The Colonization of White River Junction

WRJ is where it's at in the UV

How gentrification is quickly changing the face of WRJ:

People used to advise me against going to White River Junction because the area was impoverished and perceived to be dangerous. Walking around the city this afternoon however was disconcerting in a different way. Like I had walked onto a movie set or into a gigantic model town. The sensation is unmistakable at this point, and its universality bothers me. I’ve felt it in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Washington DC, and Burlington, Vermont, as well as in the barrios of Santurce in Puerto Rico and Palermo in Buenos Aires. It’s an eeriness that comes from seeing and feeling the immense power of colonialism in action.

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It is a fact, that in the Upper Valley, we stand on Abenaki land. It is also a fact that the entirety of the United States exists on stolen land as a result of attempted genocide in the name of “Manifest Destiny”, the notion that white colonizers and settlers were called on by God to civilize the world and the people in it. Progress at all costs, including human. No, gentrification is not literally the same as European conquest, but since the United States is founded on violence, greed, and forced land ownership, old practices have new faces and consequences today. (Jones)

Neighborhoods change all the time, and that’s normal. That’s not what gentrification is. Gentrification is rapid change within a short period of time due to the sudden influx of newcomers, the newest thing about them being the wealth and power with which they arrive. They bring enough money to improve the area in ways that longtime residents support but perhaps could not achieve themselves due to lack of funds or political power. Due to the revitalization of the area, the cost of living skyrockets, and locals are forced out in favor of people who can afford it. According to an article by Tom Angotti, “Gentrification means wiping out the social history of an existing community or turning that history into a hip, marketable cliché” (Angotti). Often, these areas are post-industrial, and that look, the brick buildings with exposed pipes and beams and naked light bulbs, becomes a desirable aesthetic, appreciated for its authenticity.

I’m now going to quote from two sources to show how gentrification, also known as neocolonialism is taking place in White River. The first is an academic paper called Gentrification and the Heterogeneous City: Finding a Role for Design by Sally Harrison and Andrew Jacobs, and the second is a 2013 article from Seven Days, an independent publication out of Burlington. First, the text on gentrification:


"In the 1960s and ‘70s when the agents of gentrification and displacement were clearly defined public entities empowered by urban renewal policy, architects were active, vocal advocates for change. Then battle lines were clear. Not so in our contemporary neoliberal economic environment where the prime movers in gentrification operate behind the scenes. Private developers, seeking profit in emerging new markets in neglected, strategically located neighborhoods partner quietly with public policy makers. Together these public-private partnerships [market] the gentrified neighborhoods as a product of the “creative class” and young people are welcomed into “up and coming” neighborhoods. First gradually, then rapidly, the ragged edges are smoothed, rents rise and poorer old-time residents relocate. A far cry from the ethos of creative risk-taking that the hip emerging neighborhoods were meant to represent, a haunting predictability begins to pervade the newly gentrified urban spaces. Cafes, bike shares, dog parks, galleries, and pop-up parks proliferate and are replicated from city to city." (Harrison)


Compare this with the article from Seven Days about a developer named Matt Bucy, who is buying up and renovating properties in White River Junction:


"Each of those projects followed a similar plan: Bucy purchased a tired old building whose decrepitude evoked White River’s long-lost industrial glory days. For tenants, he courted commercial and fine artists, thereby becoming one of several local trendsetters to lay down a new path for the village’s future. White River would no longer be a depressed, rough-and-tumble mill town but a nexus of Vermont’s creative economy." (De Seife)


What Bucy, and many other developers are seeking to do is identical to the description of what happens during gentrification. Bucy isn't uniquely bad, he just happens to be the person the article talks about. Reading further into Harrison and Jacobs’ gentrification text:


"In the 1960s, as the suburbs began to lose their appeal, a back-to-the-city movement was begun led by those willing to take risks on “dodgy” neighborhoods – the young and well-educated, do-it-yourselfers and artists looking for unique and affordable residential and working space. Seeking escape from banality, to the authenticity, grit and diversity to be found in the city, they were often unaware of the social consequences of their colonization of poor neighborhoods as well as of the invisible mechanisms that increasingly have supported and guided their “pioneering spirit.” Much like the westward expansion in its quest for resource accumulation, the urban pioneers’ blind appropriation of space disregards the underlying human value of what appears wasted and uncultivated."


Compared once more with the article on White River Junction:


"More than any others, these two entities embody the notion of White River’s creative economy. Not only do both Northern Stage and [the Center for Cartoon Studies] employ artists, but, in attracting patrons of the arts to the town, their very presence stimulates the local economy, inspiring visitors to take in a meal before the show, a cup of coffee after the exhibit, local shopping while in town for the weekend. Were it not for the artsy vibe that Northern Stage and CCS bring to White River Junction, there would likely have been no influx of other artists setting up shop there."


I find it unnerving how frequently the same language appears in the two texts, one taking a critical look at neocolonialism, and one praising the revitalization of an area that only a few years ago was considered “sketchy”. Now when I walk through town, the vibe is totally different. Everything in sight is geared toward creative, artsy types. There’s no question that a concerted effort is being made to gentrify White River Junction and it is succeeding. The question for residents now is, can this new form of conquest be resisted, or at the very least, do avenues exist to ensure the benefits of gentrification improve the lives of longtime residents and not just the newcomers? Harrison and Jacobs' article, which I’ll link at the bottom, discusses ways in which designers and architects can work in tandem with the existing community to build what they call a “layered narrative of neighborhood spatial culture”. The example they cite is the meeting point of two adjacent but demographically dissimilar communities in Philadelphia, where the space is designed in a way that encourages interaction between the two:


"Rather than a boundary that separates or belongs to either one or other of the cultures, the Front Street corridor in all its fragmentation presents the opportunity to create another layer of citiness, a broad irregular seam that loosely laces together the two neighborhoods with spaces and spines of interaction and mutual utility. Design focused on porosity rather than closure of the street edge can allow interpenetrations of all kinds: of light, movement, sight lines, vegetation into otherwise bounded territories."


What is required is collaboration between developers and the communities they seek to change. If more value is placed on honoring the complexity of lived space rather than on generating a profit, then a true expression of the city could unfold (Harrison). This will only happen if it is understood that the American idea of progress, of individualism and development at all costs, must be rejected in favor of true communication between those who are now arriving and those who were already here.  



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Works Cited:


  1. Jones, M. (2017, January 05). Don't Fall for These 3 Excuses for Gentrification – They're Excusing Colonization, Too. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/gentrification-colonization/
  2. Angotti, T. (n.d.). THE GENTRIFICATION DILEMMA. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from http://www.spontaneousinterventions.org/reading/the-gentrification-dilemma
  3. Harrison, S., & Jacobs, A. (2017). Gentrification and the Heterogeneous City: Finding a Role for Design. The Plan Journal, 1(2), 239-259. doi:10.15274/tpj.2016.01.02.03. http://www.theplanjournal.com/article/gentrification-and-heterogeneous-city-finding-role-design
  4. Seife, E. D. (2013, December 11). Matt Bucy is Making White River Junction Into a Next-Generation Nexus. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/matt-bucy-is-making-white-river-junction-into-a-next-generation-nexus/Content?oid=2295903


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