—An essay by Epicenter Principal Jack Forinash.
Housing Security and Affordability as a Critical Component of Addressing Intergenerational Poverty
Coming to Green River eight years ago, I had some (albeit not much) experience in the development of single-family affordable homes. I naively thought I’d build a house in my year as an AmeriCorps member and that would serve as a replicable model that could address the lack of affordable, durable housing that I was seeing as a newcomer to town both as I was welcomed into the homes of my new neighbors and as I researched the data from local and national sources that tracked housing affordability. For this replicable model, I looked for a family and found one; I worked with those kids each day in an after-school program and got to know them and slowly got to know the larger community. I realized quickly that one house was not going to be a game changer in Green River. This place, like any other place, had embedded within it well-rooted systems, biases, and preclusions.
Low-income populations are especially vulnerable to instability and cost burdens in housing, with children most at risk. In Green River, 48% of children (age 0-18) are living in households in poverty. To make that point clear, nearly 1 in 2 kids in Green River are living in households earning a gross annual income of $24,300 or less (this income threshold is for a family of 4; the value changes annually and is based on household size: view here). These “extremely low-income households” (a defined term, not just hyperbole) are much more likely to be housing cost-burdened. It makes sense that as a household earns more money, it is able to afford housing costs more easily, as housing costs are not directly proportional to household income levels. According to the US Census Bureau’s 2015/2014 American Community Survey, 83% of all households in the US with annual incomes of less than $20,000 are spending more than 30% of their income on essential housing costs (rent, water, sewer, electricity, and heat/AC). In Green River, that number is 96%. For households between $20,000 and $34,999, 60% of Green River households are cost-burdened. Green River’s median household income is $38,906 (meaning, half the households in town earn under $38,906 and half earn above that amount). To simplify this train of thought (and in case you got confused by all the numbers), it’s safe to say simply this: regardless of renter-occupied or owner-occupied housing, regardless of race and ethnicity, regardless of family composition, over 1 out of every 2 households in Green River are housing cost-burdened. If that’s a household earning under $20,000 in Green River, you can be right nearly every time that that household is cost-burdened. Comparatively, looking at the other side of that median household income, 31% of Green River households earn over $50,000. Of those households, no households (0%) are spending over 30% of their income on housing.
In my opinion, the home (not the house, but the “home”) is the smallest unit of measure of a community. Its stability or instability affects the most vulnerable populations (children, the elderly, the disabled) the highest. I’ll focus on children, as they have the least choice in the matter of their home. A typical low-income family in Green River has both heads of household working. And typically these moms and dads work multiple jobs simultaneously. Jobs here are often minimum or below-minimum wage (minimum wage in Utah is already at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour; hotels and restaurants are lawfully permitted to pay even less than that). Jobs here are also seasonally affected, with hours cut or layoffs made during the slow winter time from late October to early May. This coincidentally is the most expensive time to live in Green River, with high utility costs for heat (Green River has no natural gas; most families use propane that incurs dramatic price increases in winter) and nighttime lighting due to our latitude where the sun sets before 5 PM.
Should a family be cost-burdened, decisions are made that attempt to keep the household afloat. Rent/mortgage is paid first so that there is no eviction. Essential utilities next. Transportation to work is also a priority. Often that’s a car here, so there’s also state-required insurance, annual inspections, and passing safety inspections that may require repairs such as new tires or windshield replacement. Oh, there’s also food, of course. And clothes. These essential human needs (shelter, water, food, and clothing) can easily exceed what is available in a household that is spending well over 30% of their income on housing. This leaves parents to have to make inhumane decisions. Lower quality food (more preservative-based items, cheaper items high in sugar and fillers) becomes a requirement so that kids are not hungry. This poisons the metabolism and internal health of kids, affecting their lifelong health, making them sick more often as kids and setting them up for permanent health conditions.
Should families not be able to afford utilities and balanced meals, stress placed on the kids by being cold and underfed with poor diets leads to sleep-burdened nights and reduced mental activity that directly leads to poor educational achievement during the day at school. Compound that by our place, where there is one class per grade, and kids get left behind when they are not able to keep up. Now the child is poorly performing to the point that they do not have the grades to get into a quality higher education institution. They lose confidence as other kids tell them they are dumb and they start to believe it. Their potential job opportunities are narrowed to low-paying service jobs or high-risk positions.
