Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Burlington: Evolution of a Business Town

Geography made Burlington the fastest growing part of Vermont as early as the 1820s, when a canal at the southern end of Lake Champlain created a trade route from Canada to New York. By the 1840s it was home for all Vermont’s boat building, over half its glass production, and a third of its potteries. When railroad lines were added along the burgeoning waterfront, what became known as the Queen City emerged as the region’s transportation and business hub. “In a commercial point of view,” crowed the Burlington Clipper newspaper, “Burlington is most favorably placed.”

What was true for commerce also held for immigrants. Waves of Irish, French Canadians, Italians, Jews and Germans rolled in. The effects were clearly felt by the turn of the century. Vermont remained a rock-ribbed Republican state, but an active working class emerged in Burlington and Democrats, albeit some of them prosperous “charter members” of the club, took control of City Hall. In the years that followed Burlington hosted “progressive era” reforms like a municipally-owned electric company, public dock and restrooms, an attractive train depot with modern amenities, playgrounds for children, and a public wharf – the latter despite determined opposition from the Central Vermont Railroad.

A central figure during this period was James E. Burke, first elected Mayor in 1903 and re-elected six times over the next 30 years. A Catholic blacksmith and son of Irish immigrants, Burke began his political career when he was over 50, becoming a champion of the poor, labor, and ethnic newcomers. Overcoming the resistance of an entrenched local establishment, he combined a commitment to public improvements with efficient management and a lean city budget. He also spearheaded changes in the city charter and, as a state legislator in the 20s and 30s pushed through reforms such as a municipal employees’ retirement fund.

Among his fiercely loyal supporters Burke was known as honest, fearless and filled with high ideals. His enemies meanwhile questioned his motives and called him a demagogue. Describing his speaking style, a writer for Vermonter Magazine remarked, “The ideas were expressed with the intensity of conviction that struck a popular chord in the hearts of the proletariat among whom his strength has been greatest.” Speaking for himself, Burke proclaimed, “I believe in a progressive spirit, no going backward.” Upon his death in 1943 the Burlington Free Press, a frequent critic, called him “the grand old man of Vermont Democrats, a tireless fighter “stirring the smoldering embers of democracy when they seemed to be dying out.”

Nothing lasts forever, though, and the Queen City drifted back toward conservatism by the 1930s. The Irish led a growing opposition, but old Americans – “Yankees” with civic and financial power who still believed in their Anglo-Saxon superiority – continued to dominate local culture. Upper class residents, many of whom literally lived up “on the hill,” fought against unions and the minimum wage, yet offered little charitable assistance through their churches. People should “help themselves,” they advised. And they weren’t beyond covering up their own faults. After a housing survey was completed in the 30s, it was quickly buried. Some of Burlington’s leading citizens, it turns out, owned several of the shabbiest tenements.

The city remained divided along Yankee-foreigner, Protestant-Catholic lines until the late 1950s, when a political alliance was forged between moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to control city appointments and services. This open conspiracy, known as the Republicrats, was still running the show two decades later.

The leading Republicrat was Mayor Gordon Paquette, a working class guy from the “inner city” who started his political career as a Democratic alderman in 1958 and became Mayor in 1971. “Gordie” was a street-smart pol who managed to unite the Irish and French Canadians while cutting deals with the business elite. Comparisons with Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley were common. But his willingness to demolish an old ethnic neighborhood and replace it with an underground mall, hotel and office complex made him some enemies.

As I entered the local scene Gordie looked invulnerable. But some cracks in the system were opening up. Speculation was driving up land values and rents, deepening a chronic housing shortage. A restless youth culture was emerging. Despite commercial growth, revenues couldn’t keep pace with the need for services. Plus, the next steps in the city’s “urban redevelopment” plan would be highly disruptive – a connector highway into the center of the city, private waterfront development, and a pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown. The total cost, including public and private funding, would be at least $50 million. The local atmosphere was nervous and unsettled.

Through friends from my “bureaucrat” days I made contact with local advocacy groups. The most effective (and ideologically conscious) was People Acting for Change Together, or PACT, a coalition of community and university-based activists who focused on a low-income neighborhood known as the Old North End. PACT combined attention to bread and butter issues like welfare rights, food and housing with development of a class analysis. On the other side of downtown in the city’s South End, the more pragmatic King Street Area Youth Center downplayed ideology and emphasized services to neighborhood families.

Both groups were building bonds with local residents, focusing mainly on bread and butter issues while avoiding identification as part of a “counter-culture.” The goal was to dig into the community for the long haul, incorporating rather than rejecting its basic values. However, few activists were aware of the big plans being hatched in City Hall and how they would affect everything.

Burlington College (called VICI at the time) had rented a small, second floor office suite on Main Street downtown, just half a block from City Hall. This brought me into Burlington more often. One day I noticed a sign on a door across the hall. Frayed Page Bookstore, it said. I tried to visit but the place was closed. It took several more attempts before I finally got inside. There I found a friend of the absentee owner, who explained that The Frayed Page was about two years old and not doing much business. The owner wasn’t likely to return. Looking around, I saw a thin selection of used books on makeshift shelves. But the space had a homey quality and the “business” had established a minimal presence. If the price was right it might provide the means to build a local base.

My partner liked the idea and we decided to make an offer. But there was a hitch. Another couple had also expressed interest. Their vision was less political and more literary but they were willing to partner up, sharing the work of improving the stock and keeping the doors open consistently. In early 1975 the four of us became owners of the city’s only used bookstore.

Part Three of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: Alternative Voices in COINTEL Times

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