White River Rising
How a critical mass of creative types is conducting a railroad-town renaissance
In more ways than one, White River Junction sits at a crossroads.
Two highways intersect there -- Interstates 89 and 91 -- and two rivers, the Connecticut and the White. Numerous rail and phone lines thread their way through, too.
For a long time, this meant WRJ had the perfect location. But the decline of rail trade in the '60s and '70s gutted the community's economic base and deflated its spirit. Now, this village of 2569 within the larger town of Hartford is finding its niche in a less tangible form of capital: the buzz generated by what pop sociologist Richard Florida has famously labeled the "creative economy."
Next Sunday, as part of an Upper Valley "summit" on the creative economy, WRJ is inviting the rest of the world to come take a "Discovery Tour." The showcase is aptly named: this is an historic downtown that's not only ripe for discovery but also rediscovering, even reinventing, itself.
Take, for instance, what's been happening in just the last few weeks: Demolition was completed on two relics of the rail era, the Twin State Fruit and Interstate Tire buildings, both of which bordered the tracks in the center of town. Railroad Row, as the district is known, is slated to be home to three new office buildings.
An appealing new restaurant, Lowbrow, opened down the street from the popular upscale Italian spot, Como Va.
Next door, Northern Stage Company completed the run of a terrific production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, preceded earlier in the year by a visit from the legendary playwright himself.
And across the river, David Ford, curator of the supremely quirky Main Street Museum, installed the big front window on his museum's new home-to-be, a former firehouse.
Even the map of the Discovery Tour is a harbinger of change. It was co-designed by James Sturm, an internationally known cartoonist who plans to open a Center for Cartoon Studies on South Main by fall of 2005.
"This town's always been a junction for something," says one local wag. Now, instead of warehousing cargo, the village is incubating painters and performers, cartoonists and vintage clothiers, digital printing labs and consulting engineers. If the momentum continues, WRJ stands to become a living laboratory of the creative economy in action.
If all roads lead through White River Junction, every conversation about its renaissance leads to one name: Matt Bucy. A tall, affable artist who seems much younger than his 40 years, he bought a former bakery four years ago and turned it into the Tip Top Media & Arts Building, now a fulcrum of White River development. The list of tenants posted on the ground floor of Bucy's 45,000-square-foot studio-and-office complex on North Main suggests the way in which White River is flowing: He's renting to massage therapists, a lawyer, a used book dealer, an art gallery, sculptors, a substance-abuse counselor, painters, a digital photography resource center, a furniture maker, a publisher of books on sustainable living, a printmaker, a public access TV studio, a "filmmaker & yogi," and the Lowbrow restaurant, among others.
In all, the building is occupied by 40 artists and businesses, spread out over two floors with exposed ceiling ducts and wall paint in colors like Smoldering Red and Nacho Cheese.
Bucy already had a track record as a landlord when he bought the Tip Top. His first real-estate venture was in surrounding Hartford, where he renovated an old woolen mill in 1992. A painter and filmmaker with a B.A. from Middlebury and a Master's in architecture from Yale, Bucy purchased the 14,000-square-foot mill for $50,000.
Once he'd finished his own apartment, "Artists started knocking on the door, looking at the nice polyurethaned loft, and saying, 'I want that.'" He eventually was able to fill the building with renters.
Still, it was "a total accident" in 2000 that Bucy wound up taking over the Tip Top, which had been partially adapted to artists' studios at the time. He went in looking for a studio space for himself, but the owners asked if he wanted to buy the entire building.
This time he lined up investors to help him with the purchase -- his parents in Colorado, and his brothers and sisters. And he set about planning a building that would expressly not be for everybody. He wanted a mix of artists and small businesspeople, not manufacturers. He turned down, among others, "a guy who wanted to store salt" and a bottle recycler. And he had two rules: no drop ceilings and no complaints about the color of the walls.
"People weren't getting it. They would laugh at me." They're not laughing now. The building's full, with renters paying $10 to $11 a square foot.
"The Tip Top project was one of the most substantial shifts in that community for the last 20 years," says Margaret Lawrence, Programming Director of Dartmouth's Hopkins Center. She's one of the organizers of the upcoming summit that will look at White River as a cultural case study. Lawrence believes the Tip Top could jump-start the town in the same way the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has revitalized North Adams, a formerly down-and-out factory town in the Berkshires.
Everyone agrees that White River's grittiness is part of its charm. David Ford, for one, is nostalgic for the good old days in 1992, when he moved to the area from New York City, attracted by family roots and cheap rents. An inveterate pack rat inclined to see the value in objects others discard, he began amassing a collection of fascinating detritus which he displayed in the front of a former greasy spoon called Lena's Lunch, the first home of the Main Street Museum. Ford also showed work by local artists, using the museum and other vacant storefronts in town as his curatorial canvas; he fondly recalls the night in 1996 when he held a festive opening in the former space of the J.J. Newberry's department store, complete with live band and a performance by a noted drag queen.