When I attended Rural Studio in 2004, I had to spend a week helping repairing a past project, as was the requirement for each student. It taught us to be stewards of the projects of Rural Studio and inherently spoke to the idea that things change in a home and we need to better predict that inevitable change. I helped on the Haybale House in Mason’s Bend, Alabama, Rural Studio’s first house. Since its completion ten years prior, the home’s owner had since had both legs removed due to diabetes (a disease directly related to poor diet). I worked with a fellow student and a Rural Studio staff member to take out the tub in the one-bathroom house and lay low-profile tile so she could roll into the shower. As we worked one day, a visitor arrived that turned out to be a grandson of the matriarch. I remember he drove a new model crimson Ford Mustang. On the front porch (in what he probably saw as small talk but I still recall vividly), he told me that this house had been important to him. One of the iconic “wagon wheel” sleeping nooks had been built specifically for him. For the first time, he told me, he had a place to come home to each day, the same place each day. Prior to that, he’d not be sure where he was to get dropped off at, his mom’s, his aunt’s, his grandparents’, his other aunt’s. There at this house, as a young boy, he had his space. He had a place he could do his homework (the nook consisted of a small twin bed and a desk). He told me that he had graduated from the University of Alabama and and was now finishing his law degree from the same university (even though it’s Alabama [I know the jokes], I’ll point out the law school at Alabama is currently ranked #28 in the nation). He said, directly and succinctly, that the reason, the reason, he was able to succeed was because of this house and how it was designed to provide for him a place to come home to each day after school.
I’ve heard, growing up, about the American Dream, the idea that everyone has the opportunity to be whatever they want if they just try, and about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” What I have come to understand through working here with this community is that yes, in America, you can often improve your life and the life of your children. However, the opportunity for the “rags to riches” fairy tale is just that, a fairy tale. It happens rarely. More commonly, poverty begets poverty. Our American system today does not start everyone on the same playing field. I think we all agree on that. I don’t know, though, that everyone admits the cycle of intergenerational poverty is being predicted at birth. This prediction is possible to overcome, with diligence and, honestly, luck. But it’s a very steep hill.
A professor of mine at Auburn once said to me, “As you learn more, you’ll see that poverty is less a factor of an individual’s work ethic and more a result of circumstance.” We don’t choose for ourselves our ancestry, race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, country of birth, familial religion, or any identifier that becomes either an impediment or advantage in our world. By chance, I was born to a loving, stable family in the suburban American South. My family, led by my small business-owning parents, were able to provide all that was needed and much that was wanted. By no choice of mine, I was born white, middle-class, and to a family that expected educational achievement. On my first day alive, I was far ahead other babies born on the same day to a different family and place, and by no effort of my own. As we all have, I’ve had hurdles to overcome. I made something of myself, from my advantage and from the stoic support of my family and community. I never had to be uncertain that my home would be there; I never was hungry. I took this all for granted. We all often accept as a default something that was in fact mere chance. Now, as we recognize and acknowledge this, we must do all we can to help level the playing field for our neighbors. My passion, where I see I can be most helpful, is in doing all I can to improve access to affordable housing for the most vulnerable populations. I work to eliminate substandard housing in Green River, my home that has been a place where I’ve built programming alongside the mayor, postmaster, grocery store worker, Chow Hound employee, West Winds waitress, hotel housekeeper, and hardware store staff member; I’ve been encouraged by them and they have taught me what works best to get things done in this unique place with our specific idiosyncrasies. We’ve developed together, as a community, a belief that affordable, decent, and even noble shelter should be a birthright in America, regardless of place, being, and circumstance.
Your passion and your role is different that mine, coming from your life experience and your place in your community. I look for your support in what I take on, and I hope to be a source of ardent encouragement for what you are able to do to positively affect the lives of your own neighbors. After all, we’re all stuck here together for a little bit, no one of us can do much alone, and in general we’re all willing to give of our time when we’re asked; we might as well learn more about each other, find out where each one’s passion lies, and together do something more than the status quo.
—Jack Forinash – Principal of Housing
Since 2009, Epicenter has hosted 149 young professionals (defined, in this case, as being born between 1980 and 2004). These individuals have accounted for 95% of Epicenter’s workforce over the years. We at Epicenter often think about our role as an employer of these “millennials.” Why would someone with no connection to Green River move here? What is Epicenter and Green River offering that traditional employment is not? Is this unique to this place and this organization? Or is there a larger movement to work focused on people and place, on local solutions derived from long-term investment in a community?
Epicenter recently participated at the Utah Housing Matters annual conference, having been invited to host a session for young professionals to meet and discuss the peculiarities and opportunities of this newest generation entering the workforce. Specifically, the discussion focused on what has worked to recruit and retain the session participants in their current jobs within Utah’s non-profit organizations and governmental housing agencies.
In preparation for the session, Epicenter staff completed a survey on their own experiences and motives. At the request of the Utah Housing Coalition, the results of this survey along with information gathered from the session at the conference were compiled and analyzed for a case study report. Although this report is narrowly focused on Epicenter’s experience, it’s our hope that this report helps to exhibit Epicenter’s employment history and inform organizations that are interested in hiring emerging professionals; after all, Epicenter was founded by and continues to be run by young entrepreneurial professionals.
The report concludes with ten recommendations to other organizations interested in recruiting young professionals. The full report can be found here.
Excerpts from the report:
“Question 2: ‘What needs to happen for you to still be working here in 12 months?’ (This question was posed with an open answer format.)
-‘I need to feel that what I am doing is relevant and significant to Epicenter and to Green River.’
