
Kristen Connor: "When I first moved to Vermont, 20-something years ago, my mom used to work at the VA [Veterans Affairs Medical Center]. And we were afraid to venture down into the downtown area. And I used to live near the Bronx!"
Joie Finley: "When I got my drivers license – because we’re from Hartland – the rule was, you weren’t allowed to drive into downtown White River, period. You can go anywhere you want to go, you can’t go there."
Matt Bucy: "I didn't perceive it as bleak. When I first walked into town here, which was in 1985, probably, I just like, 'Wow, this is a cool place.' It's kind of like, nobody knows it's here. And I did think it was a little ... under-appreciated, I guess I would say."
“Bleak” or no, everybody agrees that White River Junction was always a place in transition – because it was a place for transition. In the early days it was a trading post at the confluence of rivers. Then a thriving railroad town – until the 1960s, when rail lost out to the interstate highway system and the community’s fortunes waned. Across all these eras, White River became very good at offering a good time.
David Fairbanks Ford: "We didn't have these big, big factories in town. We just had hotels, we had bowling alleys. We had indoor miniature golf. We had maybe a dozen bars in town."
Matt Bucy: "You know, there were movie theaters, three movie theaters. It was like a little bit of a very, very tiny Las Vegas, I guess you could say."
David Fairbanks Ford: "And the police dispatch was right here in this building. And every Saturday night there would just be call after call of drunken unruly people. And they just go in with the clubs out, bust some heads, silence of the drunks and then come back to the police headquarters. Couldn't do that nowadays."
"But it was an interesting, interesting scene for me to see — people not care that I was a queer Vermonter, they didn't even mention it. So when my roommate and I first moved here — my roommate was straight, but we were skinny artists from Boston. We wore our black jeans, and we were just, you know, skinny artists. We wander into the biker bar, the Filling Station, right? We each have our little sketchbooks, because we liked to sketch people when we were going out and about. And we order our beer, we sit down, we take out our sketchbooks, and we just do a little surreptitious sketching, you know, in the local bar, you know, figure we should get to know our neighbors. And one big biker comes up to up, and he says — points on our books and says, 'What the f— is that?' And we're thinking, 'Oh my, is this, is this going to be it?' And then we said, 'Well, sir, they're their sketchbooks.' 'Sketchbooks?' he says. 'Uh, yes, we're artists.' 'You’re artists,' he said, 'That's great. We thought that those were Bibles, [that] you were preachers. And if you’d have been preachers, we were gonna beat the sh– out of you.' And I think at that moment, I fell in love with this town."
The White River Junction that David Fairbanks Ford is talking about hasn’t totally disappeared. Like, that “biker bar,” the Filling Station, is still open. And there are still stretches of town where you feel like you’re walking back in time. They just happen to be near, say, an upscale retirement community, or a vintage thrift store. Or a place that sells English-inspired meat pies.
Make your own fun
“For a long time we've been printing these T-shirts that on the front say ‘White River Junction’ and on the back, they say ‘It's not so bad,’” says Kim Souza, owner of the independent retail shop Revolution. “Totally tongue in cheek, we love White River Junction. And … that's part of the element – that while there is inevitable gentrification, there is still a gritty element about White River Junction that we do embrace lovingly. You know, granted, we want safe infrastructure and not crumbling sidewalks and things like that. But not everything has to be marble and glossy and slick and shiny, either.”
Kim Souza is also on the Hartford Select Board. And she’s one of many creative and civically engaged people who made White River Junction into the place it is today. And she, like everyone else I talked to, downplays her own role — and points back to the community.
“It's organic, kind of grassroots collaboration,” she says. “You know, we all have our own entities and projects. And then we also get together and work on things as a business community.”
How did that community get built? To hear Kim tell it, it’s almost one long string of parties.
“We have this ongoing, long term motto of ‘Make your own fun,’” she says. “You know, we come up with ideas like, ‘Oh, hey, let's have a Mardi Gras-style Halloween parade.’ And now we've been doing that for 20 years. And [then] someone says, ‘Oh, you should do a fashion show.’ And so now we have a very inclusive, body positive, all ages, genders, sizes, shapes, runway show, that's a benefit for local nonprofits every year. And [then], ‘Oh, well, we need reasons to dress up. So why don't you have a black tie Oscar party?’ Like, OK!"
In other communities, these kinds of events would be organized by, like the chamber of commerce or a nonprofit. In White River? The fun comes courtesy of a secret society.