Matt Bucy remembers being incredulous the first time he attended an opening at the MSM: "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe this was right in the middle of White River Junction." He and Ford eventually became a couple: "We were the only two gay men in White River Junction. We were like, this has to happen." They lived together in the back of Lena's, accompanied by "several families of wild cats."
Now they still live together, but platonically, in the Hartford Woolen Building, along with Bucy's current boyfriend, mask- and puppetmaker Gabriel Q, and painter Mark Merrill, both of whom have studios at Tip Top.
Ford laments the disappearance of vacant spaces in town and worries that artists with studios in White River won't be able to afford to live there -- a version of the Soho Syndrome, or maybe the East Village Effect. With his new space in the firehouse, Ford is hoping to recreate the Lena's feeling "without the leaks." Cleaning out the building, he uncovered a show's worth of artifacts, some of obvious historical significance, like old photos, and others of more Fordian appeal -- like a drawer of silt from the 1927 flood of the Connecticut River.
Ford's not alone in valuing the scruffier side of White River. Granted, few may share his penchant for "moribund, empty" buildings, but the old-railroad-town feel of WRJ remains key to its distinctive identity.
"A lot of the people downtown don't want to become a Woodstock," observes Lori Hirshfield, director of the Hart-ford Department of Planning and Development Services.
"You don't want high-rise buildings, chrome and glass," says Gayle Ottmann, head of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Selectboard. "You gotta have a few rough edges -- as long as people are safe."
Chances are, though, she'd rather not have to deal with the rough edges represented by the White River Amusement Pub, a nondescript-looking strip club on North Main. Its owners are currently suing the town over an indecency ordinance banning public nudity that was issued by the Selectboard and approved by voters after the club opened two years ago, apparently under the guise of being a karaoke bar.
But Kim Souza, who owns a neighboring thrift store-boutique, likes it as a landmark. Souza likes to call White River "The East Village of the Upper Valley," so any hint of hipster zip -- or unzip -- is fine by her.
"I love saying I'm right across the street from the strip club."
As White River institutions go, none is more endearing than the Polka Dot Diner. It's dark, raggedy exterior is none too prepossessing, but the restaurant is the authentic, inimitable heart of White River Junction. In business for 78 years in a building that's even older, it sits where Main Street curves to follow the bend in the railroad tracks and the river. Owner Mary Shatney, who doesn't seem quite old enough to have worked at the Dot for 45 years, knows everybody -- from the regulars who always order the strawberry-rhubarb pie to Dartmouth grads returning for a visit after decades away.
Then there's the Hotel Coolidge, just down Main across from the railroad station. It's not a pretty hotel, with its flat façade and non-operating clock towers. But it's a well-kept, strong presence and one of several examples in town of the enduring influence of the Briggs family. The father of innkeeper David Briggs ran a men's clothing store in the neighboring block, then bought the entire building in the '70s. The Gates-Briggs Building, which is now owned by Briggs' mother Bonnie, houses the 245-seat Briggs Opera House.
Although it was dark for a while, the historic opera house started to show signs of life in the mid-'80s, when the well-regarded White River Theater Festival took up residence there. Matt Dunne, now a Vermont State Senator, managed it for a while, too.
But the most consistently successful occupant of the Opera House --Northern Stage --really got the timing right. Artistic Director Brooke Ciardelli relocated from Burlington to White River in 1997. Although she began operations on a shoestring, sending letters to friends for financial support, the theater now has a $1.2 million budget and a solid subscriber base, and the scary-but-welcome problem of living up to its own increasingly high standards after a season that saw appearances by Patrick Stewart and Arthur Miller.
The first years were tough. "When we started here, there was nowhere to eat and a liquor store that attracted a 'varied' clientele," she says. "It's really hard to be the early ones in." What came as a pleasant surprise, though, was the sophistication and loyalty of the audience -- especially compared to her previous experience. "Burlington is not a theater town... It's a post-college, pre-real-life community, a dating town." By contrast, the singles scene in the White River Junction area is fairly bleak; even the two Dartmouth bars close at 1 a.m. The lack of Church Street-level competition, plus the hunger for theater among the mature, affluent population in towns like Woodstock, helped bolster the position of Northern Stage.
Still, Ciardelli is glad to see additional momentum building in White River Junction. "One artist, one theater, is not enough." And she was getting a little tired of hearing "You're where?"