-‘I need to feel that staying here will be beneficial to my overall career path.’
-‘The ability to freely do more hands-on work (less computer).'”
“Young professionals today are more likely to volunteer their time and expertise when it is a case of doing ‘work that matters,’ something we hear often. Climbing a corporate ladder towards more control and money is not as important for recruits just out of college. Certainly, the Great Recession had a role in re-orienting recent graduates that have left college with large amounts of student debt and are not able to find the jobs they expected to have available to them.”
We’d love to hear your feedback on this report. We admit it is based primarily in Epicenter’s experience in Green River. We wonder if there is documentation of larger trends at other organizations and in other places. We also wonder how “the millennial effect” is operating in more traditional employment structures. We don’t think of ourselves as unique in this case. We’re interested in pursuing this documentation further with a broader net and would appreciate any leads or collaborating documentation you may know of. Email us your comments.
We are excited to announce the completion of Epicenter’s new shop! Epicenter staff designed and built a new 340 SF shop on the back of the Epicenter property over the summer, led by our intern Daniel Richards. This new space securely and efficiently stores all of Epicenter’s and Habitat for Humanity’s tools (all 403 of them!) and provides interior space for pre-fabrication and craft work. When applicable, Frontier Fellows will also have access to the space and tool library.
We’re thrilled to have the tools out of the basement, which is only accessed through a door in the floor inside the office; the basement is once again a usable space for storage and work space for Frontier Fellows. In the new shop, the knolled wall of hand tools assures everything has a place and everything is in its place. The six-foot-wide garage door on the shop allows for trucks to be loaded right where the tools are kept. A new tool library check-out system keeps all the tools organized and tracked. And, for the first time, a 220-volt outlet will allow for the use of our Miller Thunderbolt AC stick welder for fabrication of steel projects.
Project: Epicenter Shop (340 SF interior, unconditioned, slab on grade, wood frame, reflective metal R-panel roof, fiber-cement board siding, painted plywood interior finish)
Construction team: Daniel Richards (Designer and Project Manager), Jack Forinash, Steph Crabtree, Armando Rios, Katie Anderson, Bryan Brooks
Concrete flatwork by High Desert Excavating (Green River) and electrical work by P&L Electrical Services LLC (Helper, UT).
Total cost: $17,454.90
– – Construction costs (materials and sub-contractors): $10,387.22
($6,661.49 [64%] spent in Green River, $2,009.65 [19%] spent in Carbon/Emery Counties other than Green River)
– – Payroll costs: $7,067.68
In-kind support from: P&D Ace Hardware
Funding generously provided by: The Wheeler Foundation and The Sorenson Legacy Foundation
—Jack Forinash – Principal of Housing
The scale’s different out in the American West.
Emery County, home to our town of Green River, is nearly the size of Connecticut, or just under twice the size of Delaware, or three times the size of Rhode Island. Yes, these are our nation’s smallest states by land area. But added to the comparison is this: with a population of 10,749, Emery County is just 1% of the population of one Rhode Island (population 1,055,000). Emery County has a population density of 2.4 people per square mile (compared to 1,006 people per square mile in Rhode Island, the nation’s 2nd densest state).
“Frontier” is a term the US Census has defined as having less than 2 people per square mile. In Utah, 6 out of 29 counties are quite literally frontier counties. The population in these counties, and in Emery County, is focused on small communities of 1,000, 200, or even under 50 people. It’s a different “rural” out here. There are towns where the population gathers in communities. The City of Green River, as an example, has 952 people living in 12.5 square miles, creating a density of 78 people per square mile. Just outside the city limits, not 10 miles away from Epicenter, there are no houses or homesteads for miles and miles. This version of Rural America has vast distances between settlements with literally no built environment in between (other than perhaps a road… maybe). A sign at the east interstate exit to Green River says “NO SERVICES FOR 110 MILES.” This stretch of the interstate (I-70) from Green River to Salina is the longest stretch of interstate in the lower 48 (contiguous) United States without services.
Green River, and these other western towns, are outposts, waypoints, and staging points for travelers. And we’re a base point for adventures and even just for daily life; we gather supplies, go out into the desert, then come back. Even prospectors and miners of lore needed and met up in these small towns, gathering equipment and information. They went out for weeks and sometimes months at a time, living in dug outs, lean-tos, and natural caves (see Sego Canyon). A built house was rare, and those people most often became known as hermits.
