While traveling 80 miles per hour on Interstate 70 with a leaden foot on the gas pedal, it is all too easy for Utah to pass by in a blur of warm-toned rock and sagebrush. The red cliffs characteristic of Moab, Utah blend into a sandy color that glows an iridescent purple in the right light. Most billboards and road signs on the interstate point toward national parks and public lands, where millions of families per year embark on road trips to experience the heart of the American West — a land of living legends framed by dusty deserts, lush rivers, and wild mountain passes. Tucked away off the interstate in southeastern Utah sits the town of Green River: population 961, incorporated 1906.
Green River may look the same from each interstate exit, but the direction newcomers arrive from has a real impact on Green River’s economy. Entering from the west, visitors are greeted by a massive Love’s gas station alongside a free-standing Holiday Inn. Often, those cars fill up their tanks and promptly leave. From the east, however, Sinclair’s gas station is flanked by a restaurant, motel, and a Greyhound bus stop, forcing drivers farther into town, where they might spend time at the town’s restaurants, museum, or state park.
“The gas stations are the largest employers in Green River, which is nuts,” said Maria Sykes, co-founder and executive director of Epicenter, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and building upon the uniqueness of Green River through affordable housing and other projects. Sykes graduated from the Auburn University School of Architecture right before the recession hit in 2008 and visited an architecture school friend in Green River soon afterwards. That visit became a summer, and that summer ultimately turned into 12 years.
Cruising off of Green River’s main street to Broadway in Sykes’ gray pick-up truck, which is peppered with stickers reading “All Y’all” and “War Eagle’’ that reflect her Southern roots, we pass Chow Hound, Ray’s Bar, the Green River Coffee Company, and the post office — “that’s the social center of Green River, since nobody has mailboxes here.” Epicenter’s white brick building then appears on the right.
Epicenter’s building originally housed a construction office, “which feels fitting — especially when building a lot of houses,” Sykes told The Politic. That same construction company built much of Green River’s city center, but “these concrete blocks are not the best,” Sykes noted as she opened the door to the building. An abundance of natural light illuminates the “Rural and Proud” memorabilia on the room’s desks, large center table, and March Madness brackets pasted on the walls. (Steph Crabtree, Epicenter’s deputy director, won the Epicenter competition this year.)
“When we first got this building, the roof was caving in and the foundation was completely blown out. Everybody was like, ‘you should just tear that building down and build something new,’” Sykes laughed. “But where would the fun be in that?”
To Sykes, it’s no coincidence that Epicenter and the company who originally built Green River share a home. The building’s reuse mirrors Epicenter’s overall ethos: not to impose unnatural changes to or improve Green River condescendingly, or to make it more palatable for tourists, but to invest in the town from a place of love for the people who are already here.
Epicenter works to strengthen Green River’s existing assets by providing affordable housing and community-building. The organization also hopes to act as a model for rural communities throughout the country, so that other small towns can build on their existing vibrancy and opportunities by providing affordable housing and other services for their residents. One of those projects is building “breadcrumbs,” as Sykes calls them, to draw people into the town beyond the Love’ on the west side of Green River. Another project, and their most ambitious yet, is Canal Commons, a pocket neighborhood of ten single-family homes on the town’s historic canal.
Towns across America like Green River are home to idiosyncrasies that keep road trips interesting and families around for generations. While providing affordable housing and other development projects necessary to support Green River’s current population, Epicenter also seeks to preserve this American gem.
“It just feels like the world is becoming a bit homogenous,” Sykes said. But unlike anywhere else, Green River’s blistering days, cool nights, sandy soil, and surprisingly plentiful water supply grow the sweetest melons around, establishing the town’s melon family dynasties, many of whom still live (and farm) on the same land. The 115th Melon Days Festival will take place there this September. Beyond celebrating the melon harvest, Sykes notes the importance of embracing every town’s peculiarities, rather than allowing profit or decline to eclipse authenticity.
“Recognizing and lifting those things up, rather than focusing on what’s wrong with a place, can be a really powerful place to start from. These houses, town events, whatever we’re working on — it’s always to improve the lives of the people that are here,” she continued. “If that encourages other people to move here, cool. If that encourages people to come visit, spend money, and keep coming back to Green River, that’s a bonus. But the focus is on the people who are already here.”