“This started about 20 years ago,” Kim tells me. “There was something that was – have you heard about the Rio Blanco Social Club?” (I hadn’t.) “So, you know, sitting around on the deck of the Main Street museum, we decided to form a secret society of the Rio Blanco Social Club.”
Rio Blanco: White River, en Español. A lot of the people in this story have some sort of affiliation with the Rio Blanco Social Club, though most of them gave cagey answers when I asked them about it. I guess that’s what makes it a secret society.
“It was anonymous,” Kim continues. “And, you know, you couldn't tell who were members. But basically, we did some events. And the main one was the Gory Daze Parade.”
Yes, that’s Gory Daze. This is the Mardi Gras-style Halloween parade Kim mentioned. From what I understand, it’s a parade with very few spectators, because everyone who comes ends up in the parade.
“After the parade, there's a ball. And we just kind of come up with a goofy name for the ball every year. So it's been the Fire Ball. It's been the Eight Ball,” Kim says. “I think this year it's the Gum Ball.”
Another member of the Rio Blanco Social Club was David Fairbanks Ford, who was once that “skinny artist” with a sketchbook in the Filling Station bar. David is the curator of the Main Street Museum, which is in an old fire station. It’s not your typical museum.
Among the objects he shows me: A “Virgisaurus” made by the artist Slugo Maneschewitz Gagarin (“It’s a Virgin Mary dinosaur from Sheehan’s Religious Supply Store in Boston”) and a “head case” display featuring an assortment of, well, heads. ("Most people say I have a head case. I'm first to agree").
It’s a place that feels like the psychic home of today’s White River: a mixture of old and new, high and low — where creativity reigns, and everyone is welcome.
“I've always hated that word ‘exclusive,’ you know. So we just let everyone in,” David tells me. “I've seen a molecular biologist at Dartmouth dancing with the town drunk. And that was from day one, what we did here at the museum, we were non-exclusive. And I've loved that. And I can guarantee you that that will happen tonight.”
“Tonight” is player-piano night. David has a 1930 Aeolian Stroud self-playing piano and boxes full of songs on these paper scrolls that you feed into the piano. It’s basically an old-school karaoke machine.
“And so we sort of draw themes together on a weekly basis. And then people show up with a box of wine and somebody else shows up with a cake," David says.
“It's controlled chaos. A lot of events we do have no planning whatsoever.”
Location, location, location
“Controlled chaos” seems like an apt description for some of the real estate development that’s happened in town – particularly under a guy named Matt Bucy.
“I mean, I rented out most of the building in one day, during an open house. Hundreds of people came through, and I was literally just drawing chalk lines on the floor, saying, ‘Here's your space, this look good?’ And then the carpenters came in, and, like, just built the walls where the chalk lines were.”
Matt Bucy is referring to a building called the Tip Top Building. Today it houses printmaking and pottery shops, a restaurant and a vintage store; lots of artist studios.
(By the way, when I asked Matt if he was a member of the Rio Blanco Social Club, he told me he was actually a founder. Though he also denied its existence – said it was more of a joke. Whatever you say.)
When Matt bought the Tip Top building in 2000, it was in rough shape. But he saw the potential:
“You know, to find a building like this Tip Top building, which was a 45,000-square-foot, basically abandoned, dystopian, Blade Runner-ish [building with] water running down, things exploding … It was a lot of fun, actually. And, you know, I didn't know what I was going to do with it, really, but it cost less than a house.”
(In Matt’s recollection, he paid $250,000.)
In addition to the Tip Top building, Matt has redeveloped a woolen mill, a telephone company building and an American Legion — and he’s turned those all spaces into about 80 units, residential and commercial.
“I've never built a new building. I just save old buildings,” he quips.
Matt Bucy finances his projects with millions of dollars in funding from investors. And money, it probably goes without saying, is a big force behind White River Junction’s resurgence.
In addition to private developments like Matt’s, there’ve also been public-private partnerships, countless grants orchestrated by the Hartford Planning Department. In 2011 the state designated White River as a “tax increment financing” district, or TIF, which is a way that communities can fund improvements that will ideally attract more development. And at this very moment, that program is funding a $5 million project to overhaul water and sewer downtown and make so-called streetscape improvements.
All that capital helps. But just as important is the money outside White River Junction. That’s what Matt Bucy thinks.