Reflecting on the conception that Western counties are the size of northeastern states (often multiple times over) but so sparse you can throw a rock and you won’t hit anyone (and no one will hear it), issues of power and influence are put into perspective. Rhode Island, as an example, has four congressmen, Delaware three, Connecticut seven, New Jersey fourteen. Utah, with a land area 4.6 larger than RI, DE, CT, and NJ combined, has six congressmen. (Shall we propose a House of Representatives based on land area?!) In Utah, 90% of the population lives on 10% of the land (and conversely, obviously, 10% of people live on 90% of the land). This “rural” land is the land that we all recreate on, that we extract minerals from, where our water and air is filtered, land that we take endless photos of its pastoral nature, wide expanse, and endless natural beauty. It’s where we go to refresh, where we retreat to. Yet, as the political system is set up, this area (my town) has limited influence on what happens to itself. Our US Representative Jason Chaffetz’s territory covers an area from Cottonwood Heights (just south of Salt Lake City) to Bluff and the Navajo Reservation in San Juan County. It would take 5 hours and 24 minutes to drive those 329 miles. Anyone in Providence, RI think they have the same political, environmental, economic, or community concerns as someone in Dover, DE, or Rochester, NY, or Tuckhannock, PA? Because that’s the same distance from Cottonwood Heights, UT to Bluff, UT.
I know, it’s nothing new to say the American West is big and that Rural America is underrepresented. But just truly how big it is and much it is underrepresented is something better understood by comparison.
People who are making the decisions are concentrated on the wealth and population centers of the nation and of each state. Utah, with 75% of the population living in the four counties that make up the SLC metropolitan area, is no different. It would do us all good to respect the individuality of “the rural” a bit more. Stop lumping “rural” together, and stop posturing it as if there is a clear line between polar opposites of “rural” and “urban.”
Come visit us in person for an afternoon. That’s a start. The recent visit from the Utah state legislators was impressive. Apparently there used to be this tour of a part of rural Utah each year until 2008’s recession. We hope it continues. And we hope they, and you all, visit us again and stay longer, ask more questions, and listen to the community. Blanket statements about “Rural America” are invalid. Green River is not Moab, not Bluff, not Ephraim, and certainly not Cottonwood Heights. My rural is not your rural. My America is not your America.
In addition to Epicenter’s Fix It First home repair program, we also co-facilitate Habitat for Humanity of Castle Country’s A Brush With Kindness (ABWK) minor home repair program. Both programs target homes in need of repairs, maintenance, and minor construction projects. Fix it First focuses on solely Green River while Habitat covers a narrower range of projects over a larger area. Habitat and Epicenter are now celebrating their one year anniversary of the A Brush With Kindness program!
Since late 2013, Epicenter and Habitat for Humanity of Castle Country have partnered to assist homeowners in revitalizing their homes through A Brush With Kindness. This program is an offshoot of the main Habitat for Humanity International, which is an international non-profit organization known for building simple, decent, and affordable housing in partnership with people in need. A Brush With Kindness focuses on home repair for homeowners, primarily on the exterior of the house. Repairs to siding, roofing, and exterior paint are common projects. The program is designed to bring routine rehabilitation to improve the standard of living and help beautify communities.
Offering services to both Emery and Carbon Counties, the A Brush With Kindness program has completed seventeen projects thus far. Six of these projects have been completed in Emery County and eleven in Carbon County. Projects have ranged from repairing porches to installing safety ramps and replacing doors to fixing roofs. Homeowners attest that through A Brush With Kindness they “feel safer” and “could not have afforded [this repair] any other way.” One repair project solved pest issues and another project eliminated kitchen leaks. Another homeowner stated, “I feel safe now that I don’t have things flying off my roof that could hurt my kids.”
Recent partnerships include community members like Howard Burnett of Green River and Sherry Agnew of Columbia, Utah. Howard and his wife’s home had some problems with leaks in their roof and broken shingles. Habitat for Humanity of Castle Country was able to use extra shingles Howard had lying around to fix the roof at an affordable price. Sherry’s main concern was safety. She requested deadbolts on her doors as well as the safe removal of an debilitated carport roof.
The Utah Housing Coalition held their 18th Annual Utah Housing Matters Conference on September 23rd & 24th, 2014 at the Yarrow Hotel in Park City. Each year, the Utah Housing Coalition honors outstanding businesses, organizations, or individuals engaged in making a significant contribution and or benefit to the community in the field of affordable housing and community development.
This year the awards committee selected Epicenter’s “Fix It First” program as Rural Project of the Year. After years of investing their lives in Green River, the young professionals at Epicenter learned from the community to tailor programs for the specific needs and social environment. The Fix It First program is in response to the city’s Housing Plan, completed in 2013, which determined that 45.7% of the homes in Green River were considered deteriorated or dilapidated and in need of repairs. As a town with high homeownership, an aging population and conservative political biases, traditional solutions were hard to implement and “hand-outs” were discouraged by the small town lifestyle. Epicenter formed Fix It First to be a program funded by private dollars instead of tax dollars, repaid by clients through affordable micro-loans, and solving the defined need based in data exhibited in the city’s housing plan.
Additional awards presented Tuesday, September 23rd included:
The 2014 Jack Gallivan Legacy Award winner is Dave Conine. Dave puts his heart and soul into fashioning dynamite successful long-term projects that have champions, leaders, funding, strategy, advocacy and a whole host of critical ingredients to best meet affordable housing project and community needs in Utah. He is creative and a life-long advocate for affordable housing. His work both professionally and personally on poverty issues, community revitalization, sustainability, housing for the ill-housed and solutions is an unfolding, extraordinary, significant achievement. Watch the award video here.