Epicenter’s mission to improve upon their chosen home in the middle of the Utah desert — or any rural community in the country, for that matter — may seem a pointless project to the average, city- or suburb-dwelling American. Why live in a place without mailboxes, Walmarts, or Ubers in favor of dirt roads and scorching summers?
The idea of rural development, Sykes says, is to preserve and improve quality of life while preventing different kinds of communities from disappearing — to sustain diverse American ways of life, making the world a little less homogeneous in the process.
While planning and implementing projects like Canal Commons, Sykes has found herself contemplating how to embed the town’s robust history into contemporary projects. “2020 kind of gifted us the opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing,” she said. “So much of our work is about looking forward, but also honoring the past. It’s like time travel.”
Located on ancestral Ute land near the San Rafael Swell, Green River has been contoured by thousands of years of geographic, cultural, and industrial history. Once an easy river-crossing point for Native Americans and white settlers alike, drought forced Indigenous peoples from the Green River area before Western outlaws and traders in the early 1800s traveled through the region via a trade route linking northern New Mexico to southern California. Fur trader Denis Julien left his permanent mark in 1836 by carving his name in the soft sandstone beside the river that gives the town its name.
In 1869, John Wesley Powell and his band of nine left what is now Wyoming to explore the mighty Colorado — into which the Green River flows — though only six survivors remained when the Grand Canyon spit them out in 1871. The John Wesley Powell River Museum on Green River’s main street now boasts a river-runner exhibit.
At the turn of the century, the “Wild Bunch,” including household names like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, holed up at Robbers Roost after their infamous heists, an apt name for the sandstone labyrinth of canyon walls and waterways that left lawmen stumped. Just 50 miles from the town of Green River, the outlaws loaded their six-shooters and concocted their schemes, though one Green River resident quipped that “the Roosters was the finest people you ever saw. They wouldn’t harm a hair on your head — if you didn’t have anything.”
During the turbulent postbellum era, heading west seemed the best option for many Americans back east. The construction of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, which wound south through Green River to connect Denver and Salt Lake City, was the first of many boom-and-bust cycles that would characterize Green River’s economy and population for the next century. South of town, only wooden posts remain of the lodgings that housed Chinese laborers as they toiled on the railroad. More workers and families arrived in the following years as electricity and the Midland Trail — one of the first marked transcontinental automobile routes in America — reached town.
There’s one sparse area in the middle of town, “a little underdeveloped and weird” according to Sykes, where the river ran before it changed course in 1927. Its movement farther east left a blank, state-owned strip of land. One side features nine holes of golf, and while the state proposes building nine more on the other, Sykes would rather see a more environmentally friendly and community-centered option: “Epicenter has been proposing a million other options, like rodeo grounds or a BMX bike course.”
Mid-century decades brought American G.I.s and scientists to the area during the Colorado Plateau’s uranium mining boom. On a dirt road that winds southeast, the abandoned uranium mill — which ceased operation in 1961 — remains, along with what Sykes colloquially calls the “Black Pyramid,” or the Green River Uranium Disposal cell. Piled 41 feet high, the mound of radioactive tailings covered by black rock frames the sandy hills and buttes surrounding the defunct mill, which also hide military bunkers and “who knows what else” — but residents don’t seem too concerned.
From 1964 to 1979, Green River became home to yet another military experiment: the Green River Launch Complex. The facility, a Cold War military subintallation of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, launched Pershing and Athena RTV missiles for the U.S. Air Force and Army. Today, a white Loki-Dart missile painted with U.S.A.F in black block letters stands in OK Anderson City Park to commemorate that period of Green River’s history.
“I feel like there’s a lot of people in town who are looking for something like this to come back. They grew up during that time, and it was like the heyday,” Sykes mused about the town’s military past. “Now, Green River is about hospitality, agriculture, and services. It’s not thriving economically like it was, even if it’s still a wonderful place to live and there are opportunities.”
With the decline of the Cold War and missile industry, hundreds of workers, families, and businesses migrated away, leaving the population under a thousand residents. Interstate 70 finished construction in 1992, and tourists flooded the state to see Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, while Green River served as a stopover in between. Moab, Utah, an hour southeast of Green River, now provides access to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, which attract millions of visitors annually.
