×

Amid revitalization efforts, residents ponder what White River Junction’s identity will be

  • A pedestrian crosses Gates Street at the intersection with South Main Street in front of the Filling Station Bar & Grill, a local watering hole for over 20 years; Northern Stage's Barrette Center for the Arts, built in 2015; and The Village at White River Junction assisted living facility, which opened to residents in January, in White River Junction, Vt., on March 13, 2019. The village of White River Junction displays a duality of its working class roots and its rapidly growing arts scene. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jackie Jacobs, left, and Linda Johnson hold hands in the prayer circle at the end of the Sunday service at the White River Junction United Methodist Church in White River Junction, Vt., on June 16, 2019. Both Jacobs and Johnson, who are mother and daughter, remember when the town was active generations ago; then they saw it decline and now start to rise up again. "It’s gone to nothing and back. I’m amazed at the people I see on the streets," said Johnson. "I think it’s way more integrated than it used to be. Downtown, I think they’ve done a great job of integrating everything." (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • David Sterritt, of Baltimore, celebrates at the 15th annual White River Indie Film Festival opening night afterparty at Piecemeal Pies in White River Junction, Vt., on May 31, 2019. Since 2005, WRIF has screened films in White River Junction, and it has grown to now take over the Barrette Center for the Arts and surrounding businesses. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Wyatt Manobla poses for a portrait in the sewing studio beside his costume shop, Dusty's Palace, in White River Junction, Vt., on May 30, 2019. "It’s like an artist community, and it’s very LGBTQ and queer... So i feel like it’s the perfect fit. I’m very happy to be here," said Manobla, who moved to the town last September to give his clothing store a better space for community outreach. "I think every town has to function and find what its gimmick is or else it just gets stale and dies down because people will just get bored and move or nothing will ever change; everything will stay the same. It’s good for places not to be stale and to keep things fresh and fun and alive, because we’re living beings," he said. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Oce Jones poses while staffing the gallery exhibit of the graduating class's theses at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on May 8, 2019. Jones graduated last year from the one-year certificate program and now works as the facilities manager. “I’m definitely ready to go elsewhere,” she said, adding that she did love living in town. CCS, founded in 2004, enrolls over 100 students, who mostly live and stay in White River Junction. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jarvis Green, founder and producing artistic director of JAG Productions, an African-American theater company that tells stories and creates experiences for people of color, tends to a vase of flowers while posing for a portrait at his apartment in White River Junction, Vt., on June 23, 2019. "I thought White River could be a place to connect with young people doing similar work," said Green, who moved to the town almost three years ago from Anderson, S.C. "There’s access to young professionals and people who are new to the area or here temporarily. That’s easier to do here than other parts of the Upper Valley." (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kirsten Connor talks about her sensitive skin hair products during a Mother's Day event at the Flourish Beauty Lab in White River Junction, Vt., on May 12, 2019. Connor used to have a store in Woodstock, Vt., a few years ago but was unsatisfied with the traffic of customers. “Everyone comes to White River Junction for one reason or another,” she said, continuing that the village is at the center of everything, tourists come through, and people stop to shop after getting dinner. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kim Finney sells a shirt to Jasmine Tracy, 16, of Norwich, Vt., at the Second Hand Rose thrift shop in White River Junction, Vt., on June 12, 2019. Second Hand Rose operates out of the White River Junction United Methodist Church and the proceeds go towards helping the 141-year-old church, which is low on members, according to Finney. "The number of people coming to church has dwindled quite a bit in the last few years. So many younger people just don’t go to church," said Finney. "I think two things. I think it’s great that it’s busy and active and good for the tax base. I don’t think there’s much downtown for your average Joe Moe. The only place to eat downtown is C&S (Pizza)," said church volunteer Pat Stark (not pictured), who lived in White River Junction for 40 years. Stark still concluded that the town is a lot better now. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A contemporary condominium building built in 2005, left, and the Bridge and Main Building, which opened in July 2018, were both developed by Bill Bittinger's Railroad Row LLC. They are framed by junk along the railroad tracks in White River Junction, Vt., on April 18, 2019. The Bridge and Main Building offers low-income apartments for workforce housing. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jackie Jacobs, left, and Linda Johnson hold hands in the prayer circle at the end of the Sunday service at the White River Junction United Methodist Church in White River Junction, Vt., on June 16, 2019. Both Jacobs and Johnson, who are mother and daughter, remember when the town was active generations ago; then they saw it decline and now start to rise up again. "It’s gone to nothing and back. I’m amazed at the people I see on the streets," said Johnson. "I think it’s way more integrated than it used to be. Downtown, I think they’ve done a great job of integrating everything." (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Photographs by JOSEPH RESSLER
Saturday, July 06, 2019