UHC Member of the Year: Utah Coalition of Manufactured Home Owners received the award for their legislative advocacy and partnering with Utah Housing Coalition on critically needed improvements in mobile/manufactured home law.
Agency of the Year: Utah Non-Profit Housing Corporation received the award for their owning and operating more than 2,000 units of affordable housing throughout Utah, serving households with area median incomes of less than 50% with the majority making less than 18% (making it the lowest or one of the lowest statewide). The population served includes the elderly, disabled, mentally ill, as well as those suffering from domestic violence and HIV Aids. UNPHC has served more than 17,000 households to date.
Urban Project of the Year: Iron Horse Transit Housing developed by Park City for their innovated funding. They received a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration to build affordable housing for seasonal transit employees.
Person of the Year: Karen Haney, employed by Family Support Center’s LifeStart Village for bringing her tenants out of homelessness and into a secure, safe environment; along with building their self-sufficiency and self-esteem. Her program is designed to get single women out of homelessness and give them the tools and skills to be self -sufficient, so that they can be good role models for their children.
Jack Forinash (Epicenter Co-director) and Charlotte XC Sullivan (Epicenter Board Member) recently presented at the Structures for Inclusion 14th annual conference held this year in New York City. Epicenter was selected by Design Corps to present during the Lunch Kucha session, which set a format of 20 slides with 20 seconds per slide.
Within the audience, Christian Ayala and Ashley Ross (Epicenter alumni and New Yorkers) joined in support of Epicenter and spread out to attend the sessions on “public interest design.”
Bryan Bell of Design Corps, founded 1991, is the leading promoter of the field of public interest design (think “public health” or “public interest law” as professional comparatives). Bryan shared his own professional story with the attendees; after graduating from architecture school, Bryan pursued an path working as a designer for a rural nonprofit organization in Pennsylvania that focused on migrant housing. He utilized USDA Rural Development funds to design and build decent and well-intentioned housing for the migrant farm workers. Later in his career, he worked for Samuel Mockbee and Coleman Coker, assisting with the infamous un-funded project for a local Catholic nun in Meridian, MS that is often cited as a spark for Mockbee to start the Rural Studio. Bryan oversaw fifteen or so thesis projects at Rural Studio after founding Design Corps, an organization devoted to establish pathways and metrics for architects and designers working with underserved communities.
Following the SFI Conference over the weekend, Jack attended on scholarship the Public Interest Design Institute for the next two days. Here, real world case studies were presented by architects and designers in the field of public interest design. Conversations involved how to start a project, best practices for community engagement, and how to measure results. The SEED (Social, Economic, Environmental Design) Network, established by Design Corps, seeks to become both a tool and measuring stick for so-called public interest design projects. The training ended with a test, resulting with Jack becoming SEED certified.
Our thanks goes to Bryan Bell and Marie Schacht for hosting and providing scholarships, the presenters (notably John Peterson of Public Architecture), to the fellow participants of the conference and training, to our alumni in New York that hosted Jack and joined in for the conference, and to our own funder, the Union Pacific Foundation which funded the travel and accommodations expenses.
Meet the January 2014 Epicrew! Crew Count: 11. From Right to Left: Cyrus Smith, Chris Lezama, Mary Rothlisberger, Charlotte X. C. Sullivan, Maria Sykes, Jack Forinash, Sarah Baugh, Nicole Lavelle, Armando Rios, and Ryann Savino. Not pictured: Justin Queen.
Please enjoy the diversity of the group through the Q&A session below:
Q: What’s your age, birth place, zodiac sign, and spirit animal?
Sarah: 28 / Hope, Idaho / Capricorn / white-tailed deer
Jack: 28 / Alabama / Aquarius / seahorse
Nicole: 26 / San Francisco, California / Leo (Cancer cusp) / wild housecat
Chris: 30 / Daly City, CA / Aquarius / Donatello from the Ninja Turtles
Justin: 27 / Maybee, Michigan / Saggitarius / phoenix
Armando: 25 / San Angelo, Texas / Leo / fox
Mary: 30 / Killeen, Texas / Virgo / opossum
Ryann: 23 / Placerville, California / Virgo / doe
Cyrus: 33 / Portland, Oregon / Taurus / unknown
Charlotte: 29 / Boston, Massachusetts / Pisces / red fox
Maria: 29 / San Diego, CA / Virgo (Libra cusp) / ringtailed cat
Q: Where’s your favorite place to eat in Green River?
Sarah: Breakfast at West Winds, salad bar lunch at Tamarisk, and taco dinner (seasonal) at La Veracruzana.
Jack: Chow Hound.
Nicole: Tamarisk salad bar.
Chris: A back room booth at the West Winds or a counter stool at Ray’s.
Justin: Chow Hound.
Armando: The city park.
Mary: West Winds, late night. Like, late late night.
Ryann: At my Aunt Katherine’s house.