“I think White River has redeveloped successfully because of where it's located,” he says. “The Upper Valley is an economically stable place and differentiates it from other areas in Vermont, especially where there's not as much economic activity.”
If White River’s artists like to say that it’s just a few hours from Boston, New York and Montreal, its business owners are happy to be 10 minutes from Dartmouth College, Dartmouth Health, wealthy communities like Hanover and Norwich, and the commercial hub that is West Lebanon, New Hampshire.
“I see White River’s development and redevelopment, really, [as] just part of a natural thing that would have happened, regardless of who was there, because the economic pressures are present to force it to happen,” Matt says.
‘An artistic sanctuary’
But those economic forces may be no match for the creative forces at work in the village.
"There's theater, there's the arts, there's film, animation, kind of you name it is happening up and down Main Street, and around the corner,” says Michelle Ollie.
It was this creative milieu that pulled Michelle Ollie to town, to co-found the Center for Cartoon Studies with James Sturm, in 2004.
“I saw these … places, and could visualize a program,” she says. “I could visualize the students in town, and what they could contribute — and specifically art students.”
The campus of the Center for Cartoon Studies includes a former post office and a former department store. Students spend up to two years studying cartooning here, a lot of them pick up work in the local restaurants. And, of course, they spend money.
“The Center for Cartoon studies, it's $2.5 million annually that the school brings directly to the community,” Michelle says, “and that's in rent and spending.”
The student body also diversifies the community.
“And of course, you know, our community itself is — we're in a state that's very white, and that has its challenges when you're inviting a population to live here for a year or two or more, and some [people] permanently move hereafter,” Michelle says. “And that's something we're all continuing to work on.”
For Michelle, that means walking over to have a conversation with a business owner when, say, one of her students doesn’t feel safe at work.
Love — period.
Michelle and others that I spoke to for this episode have acknowledged that there has been a lot of … white … in White River. But they’re lucky – because the community is also home to a distinguished multiracial theater group.
"I feel like, if we can contribute to making this area a place where more Black, brown and queer folk can feel safe, and want to stay here, that would make me truly happy,” says Jarvis Green, the founder and producing artistic director of JAG Productions.
Jarvis describes the company, which is based in both White River Junction and New York, this way: “We are an artistic sanctuary for Black creatives in the American theater. In addition to that we catalyze compassion, empathy, love, and community through the lens of the Black experience.”
Jarvis founded JAG Productions here in 2016. The company stages plays and incubates new works. And like Michelle Ollie, Jarvis was enticed by White River’s arts scene.
“When I think about what revitalizes a town and what makes a downtown scene, like, exciting, it's art. It's, like, creativity. It's the thing that connects people,” Jarvis says. “And we as human beings, we long for and we yearn for entry points into connection.”
Connection is what JAG’s work is all about – bringing people together through stories, and contemplating the human experience.
“At the end of the day, it's like, how [do] people in the audience and our community see themselves, or someone they know, in the work, right?” he says.
I’ve seen most of JAG’s shows over the years. I think it’s some of the best theater in Vermont. And it’s made me think about this concept of “inclusivity.” Usually that word implies a need for white spaces to be more inclusive of people who aren’t white. I told Jarvis what I really like about JAG, is that it makes me, a white person, feel like I am being included in a Black space. And I’m welcome. And he was like, thanks — and he also pushed me a little further.
“Thank you for sharing that. Because honestly, at the end of all there is about inclusivity, race, all of that …go [deeper], go beyond that. And what I really am about, and what I like to tap into is, like, love. Period. Period."
What community wouldn’t benefit from this kind of presence?
"There's a lot of work that's happening in White River around various different things. And it's almost like, this is the piece that was missing," Jarvis says. "We can't have these conversations if we aren't talking about Black experiences and, like, have that as a cultural pillar, within the community. We gotta feel it, we gotta touch it, we gotta see it, we gotta be in conversation with it. It's got to live and breathe in this community so that we can actually talk about the other stuff. It all begins there."
JAG Productions was by no means the first theater group in town – and Jarvis gives credit to the champions of art and community that came before him.
“I think it's important to always sort of honor our elders, particularly, like, David Briggs, [who] is doing everything that he can to sort of make Briggs Opera House [and the Hotel Coolidge] a community space, you know, Brooke [Ciardelli], who started Northern Stage [in White River Junction in 1997], and Carol Dunne, who has transformed in such an amazing way since Brooke left.