Stephanie Waterman was in what’s now Tuckerbox restaurant, drinking a glass of wine, the night she saw the strip club across North Main Street go up in flames in 2005.

“It still feels surreal,” she said last month. “I remember thinking, ‘Huh. Well, that’s going to be interesting to see what that does to downtown.’ ”

Waterman doesn’t give that fire all the credit for White River Junction’s changing downtown. But these days, she said, “I think it’s a pretty good way to sum up just how different it is.

“What used to be this dark brick building with all blacked-out windows, is now this big, bright, multistory modern building with (Juel Juice) in the bottom.”

From a strip club to a smoothie bar: a radical transformation indeed.

It’s no big secret that downtown White River Junction has been undergoing a kind of renaissance over the past two decades. Where an empty warehouse once sat, there’s now the hydroponics store, White River Growpro, which Waterman runs with her husband, Kendall Smith. Where streets teemed with activities longtime residents consistently deemed “sketchy,” there’s now a rich palette of art galleries and studios, award-winning theater and quality restaurants.

“I think the changes are obviously very good for the economy,” said Pat Stark, secretary of the Hartford Historical Society, who remembered thinking White River Junction was a “total ghost town” when she moved to Hartford in the 1980s. Just a few decades earlier, it had been a bustling, albeit gritty, nexus of Vermont’s railroad industry — but the rise of highways siphoned away much of the town’s economic lifeblood, sending it into decline.

“So we needed something,” Stark said. “At the same time, these changes aren’t for me. They’re kind of like a gentrification to me. And it’s just not really my cup of tea.”

Stark said that although the downtown’s funky, artsy vibe might have improved tourism downtown, she’s not a big patron herself.

“I’m an old, stodgy New Englander,” she said. “I don’t like change.” She doesn’t like “gourmet yuppie food,” and she isn’t much one for the arts. In fact, she hardly goes downtown anymore — except to go to church.

“The forgotten church,” Stark calls it. “Right next to that Village.”

Indeed, it seems impossible to discuss the transformation of downtown without mentioning The Village at White River Junction, the luxury senior living facility that has risen up on Gates Street. Physically, it sits in between two emblems of White River Junction: To its one side, there’s the Barrette Center for the Arts, home of the regional theater company Northern Stage, regarded as a major component of the town’s artistic vitality. On the Village’s other side stands Stark’s white clapboard church, United Methodist Church, built in 1887.

All three of these buildings tell a part of White River Junction’s story: the church standing in for the town’s historic New England heritage, the Barrette Center for the vibrant artsy energy of the present moment. Meanwhile, the gleaming, largely empty Village could stand for the question marks of the town’s future: What, as is often the case with gentrification, might get sacrificed in the name of progress? And who gets to decide what that progress looks like?

In White River Junction, progress has a few faces. One of them is Mike Davidson, who has recently proposed building a five-story, mixed-use building downtown that would include a large commercial space and 50-some-odd apartments, some of which would be leased by Northern Stage for its visiting actors. There’s also David Briggs, whose family owns the Hotel Coolidge, an old railroad mainstay, and the Gates Briggs building where Waterman watched the strip club burn, and Bill Bittinger, who owns the building that replaced it and also earlier developed mixed-use buildings on Railroad Row, near the courthouse.