Cyrus: Chow Hound (love the BLT).
Charlotte: West Winds.
Maria: I like to belly-up to the bar at Ray’s Tavern for a burger and a pint. Juke box, tourists, and free pool: what more could a girl need?
Q: What brings you to Epicenter this January? What brought you to Green River originally?
Sarah: I’m here for one week with Nicole Lavelle to work on the upcoming Green River Magazine! I came to Green River in August of 2012 for the Frontier Fellowship. I’ve been here a total of four times since then, mostly as a Fellow.
Nicole: I’m here with Sarah Baugh to work on the Green River Magazine, and to get my annual winter dose of Green River. I came here originally because my friend in Alabama said, “Do you know about these guys? They’re building stuff out in the desert.” I had pictured a Burning Man vibe with geodesic domes and Epicenter actually literally building stuff in the middle of the desert. Anyways, even though I was wrong about the hippy vibe, the work the Epicenter was doing was compelling to me as a young designer just out of school, uninterested in working long hours to make Nike commercials. They provided an alternative model of practice, or at least they were investigating one, and I wanted to be a part of it. Years later, the model of young-creative-professional-forging-ahead that I learned from Epicenter is integral to the way I work. I’ve been here five times, but I had stopped counting.
Mary: I moved to Green River in November because of affordable housing options. I believe the power of small communities to enable positive change and as an citizen-artist, I prefer to work and live in towns of under 1,000. Small towns are for big ideas; open spaces never close. I first came through Green River to photograph the post office. I met Maria at the beach that evening. Haven’t really left the beach since. I spent a week on the beach with Cabin-Time last summer. Went to the beach for my birthday with new friends from Epicenter. Visits to the frozen winter beach to look at the moon. Have plans to set the record for consecutive beach visits as soon as its warm enough to read outside. I ended up at the beach here by accident, but my relationship with Green River started in February 2012 when Molly Goldberg and I applied to the Frontier Fellowship. We’ll be here together in April for adventure, intrigue, and a tornado of good old-fashioned fun.
Cyrus: I am the Frontier Fellow for the month of January. While in Green River I will be working with a group of high school students on an Oral History project. I am also seeking out the “Most Interesting Person in Green River,” who I hope to meet and interview for the upcoming Green River Magazine. I first came to Green River in August 2013 as part of the Cabin Time Residency which took place north of town in Desolation Canyon. This is my first time back, and I am looking forward to spending time in town, meeting the good people, and taking walks around town.
Charlotte: I am working at Epicenter this January to help select Fellows for 2014. I originally came to Green River because I wanted to collaborate with Jack and Maria, as I was inspired (via their Vimeo account) by their “LET’S DO THIS!” style work ethic as citizen architects. I also wanted to do an art residency in a remote, desert location, but didn’t want to wait for applications I had submitted to other programs to be processed. So, with Jack and Maria’s support, I decided the fastest way to do a residency of this sort was just to start one. Since January 8, 2011, I have returned to Green River three times: in September, 2011 to oversee the installation of Epicenter’s Antipode, A Site-Specific Billboard On the Frontier, in August, 2013 to participate in Cabin-Time 5, and in January, 2014, to assist with the Fellowship selection process.
Q: What do you do full-time at Epicenter?
Jack: I’m Principal of Housing and the Financial Manager.
Chris: I’m the Community Development Specialist. I assist Green River in a few of its ongoing community development initiatives.
Justin: I’m a part time employee facilitating Epicenter’s separation from PACT into its own nonprofit entity.
Armando: AmeriCorps VISTA, Housing Resources.
Ryann: I’m the Community Development AmeriCorps VISTA. I help out with the Frontier Fellowship program, run the Epicenter Etsy store, manage Social Services, work on our High School ACE Internship program, facilitate Windows on Broadway projects, help at the Boys and Girls Club, and translate documents in and out of Spanish.
Maria: I’m a co-director. I’m the principal over all things arts and culture related. I also work heavily on economic development and affordable housing projects and programs.
Q: Why do you enjoy working at Epicenter?
Jack: It feels like an adventure in my daily life. Gaining community presence and trust provides fulfillment and legitimacy for Epicenter and for me.
Chris: I enjoy working in a collaborative atmosphere with passionate people with differing interests and skill sets. There’s also always an influx of new people, projects, ideas that makes every day at Epicenter different than the one before it.
Justin: Because it rocks my world and this world.
Armando: Well, my colleagues of course. They are all great, passionate people who share my love of the river beach.
Ryann: So many reasons! I love the variety of the tasks I am able to work on at Epicenter. The crew here is dedicated and knowledgeable which makes me excited to work alongside them. I get to speak Spanish and work on creative projects with youth. It is wonderful to get to spend my time working to help a town that I really care about.
Maria: Every day I see the impact of my work, what I’ve co-created. Also, I’m madly in love with the town, the landscape, and the residents of Green River.
Q: How does working at/with Epicenter fit into your big picture/career/life?