Today, Green River’s future is wide open. A thoroughfare for millenia — be it water, railroads, or the interstate — the town itself is a vehicle for the stories, legends, and travelers emblematic of rural America. Green River’s past informs its present as residents and those at Epicenter strive to preserve the history that makes the town much more than a place to fill up on gas.
In 2009, after completing their terms as AmeriCorps volunteers in the town, Epicenter founders decided to put down roots for good in Green River. Epicenter has since been recognized by Utah governor Gary Herbert, the Utah Housing Coalition, and the National Endowment for the Arts, to name a few. At first, they came in as “idealistic outsiders who didn’t know the town that well,” according to Sykes. But by listening to and living with locals, they began to understand how Green River residents could be supported.
“Every city in the world can improve. I don’t think that Green River is, like, exceptional in that it can benefit from architecture design and care,” said Sykes. “There’s this master narrative that rural places are in need of help or deprived. And yes, they are denied a lot of resources, but I think rural places have so many assets — things that all demographics are looking for.”
To help residents and visitors alike see Green River’s assets, Epicenter has completed a number of projects over the past 12 years. They were instrumental in the design and construction of the “Welcome to Green River” sign on the west side of town in 2017, now a popular place to pull over and take photos. The sign, smoldering neon pink, blue, and white, is one prized “breadcrumb” that draws visitors further into town.
“The goal is to pull people to the core of town, and once they’re here, they can see what’s downtown,” said Sykes. Other aspects of that effort have included pop-up billboards and lit-up benches, as well as the construction of a new public safety building that houses the town’s ambulance and fire department.
Pulling into the parking lot of Green River Coffee Co., Sykes points to an electric car charging station next to the building. “They tried to put those on the edge of town, but I said no,” she chuckled. “They’ll have to get coffee as they charge up.”
The coffee shop is “our more progressive spot in town,” said Sykes. A yard sign in the window features an American flag reading: “In our America, all people are equal, love wins, Black lives matter.”
“Like, yes, we’re hicks,” Sykes continued, “but we care about people.”
Down the road, Tamarisk, perhaps Green River’s fanciest restaurant, has stood above the river since 1979. The restaurant’s view of the lavender Book Cliffs hovering over the Green River — low at the moment because of a dry spell — has always been a favorite, but has drawn new admirers following the restaurant’s renovation five years ago, which included the construction of three guest rooms in the restaurant’s previously unused basement.
“We do quite a bit of business development, but not in the way that an economic developer would do. We found where we and Tamarisk overlapped and built on that,” said Sykes, who worked with the restaurant owners to build out the space. “For the most part, it’s about finding small opportunities like that, which end up making a big difference.”
Rather than booking a room at the Motel 6 down the road, visitors can now enjoy a more authentic experience by staying at the Tamarisk.“They’re interacting with people who are really in love with this place. Someone at Motel 6 isn’t necessarily going to be nearly as excited about Green River,” said Sykes.
These shorter-term projects certainly improve quality of life in Green River, but Epicenter’s primary goal is to increase affordable housing throughout the town. Epicenter spends considerable time and resources collecting data on how residents and visitors interact with the town to identify and address areas of need. Their own research found that half of Main Street is vacant, and that even if 50 percent of Green River’s housing units were replaced, housing would still be in chronically high demand.
“What Epicenter has done a good job of in the last 10 years is pushing back and transforming that anecdotal data into hard data that people can use to push these projects forward,” said Lindsey Briceno, the project lead for Canal Commons.
S0on, a 3.2-acre plot of land directly opposite the Epicenter building will become Canal Commons, a micro-neighborhood of 10 single-family units and plenty of green space. In early 2020, the nonprofit struck a deal with the city, the parcel’s prior owner, to trade labor instead of buying the parcel outright; Epicenter volunteers pledged to help write grants for the town, sit on various municipal communities, and assist with other odd jobs that will total to the 109,000-dollar value of the Canal Commons land. Despite the pandemic, Epicenter still managed to break ground in June. Sykes expects construction on the first five units to wrap up this summer.
“I know it’s always chaos with development, but it feels particularly chaotic during a pandemic. It’s always one hiccup after another,” Sykes said, and then exclaimed: “The water’s in the canal! That happened yesterday.”