Another face of the new White River Junction is Matt Bucy, who started buying and renovating properties downtown in the 1990s. Those have included projects like the Tip Top building — which now holds what Bucy envisioned as “its own little world” of artist studios, making it a hub of White River Junction’s creative activity.

“At the time, (the town) was kind of crashing,” Bucy recalled. “Stores were getting abandoned. People were moving out. My lawyer was like, ‘You’re out of your mind. White River’s dying.’ And I was like, ‘No! What’s wrong with you? It’s so cool!’ ”

An artist himself, Bucy said there was “just something” about White River Junction that he liked. And whatever it was — be it the post-industrial vibe of the old buildings and railway station, the quiet beauty of the mountains and rivers, the small-town community and its characters, or some combination of the three — it appealed to other creative souls, too.

“Matt knew, everyone knows, artists go where the rent is cheap,” said Kim Souza, who runs the Revolution clothing store downtown. “And 15 years ago, in White River Junction, rent was pretty darn cheap.”

Souza said her business, which she almost had to close in 2008 around the economic recession, has strongly benefited from the downtown renaissance.

“There wasn’t even close to the foot traffic there is now,” she said. Now, when theatergoers pop in on their way to a Northern Stage play, or when students take a break from their work at the Center for Cartoon Studies, or when art lovers come out for First Friday celebrations, Souza said she feels grateful for the changes.

“One of the things I really value about this town is that, in contrast to many other areas in the Upper Valley and across the country, we — ah, hang on,” Souza interrupted herself. In a moment that would have fit just as well in another time, in a different White River Junction, a train’s horn blared in the background, drowning out conversation for a few moments.

“We actually know most of the developers,” Souza continued, once the horn had stopped. “Many of them are members of our community. We can access them, and hold them accountable. We can walk down the street and see Matt Bucy and David Briggs. These are just the people in our neighborhood.”

Souza, who also sits on the Hartford Selectboard, said that although she views the changes positively, she would like to see more diversity in town. “Racial and ethnic diversity and age diversity especially,” she said. “Young people are getting more interested, but there aren’t that many compelling reasons for them to stick around.”

Bucy acknowledged that, when he renovated the American Legion building on South Main Street into residential and commercial space, he was expecting a younger crowd to fill the 22 apartments, students in particular. Instead, he was a bit surprised that the tenants were mostly professionals — “probably because of the rent,” Bucy said, since rent had to be higher than he was initially aiming for.

“It’s not as rough-and-tumble here as it used to be,” he said. “But I would actually say that rather than (becoming) gentrified in the true sense, it’s actually returning to its former character to some degree. Like, I would actually say we’re bringing it back to more of the energy of what it used to be here.”

But Parker Beaupré — who, as a 24-year-old writer, would seem to be a good candidate to live in White River Junction — isn’t interested in living somewhere he views as so gentrified. Despite Souza’s confidence that Bucy and other local developers are different than those elsewhere, Beaupré thinks the story will end more or less the same.

“Right now, I wouldn’t live (in White River Junction),” said Beaupré, who grew up across the Connecticut River in Meriden and lives there now. He cited Brooklyn and New Orleans as examples of places where gentrification has had, in his view, a negative impact on existing communities.

“What’s really concerning for me,” he said, “is that all of these affluent liberals are praising the progress of what’s going on. There are benefits, but it’s also still capitalism. There’s still someone losing, by definition.”

This raises the question: If the renaissance isn’t for Stark because the aesthetic is too “yuppie” for her old-school-Yankee tastes, and it isn’t for millennials like Beaupré because it smacks to him of capitalist greed — who is it for?

Bucy chuckled at the question.

“White River Junction is for anyone who likes it,” he said. “It’s never been my intention to attract any particular kind of person, per se. Just whoever it clicks with. It’s more like, build more living space downtown, see who shows up.”

Correspondent EmmaJean Holley can be reached at emmajeanholley@gmail.com. Photographer Joseph Ressler can be reached at jcr6326@rit.edu.