Jack: Epicenter serves as an alternative model of professional practice, where architects and designers are able serve as community members helping to navigate and facilitate resolutions, rather than coming in as outside, top-down experts. This model is something I believe in and want to grow to its full form to exist as a compliment to traditional practice.
Nicole: I still think about the manifesto Epicenter had in their “About” section back in 2010 and 2011. When I was teaching design I had my students read it for a different perspective on the practice and they were repeatedly compelled by it. It was passionate, it was naive, it was driven by a fervent desire for something different than what was offered, something fulfilling. And that still resonates with me. I don’t know how to speak about my “big picture” or “career,” but I do know that immersing myself into a place and trying to understand it is a model of inquiry that fits into my life.
Ryann: I wrote my thesis about the Green River Watershed and my family history within it. Coming to work at Epicenter feels like a homecoming. I know this place will always be special to me, and I know I want to continue pursuing work with youth, the arts, and Spanish.
Cyrus: Some of my favorite artists and thinkers are in Green River this winter. Could not have kept me away.
Charlotte: I am working towards having a life that is based part-time in a rural location and part-time in an urban location. Currently, I view Green River as an excellent candidate for my rural base, with New York City, being the best candidate for my urban base. There are ways of working in Green River that are impossible in New York, and there are ways of working in New York that are impossible in Green River. I think there is harmony to be found in this opposition, which is why, artistically, and spiritually, I am seeking a hybrid-life.
Q: What’s your top Green River memory?
Sarah: Rafting Westwater Canyon!
Nicole: I stole this from Ryann but: square dancing at Melon Days 2013.
Mary: I’ve had a good number of best days here. Most of them were at the beach or the kitchen table. The time I won at backgammon, early morning camp chores, the stars in late summer, endless drives to somewhere, listening to records, writing by candlelight, playing cards, the color gold, copy editing, the sound of the train, and every great vista.
Armando: One of my top memories was the whole Summer Summit experience, but a specific memory of Summer Summit took place on the mighty Green River. We had been floating down the Green for a few hours and my turn to man the ducky had finally come. I was nervous when the first set of rapids approached; especially after the river guides yelled at me, “Don’t stop paddling!” I didn’t stop, and those first rapids ended up being a huge thrill and lots of fun.
Ryann: Too many to pick just one! Square dancing in the park during Melon Days is definitely up there. The wind was whipping and I couldn’t stop smiling as my dance partner taught me how to “do-si-do.”
Cyrus: Laying on our backs on a dirt road. Staring up at a moonless sky. Deep in Desolation Canyon.
Charlotte: On August 23, 2013, I spent the entire morning thirty-five feet in the air gold-leafing Andrew Rogers Elements sculpture on Monument Hill.
Maria: My first Melon Days (2009) was also my epic quarter-of-a-century birthday: endless melon, creating the melon monster, and my first weird hippies in the desert party. Additionally, that weekend was the first and last time my brother, Steven, visited me before he passed away. It was such a special weekend for me!
Q: What’s something that you’re really excited about right now?
Jack: Right now, more than ever, every song seems to apply to my life, so it’s hard to say there is any focused excitement. Based on listening to the album repeatedly yesterday, Lorde’s song “Buzzcut Season” seems to best express my current mood, outlook, and life. That’s probably a flash in the pan, but it seems at all times there is an all-consuming song, with a couple others to round out a mini-soundtrack.
Chris: Sandwiches. I recently ate at one of the Bay Area’s celebrated sandwich shops, Ike’s Place, and at Las Vegas’ famous Earl of Sandwich. Both sandwiches were delicious. I look forward to furthering my sandwich eating experiences in the new year.
Justin: The text, Tao-te Ching. It’s wonderful.
Armando: James Blake’s album, Overgrown. I have listened to it since the day it came out, but fell back in love with it pretty recently. Retrograde is probably the best song of 2013.
Mary: Astrology. Never not working on a Zodiac Library of all my friends, colleagues and historical figures.
Ryann: Black Dragon Canyon. I’m super intrigued by the calendar system petroglyphs.
Cyrus: The sunsets this time of year are amazing.
Charlotte: Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” music video, directed by Hype Williams.
Maria: This is easy: Iceland. My life became consumed with all things Iceland a few months ago when I began planning a trip to present the community design work of Epicenter at Design March, Iceland’s annual design conference. I’ve always been fascinated by the films, art, literature, and pop music of Iceland, and now I have a focused reason to continue my research of their culture. My bedside table is packed with books on Iceland’s sagas, folklore, architecture, and history.
Q: What book, movie, or person is significant to your work/process/life? Why?
Chris: One of my favorite books is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis It happens to be about my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A’s, but it’s also a pretty universal story about how an underdog succeeded against all odds. I’d like to think that with enough cunning and daring, an underdog can thrive, and this book demonstrates that.
Justin: St. Francis of Assisi: He’s a great model of simplicity and service and wearing sandals. Honorable Mention: Solanus Casey, Detroit’s very own almost-saint!