“And the folks that are unnamed, that I haven't met, or I don't know, that created enough space for my black, Southern queer ass to come in and basically say, like, ‘Here I am, like, I hope you ride with me, I hope you f—s with me, because I'm not going anywhere, and this is what I want to do.’ And so in order for that to happen, people had to really set it up for me to come in to do that. So I just wanted to kind of uplift and highlight our elders and the people that came before.”
When I asked Jarvis if he’s a member of the Rio Blanco Social Club, he laughed.
“I think that I am," he said. "I don't think I'm like, formally [a member], but, like, I am. Like, I get the emails, and I get all the tea.”
Passing the baton
Kim Souza, one of the original members of the Rio Blanco Social Club, says she’s glad to see a new wave of creative people in town.
“So while those of us that are now in our fifties and sixties are like, ‘Oh, we're we're tired, we don't know if we can, like, manage this dance party until last call’ or whatever — now there's like a whole new generation of people who are have picked up the mantle," she says.
The story of White River Junction is not a handy how-to for downtown revitalization. There’s too much that is unique and gloriously eccentric about this place. But maybe it all comes down to something more simple — just this willingness to change. To make old things new again, and not take yourself too seriously – and then, when you’ve done your bit, step aside and make room for new people and ideas.
But then again, sometimes change is unexpected. And very unwelcome.
A few weeks before I started reporting this story, a sprinkler system failed in the basement of one of the big buildings in White River, the Gates Briggs Building. A lot of businesses were impacted, including Kim Souza’s, but the worst damage was to a beloved Turkish restaurant on the corner called Tuckerbox. They had three feet of water in their basement.
Jackie and Vural Oktay own the restaurant. They show me the basement space that used to hold their butcher room, prep space, inventory, office…now it’s just a cleared-out, faintly musty-smelling basement space, with floors stripped down to soil.
“It's critical to our operation. We don't have a choice. Like if we don't have this this basement where we don't really have a restaurant,” Jackie says.
Jackie and Vural were actually in Turkey when disaster hit, on their first family trip in years. So their staff all worked to lug everything upstairs and salvage as much as possible. Which, in turn, ruined their dining room floor.
“It was really sad when we came back, when we saw it here,” Vural says.
The Oktays told me they’re still totaling the cost of the damage for their insurance (when Jackie ticks through her estimates, she quickly gets into the hundreds of thousands). But their community didn’t wait: On Gofundme, they’ve already raised more than $67,000 toward a $100,000 goal. That’s helped Jackie and Vural to get a jump on repairs, and to continue to pay their employees, even though the restaurant has been closed.
“We are super, super fortunate and grateful that our community stepped up big time,” Jackie says. “So that's been a lifeline for us.”
On the day I visit, a crew is working on a new floor in the dining room. Jackie and Vural seem beyond stressed, and also super focused. And it quickly becomes clear that this disaster is not the only major challenge they are facing: They cannot find workers.
“To be totally honest with you, this is the most difficult moment that we've had in running businesses: the lack of employees, specifically in the kitchen,” Jackie says.
It raises an interesting question. Say you can weather a pandemic, and a crippling flood, thanks in no small part to support from your very vibrant community. But if no one’s willing to cook the food on your menu … What then? Or maybe it’s better to ask, what needs to change to meet this new moment?
“Until we get kitchen help, we're not going to be open seven days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner, just, period — even if the restaurant’s ready,” Jackie says. “Like, we're not going to overwork all of our employees like they were being overworked. And we're not going to overwork ourselves. We need help.”
Just this week, Tuckerbox did re-open — for dinner only. And their repairs are ongoing.
Meanwhile, the changes will just keep coming to White River, as they do. At one point when I was talking to Kim Souza, the clothing store owner, she mentioned that White River needs to keep housing and affordability top of mind – especially as it prepares to receive climate migrants in the coming years. There’s no other option, she told me. It’s adapt or fail.
Thanks so much for listening to the show. And thanks to today’s question-asker, Amanda, for the great question.
Angela Evancie reported and produced this episode, with help and editing from the rest of the Brave Little State team – Myra Flynn, Josh Crane and Mae Nagusky. All the music you’ve heard today is courtesy of local artists Chico Eastridge and Matt Mazur.
Special thanks to David Briggs, Joie Finley, Kristen Connor, Chico Eastridge, Jordyn Fitch, Samantha Davidson Green, Pat Stark, Lori Hirschfield, Rebecca Bailey, Rob Schultz, Karen Jamiel and James Stewart.
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