After years of valiant efforts in a vacuum -- a theater series here, a concert there -- White River Junction seems finally to be reaching a critical mass of artists and arts supporters.
One of the benefits of this burgeoning community is the cross-pollination, aesthetic and otherwise, that's beginning to occur. Costumer Robina D'Arcy-Fox, a retail tenant at the Hotel Coolidge, is making costumes for Gabriel Q's puppets. Northern Light Digital, a Tip Top tenant, is showing gorgeous enlargements of vintage photos by veteran Upper Valley photojournalist Collamer Abbott in the lobby gallery at the Coolidge. David Ford installed a mini-museum called the Hall of Industrial Antiquities in a corridor just beyond the restaurant in the Tip Top. And the new chef-owners in town, the team at Como Va, say they're ready to give whatever aid they can to new arrival Bruce MacLeod, the chef-owner at Lowbrow.
What's still to come, though, is an infusion of a whole other kind of energy: the free-wheeling creative spirit of a student population. James Sturm's Center for Cartoon Studies and Related Ephemera may sound to the uninitiated like a whimsical proposition, but it's dead serious. Or as dead serious as a proposition can be coming from a guy who worked on The Onion in its early days and co-founded the gleefully subversive Seattle newsweekly The Stranger.
Sturm is, no kidding, a major comic talent. Among other achievements, his 2000 graphic novel The Golem's Mighty Swing was named by Time as one of the top books of the year, and he's doing a new series for Marvel based on the Fantastic Four. Sturm is also the founder of the National Association of Comics Art Educators, and he's convinced that there is an underserved market out there for students interested in learning the art and business of doing what he does. Having taught in the country's only degree-granting program in "sequential art" at the Savannah College of Art & Design, he has also learned how such a program should and shouldn't work.
Sturm moved with his family to Hartland, Vermont, in 2000, to stay in his in-laws' summer place as a home base during his Golem book tour. He got talking to his neighbor, Matt Dunne, about his long-harbored dream of opening a cartooning school. Dunne, whose experience in the arts has helped make him a leading Senate proponent of the creative economy, urged him to consider White River Junction.
Now Sturm has his eye on a Main Street property not far from his studio in the Gates-Briggs Building. He's already receiving inquiries about the school, which he plans to open with 25 students in the fall of 2005 and expand to 40 the following year. Though he's estimating $600,000 in renovation and startup costs, he does have a secret weapon: "I can rely on the help of some of the best cartoonists in the world." The two-year curriculum will cover writing, graphic design, illustration, research -- the broad skill set demanded of cartoonists.
Besides the convincing arguments of Matt Dunne, why did he choose WRJ? He rattles off the reasons: "Under-utilized infrastructure... welcoming community... a nascent arts scene to help give it traction... really wonderful scale... a rich and fascinating history." Plus, "The foundation of comics is human nature, and there are a million great stories in White River Junction."
And? "Comics is the junction of words and pictures."
White River's other claim to fame -- it has the highest Internet speeds in New England -- may be a plus for Eric Francis. He's the unofficial "town crier" of White River Junction, or so he says. A wry, fast-talking freelance writer-photographer with a Trumpish pouf of red hair, he works as a correspondent for publications ranging from People magazine to the Rutland Herald.
Francis can be caustic about his adopted hometown: "Gravity brings everybody to White River Junction. It's the lowest point on the river, everything rolls down." But he's lived here for 11 years with his mother in the Hotel Coolidge, and he's come to have a kind of rueful affection for the place.
At the Dot one recent Saturday, he's eating lunch after a long morning helping James Sturm move. In a typical example of WRJ synergy, Francis plans to move out of the Coolidge into the place being vacated by Sturm, who's going to another part of town.
While waiting for his meal, he points out passersby. There's Lisa Harrow, a South Woodstock resident and Royal Shakespeare Company alum on her way to Northern Stage to appear in All My Sons. And there's Simon Dennis of COVER, a home-repair assistance program for low-income families. Another actor from All My Sons, Michael Solomon, stops by the booth to say hello; Francis shoots photos for the theater, so he gets to know the casts. And Mary Shatney comes over to show some vintage postcards of what Main Street used to look like when passenger trains provided Main Street with a steady stream of customers and every storefront was open for business.
Francis is a pioneer of sorts -- a working member of the creative economy who moved to White River Junction before anyone had ever heard the term.
"I'm probably the canary in the coal mine." How does a single 37-year-old man survive here?
"You have to want to live in a miniature urban environment," he says. "There's a nice diversity of crime." He's only half-joking: Francis frequently covers the crime scene for local papers.
But more seriously, he also says the creative economy idea, unlike past stabs at tourism, seems to make sense. "The town's nowhere near there yet. But it's on the right track."