Charlotte: One of my current role models is Kennon Kay, the director of agriculture at the Queens County Farm, in New York City, where I work. Her leadership style is infused with un-ending optimism and unintimidating confidence. She is an avid-problem solver and marvelous strategist even though she never acts as though she knows all the answers.
Q: If you could have any superpower what would it be? Why?
Justin: Geographic manipulation (the ability to create things as awesome as Goblin Valley, the Swell, and the Bookcliffs) so there would be even more amazing hiking and adventuring to be had.
Charlotte: Teleportation, as it would allow me to travel back and forth between New York and Green River more easily.
Maria: This is one of my favorite questions to ask people. An answer can tell you a lot about someone. However, I never have a consistent answer for myself. What does that say about me? Maybe I’m still figuring it out. Today, I’m feeling like a greedy cheater, so I’ll go with power mimicry.
Q: What’s your favorite place/space in/near Green River? Why?
Jack: This is probably too overt, but it seems easy to say it’s the river beach. I require fresh water access wherever I live. It’s always been a part of my life. Swasey’s Beach is far enough away to feel a sense of escapism. Every time I’m there, everyone is relaxed, calm, and willing to be goofy. I like the systematic preparations I go through in order to go there, preparing the car with chairs, cooler with ice, site radio for music, salt and vinegar chips, Star magazine, sheets so that you can lay on the sand but not be dirty, cribbage and backgammon, and inner tube floats. A lot of activity, then about eighteen minutes of riding in the car, anticipating if our favorite spot will be available and how cold the water will be.
Sarah: Three Rocks. It’s the highest point in the area and the view is incredible.
Nicole: Three Rocks, because the high school students told me about it. This place is also known as FM Hill to the mom-aged crowd, because you can drive to the top and catch all of the radio stations in town. It’s the highest point in the near Green River vicinity (besides the Book Cliffs) and you get a 360-degree view—the town, the reef, the Book Cliffs, the Lasal Mountains, the Henry Mountains, other mountains…
Justin: The San Rafael Swell. Every time I go there, I go to Vulcan.
Armando: The State Park boat launch, it’s beautiful and you can watch trains pass on the bridge.
Mary: I like the moon from here the best of all.
Ryann: The river. It reminds me of my Uncle, who was the original reason I came to Green River two years ago. I love the history wrapped up in its silty waters, the sense of possibility you feel while floating down into the canyons, and watching it ebb and flow with the seasons.
Charlotte: I really love the White Haus, where Jack Forinash lives. When I am there, to quote the painter Joan Snyder, “I feel as if I’m away from time.”
Q: Who is the most interesting person in Green River and why?
Sarah: JoAnne Chandler. She’s a walking, talking archive of information about Green River.
Nicole: Jo Ann Chandler. I don’t know how she remembers everything, but she does. She doesn’t run the archives, she IS the archives.
Chris: I think Richard Seeley is the most interesting person in Green River. He has a lot of deep knowledge about seemingly disparate topics, including but not limited to: petroglyphs, refrigeration, Mormon history, heating devices, and pie.
As many of you know, Epicenter’s co-director and co-founder, Jack Forinash, has been the Interim Director of the University of Utah’s Design Build BLUFF program for the past two semesters. Design Build BLUFF is a non-profit located in Bluff, Utah in partnership with the University of Utah: Architecture + Planning and the University of Colorado: College of Architecture and Planning. Every year Design Build BLUFF gives architecture students the chance to design and build a sustainable homes on the Navajo reservation. In doing so, they don’t just create a home for a family in need. They create better, more compassionate architects for the betterment of our entire community. Read more about Design Build BLUFF on their website.
We’re very excited to invite you all to attend the opening of Design Build BLUFF’s most recent house this weekend! Jack has been fortunate to have an amazing crew of graduate students to working on this house who we’ve grown to love (and hope to steal as interns). Join us in Bluff this weekend for the festivities!!!
The Epicenter team and our volunteers have made some incredible strides over the past two weeks! The house has gone from bare studs to a house with insulation, drywall, paint, and beautiful hardwood floors!!! Thank you to our volunteers for your hard work: Martin Cruz, the entire Mendoza family, Mr. and Mrs. Escalante, Chad Kohlmeyer, and Scott Winston. Hats-off to Jack Forinash and Armando Rios for leading the efforts with help from Maria Sykes, Ashley Ross, and Chris Lezama.
Thank you to Scott Winston who generously donated the flooring! Scott was part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) group from Boulder, Colorado who came to Green River in early 2012 for a week of volunteering with PACT. He and Chad Kohlmeyer (ELCA Pastor) came all the way from Boulder to help install the flooring! Thanks to Scott and Chad for making the drive just to work with us.
The house is nearing complettion. This is the first ever (start-to-finish) Habitat for Humanity house we’ve funded, designed, and built in Green River!!! We are currently on schedule to get the prospective family in this house just in time for Christmas thanks to the hard work of all of our volunteers and recent private donations. THANK YOU!!!