Many Green River residents buy into the idea that if a new project comes to the town — another uranium boom or missile base — the companies involved will provide more housing for the area, explained Steph Crabtree, Epicenter deputy director and March Madness champion.
To disprove that myth, Crabtree took note of each time someone asked her personally about housing opportunities in Green River. “I took those numbers to the city council — hundreds of requests within three months,” she said. “Those were all the opportunities we were missing out on. Temporary workers would come and stay in an RV until they transferred out because there was no housing here, and they couldn’t bring their families.”
One lucky state trooper working in Green River years ago found a place to live, bought a house, and moved his family to the town. “That could have been repeated many times over if we’d had more housing available,” Crabtree said. “Housing, even beyond economic development, is community development. If you buy a house, you’re much more invested in this place.”
Instead of using the term “rural development,” which Sykes explained can come across as condescending, she has taken to saying “local investment” instead. “Investing” in the town’s existing resources, history, and potential has proved more productive when collaborating with residents than terminology suggesting that Green River is somehow unfinished or lacking.
“Through speaking to investors and contractors for our projects, we’ve learned that a lot of people don’t know how rural communities operate,” Briceno explained. “We don’t have the same resources as people working in an urban space. So we have to get people to Green River to show them what’s special about it — then they want to invest in our community.”
Epicenter practices this delicate balance of statistics and storytelling through grant writing. “There are so many rural communities in this country applying for the same grants we are, many of which are also around 900 people and have had a history of booms and busts,” Crabtree said. “We’ve done great work creating language for grants to put more emotion into our applications. Green River residents are entrepreneurs and cowboys and more, and we get way more emotion out of that.”
Potential investors visit Green River, meet the ranchers and melon farmers whose family histories have been bound to the area across generations, and feel the passion pouring from Briceno, Crabtree, and Sykes. Then, real change (and real housing developments) can break ground.
The singularities of small town America, like the melons and frontier history of Green River, bring in support, investment, and resources from those with no stake in these places. The same quirks that attract people to Green River keep them there, in a sort of “chicken or the egg” cycle.
“If you invest here once, you’ll find even more reasons to invest here. Housing is economic development. If you help provide housing to this community, the impact will be so phenomenal that you’ll have even more opportunities to invest,” Briceno said, as Sykes nodded along. “If we invest a little more into rural places, even more opportunities will come.”
Epicenter launched Fix It First, one of its first initiatives, in 2012 as a response to anecdotal data showing that 49 percent of houses in Green River were in need of repairs. The program intended to help disabled, elderly, moderate- to low-income residents complete basic home repairs before minor damages could become major problems. Though well-intentioned and successful, Epicenter learned valuable lessons about the community they sought to strengthen.
“People here very much want to do things for themselves. One of the challenges Epicenter had coming in is that we were outsiders trying to create change,” said Crabtree. “We pushed the Fix It First program really hard for a while, but it wasn’t really received by the community. We’ve learned to offer our help in a more passive way by connecting people with the resources they need.”
As the organization has matured, the people at its center have continually fine-tuned their approach to the locals, which often requires analyzing their own positionality and privilege with regard to race, gender, class, and education.
“The first thing you have to do with housing is realize that it doesn’t matter if you know this person or not — everyone needs a good place to live,” Briceno said earnestly. “If you come from a place of privilege, you can’t look at someone’s past and tell them that they shouldn’t have done what they did, or ask why they have this history of mistakes.” Some tenants may have bad credit or criminal records, but that doesn’t make them any less deserving of a home.
Many of Green River’s hospitality workers, who often work two or three jobs, belong to the Latinx community, which makes up roughly 20 percent of the population. Some don’t have social security numbers and are inherently, and justifiably, distrustful of those offering help with no strings attached.
So Epicenter learned how to take a step back in that way and a step forward in others. Allowing community members the space to figure certain problems out for themselves while being available as a resource has allowed for more open community dialogue.
“Some folks just come in the door and ask if we can help them with something, and then we do, and slowly we can build a relationship over time,” said Sykes. “But we’ve learned not to actively go to people who are less privileged than us and ask how we can help because that would be offensive. That’s presuming they want or need help.”
