Source of income or invading force?

A writer questions Dartmouth’s privileged position in the Upper Valley.

by Marius DeMartino | 10/19/22 02:25

It’s no secret that Hannover is an odd duck compared to the Upper Valley as a whole. It only takes a ten-minute drive in any direction to notice a few differences between the sprawling mansions of Occom Pond and the secluded shopping malls of the surrounding towns.

From our limited perspective within the Dartmouth bubble, the impact we have on the area we choose to inhabit is not always obvious. This week, I set out to question our position as citizens of the Upper Valley. Maybe in some way the people of Dartmouth support the local economy, contributing our money to local businesses. But after hearing stories of skyrocketing land values, it’s hard to believe Dartmouth’s diaspora hasn’t had a negative impact on the Upper Valley.

Marya Merriam is a resident of Strafford, Vermont, about thirty minutes from Hanover. They also own Woodfrog Flowers, a business I met at Norwich Farmers Market. Merriam described the Dartmouth-affiliated customers they saw there.

“The first are the parents, who are big customers. They tend to be a bit richer and want to buy their kid a nice thing,” Merriam said. While they admit income inequality in the area is its own problem, Merriam said being a farmer’s market vendor allows them to reap its benefits.

“The second group is made up of college students who want a little something for their room,” Merriam said. “It’s generally quite positive and it’s nice to see people choosing something that will make them happy.”

In some cases, however, visitors come for the aesthetics and buy nothing at all.

“What happens in surprising quantity,” Merriam continued, “is people taking a picture outside my booth but not buying anything. I know we live in the age of social media, and my booth is a hot spot for a nice photo.

Merriam connected these photo-focused clients to Dartmouth’s wider relationship with the Upper Valley.

“We’re in a tourism-based economy, and I’m used to wealthy people coming to buy an experience where everything is perfect. It’s almost like playing the role of the Vermont farmer… who’s there to serve them in one way or another.

While Merriam acknowledged that they benefited in some ways from this system, they also said “it is sometimes exhausting to play this role”.

Jenevra Wetmore, director of the nonprofit Sustainable Woodstock program, grew up in the Upper Valley and had a mixed view of Dartmouth. Wetmore was a student at Hanover High at a time when a scandal over Greek life and hazing was boiling over, something they said “did not reflect well on the College”.

“I don’t really like the frat and sorority culture that surrounded me in high school and existed in my line of sight — it never felt healthy,” Wetmore said. Now, however, Wetmore’s perspective has changed somewhat for the better.

Through their work with Sustainable Woodstock, Wetmore worked with Dartmouth students taking a social impact internship course. Despite the stereotype that “Dartmouth students got really entitled”, Wetmore was pleasantly surprised by the students’ work.

“None of them were from Vermont and they didn’t know our target populations, which are low-income mobile home owners, but they stepped up and learned a lot,” Wetmore said. “It was a total joy to work with them.”

Dwight Aspinwall ’84 is both an alumnus and a resident of the Upper Valley, living just up Balch Hill. A computer science graduate, he now performs with the Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble, which uniquely positions him both inside the institution and outside as a member of the community.

“In a band like DCWE, I work really closely with the students, which is really nice,” Aspinwall said. “It may be different from the level of interaction of an average community member.”

Aspinwall pointed out that certain events have succeeded in bringing Dartmouth and the community closer together.

“DCWE did something in the spring where they brought in local students to rehearse with the principal and a number of student volunteers,” he said. “My son did, and he had a one-on-one with a trumpeter from Dartmouth. It’s a great opportunity for the musicians at Dartmouth to give back and have this great synergy.

Locals’ views on Dartmouth are certainly varied, but either way, there is room for improvement for ourselves and our college.

“Dartmouth has a certain clout, either institutionally or by the amount of money in the region they control,” Merriam said. “Given that I operate a farm in this area, I would like to see Dartmouth lead a transition to renewable energy in this area.”

Wetmore also backed the idea, expressing disappointment with Dartmouth’s “confusing and contradictory stance” on environmental issues. They also expressed hope that individual students would “get out there and do a little more volunteering and do things in the community. On behalf of nonprofit organizations, we would like more students to help us,” they said.

Although some locals appreciate being close to Dartmouth, rumors of rights persist in the upper valley. Wetmore said students “shouldn’t be responsible for change,” especially on a larger scale. But even if we cannot get rid of our institutional privilege, we are also citizens of the Upper Valley. Adjusting our attitudes is perhaps the least we can do.

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