The intimate scale of Green River’s community — fewer than a thousand residents — means that locals have no problem holding Epicenter accountable or voicing their opinions. When locals run into Sykes at the coffee shop, post office, or anywhere in between, they are quick to confront her when they feel wronged or belittled.
“It’s full-on reckoning. We’ve been called out by the community, and then realized it was stupid of us to do or think something. We’re always adapting and learning from that,” said Sykes. “The sense of accountability and lack of anonymity here really makes you stubborn. It makes you not want to give up.”
As a result, Sykes and her team have moved on from just wanting to help Green River. “I live here now. I’m a community member,” said Sykes. Epicenter’s projects, along with their failures or successes, belong to her as much as those who have lived in the town for generations. “I’m in it for the long haul.”
Sykes and her team have found that those who are struggling in Green River more fully understand Epicenter’s mission and goals. Residents without the privilege of a stable government job, a healthy retirement fund, or family nest eggs have noticed the need for affordable housing in the town, while well-off residents have displayed an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.
“They’re the people with jobs at the Department of Transportation that are never going to be taken from them. They’re never going to get fired,” said Crabtree. “To them, Green River doesn’t need change.”
Even city representatives took time to accept the fact that Green River is in critical need of affordable housing, largely due to stigma surrounding government-funded housing in the area, which has suffered from sporadic ownership and maintenance. What Epicenter had to explain to local politicians, Crabtree explained, was that those problems had nothing to do with the tenants being low-income.
“There are a lot of people who will never come around, and that’s fine, because I probably don’t like them either,” Sykes laughed. “But it’s healthy to listen to those people. I’ll listen to what some curmudgeon says and a couple of years later I’m like, ‘damn it, they were right.’”
Beyond Green River, America is full of small towns and barely-incorporated communities — from the flat wheat fields of Kansas and the rocky cliffs of Maine to the drizzly farmlands of Washington and the pine forests of Alabama.
Strengthening America’s foundational communities and industries pays for itself. By focusing on the people already living in these areas, whether it be for a few years or a few centuries, architects, developers, and scientists alike can develop specific approaches for preserving these places. But keeping a mindset of conservation rather than condescension — of augmenting existing assets rather than forcing new ones — seems to be the code that Epicenter has cracked.
Many Americans might look at Epicenter’s work and wonder, to what end? Why?
To that question, Sykes would pose another: “Why do you vacation in a rural place? Why are these the places you go when you have precious time off?”
Because the river winds through their backyards, towering buttes frame the view out their windows, and the corner store cashier knows their names. Because escaping the copy-and-paste, formulaic approach to development in urban areas isn’t something Green River residents reserve for weekends.
“People think that they want to live in a city, but when you really ask them what they want, they’re all characteristics of rural places, like community. They’ve just been told that the city is where they need to be if they want opportunities,” said Sykes. “The city is my vacation; that’s my time to go to the movies and eat sushi.”
If she had focused her work in developing urban areas, Sykes continued, she would have quit her job long ago. Developing a rural area means having to optimize on limited resources, like moving electric car chargers to the middle of town, and being strategic about which public spaces to create, like advocating for rodeo grounds or a BMX park.
“In a city, I wouldn’t be connecting with people in such a personal way and then seeing them at the grocery store or post office,” Sykes said. “I don’t feel like we’re experimenting on our town, but on ourselves, finding the needs and gaps we can fill.”
Driving east on Main Street just after sunset, cerulean cursive neon words bordered by luminous clouds on the side of Green River Coffee Co. glow through the darkness. The script reads “instead of loneliness I feel loveliness” — a quote from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitude. For Sykes and thousands across the country, rural communities represent the opposite of loneliness. Investing in them is a way to show up for those around us — to sustain the places we call home as well as the pit stops on the way to our final destinations.
Heading back southeast, the cliffs darken to a shadow on the horizon beneath a smattering of stars that mimic the neon signs left behind. Cars boasting license plates from Pennsylvania to California race by at speeds much greater than 80 miles per hour, hurtling towards the mountains of Colorado, the Great Plains of Nebraska, or the skyscrapers of the East Coast. Green River is a transient half-thought for the driver as they glance out the window at the river the town is named for — a river that has cut through ageless rock, carrying silt and travelers and stories across the West. The town may become a transient half-thought for passersby, but for the people who live there, that’s the point.