The Old North End in Burlington, Vermont: A Struggle Against Gentrification

Photo: Luis Lázaro Tijerina

Living in New England can be an isolating way of life, as it is dominated by Anglo-Europeans who still have an idealistic view of themselves and their Puritan heritage, although the modern New Englanders would deny it. New Englanders, whether of the past or present, have always seen themselves as exceptional, and it is this hidden or two-faced pride that they attempt to conceal until others who are not from New England show either an indifference towards their cultural arrogance or make a comment about their behavior which not only injuries their pride, but can also make them vindictive towards that person who confronts them with their cultural egotism. As Tocqueville once noted about the American National Character abroad, which I think also applies to them even within their own country: “The American leaves his country with a heart swollen with pride. He arrives in Europe and observes at once that we are not as concerned with the United States and the great people living there as he had supposed. This begins to annoy him”,[i] and it is not so much this annoyed behavior that I will concern myself with in this essay, but instead I will write about the émigrés or immigrants who have settled in New England, and are rarely acknowledged or even understood by the New England patrician class and those subtenant to the various social and cultural institutions of white New England. It is in the Old North End of Burlington, Vermont, that one can see an immigrant history socially subtle, modest and hardworking, which leaves the historian with more questions than answers about their survival through the last two centuries...

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

There's always a certain monotony and social dreariness that exist in America, which was observed rather closely both by Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America and Nathaniel Hawthorne in his short stories. Each of these great writers have influenced my own observation of the United States. And, as a colonized Mexican American, I have always been more reserved and cool  — rather than being entirely warm —  to the various cultural mannerisms and political institutions I have had to endure through most of my life here. If ever I was to bring together all my written observations of the United States, it would be called Imperialism in America, as I am a man of my time like any other writer or historian who wishes to live a record of his epoch, not to seek out any prize for my effort, but instead to leave a testament for the ages.  However, I feel the historian should not always seek out such a grand plan, but instead at times concentrate on what is immediately around him and thus be able to grasp the essence of the country and community he lives in.

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

Let us first observe some statistics or economic factors pertinent to Burlington, Vermont's Old North End which will give the reader an understanding of the social and cultural demographics changing the Old North End, which my own observations must take into account and which in some ways adds to the more subtle nuances of the photos I have taken for this essay to demonstrate the diversity of streets, the dwellings and people who live there.

The newspaper SEVEN DAYS has reported on various present and future changes coming to the Old North End and how that will affect, even displace, the population which has lived there for decades — the Vermont working class of Burlington:

SEVEN DAYS chronicles a census based on city data which divides the Old North End into four tracts, two fully contained within its official boundaries. In the tract covering the southwest corner — the area enclosed by North and North Winooski Avenues, and Pearl and North Streets — the number of people living in poverty decreased from 42 percent to 34 percent between 2010 and 2016. Poverty rose slightly in the city as a whole during that period.

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

Median household incomes in the same tract also rose by 23 percent — a rate 4 percent higher than the citywide increase. The number of college-educated residents has also risen from 30 to 39 percent, according to census data. Some parts of the neighborhood have seen a 40 percent decline in crime during the past five years, city-kept data show.

Such trends likely reflect an influx of wealthier residents — meaning that some lower-income Old North Enders could be priced out.[ii] 

Although the Mayor and his wealthy political cronies are claiming, one,  they are actually helping the Old North End to eventually prosper and,  two, in creating new, fashionable apartment buildings, the people of modest means living there now will be able to afford them, alas, such will not be the case. However, there are community leaders in Burlington who are not that naïve about the changing class demographics, and as Maura Collins, deputy director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency said to a SEVEN DAYS reporter: “Gentrification happens when people who move out are replaced by households that look different demographically." [iii]  The gentrification and class tensions that the reporter cited in the Old North End is a harsh reality and ultimately will affect hundreds of working people who live there.

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

On a quiet Saturday afternoon, I was able to see for myself various new apartment buildings no working class people in the Old North End would be able to have such money to live in, and trendy bars and upper-middle class bakeries, businesses I knew no working class person was going to patronize and enjoy the fine wines, expensive Vermont beers and organic bakery goods. Instead, as I entered the quiet Old North End during my walk down North Winooski Avenue which crosses Pearl Street, and which eventually led me to North Street, I felt as if I was looking at what the immigrant working class ghettos of Germany might have looked like as Hitler came to power and eventually crushed and exterminated national German minorities.

Indeed, I knew that Jewish Lithuanians had settled in the Old North End in the 1870s to work in the textile mills in Winooski, Vermont only a mile or two from the center city of Burlington.  I also thought of the immigrant ghettos in Saint Petersburg and Moscow prior to the Russian Revolution.

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

What I also noticed as a historian and personal observer was the quietness and monotony of the atmosphere, quite different from the working class districts of Quebec City that had I roamed about with pleasure when I lived in that historic and vibrant city. In the Old North End, the people when you converse with them are shy, polite and suspicious, but if you enter their stores or pubs, then they are affable and have a sense of pride in the way they carry themselves, even if they are the working poor. That is not to deny the darkness in that region of the city, since the crime rate is a serious matter there due to unemployment and cultural trauma for many of the people who have come to Vermont as refugees from raging civil wars throughout the world. 

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

While I was taking my photos of the Old North End, I saw white middle-class university students walking their pedigree dogs on North Street. I also was able to see Somalian men and women, along with Nepalese youth and old men walking along the streets and talking amicably with each other. Some young Nepalese men befriended me and asked me to take photos of them. I also had a brief conversation with a Somali woman who prided herself on selling goat meat from Australia and told me “You know about Australia? You know about Australia

goat meat better than American goat meat?” and she laughed heartily as she approached me.  I smiled and replied, “Oh, yes, of course!" At that, she seemed very happy with my comment. Later, further down North Street, I talked briefly with an old man I took to be from Nepal, and asked him what country he came from, as if I was innocent of his origins, and he stuttered, “I am from the country of Vermont!” What could I say? I simply smiled and nodded,  “Oh, the country of Vermont!” and quickly paced further down the sidewalk.

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

What did impress me were the murals I saw in the Old North End, which are not only ethnic, but show a vitality in the colors and subject matter that one does not see in the middle-class residential area of nearby Burlington, or even on Burlington's Yuppified Church Street, which congratulates itself on its so-called art scene, but which I would define as simply delusional on their part — nothing but a commercial extension of the mediocre art cafes and art studios further towards Pine Street. The murals and easel paintings in the commercialized studios and art galleries of Burlington are without technical or emotional merit.  In the scheme of things, Burlington is actually a small, provincial, pretentious, prideful town seeking to convey the impression it's a ‘cultured’ city.  And yet, ironically, it is in the Old North End where one finds a genuinely authentic, dynamic culture of working class artists, as well as immigrants from Tibet, Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia and other regions of the former Yugoslavia, along with Senegalese and Somalians whose lives depict a living art. 

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

It was when I encountered a lovely man and woman who invited me talk with them at an unpretentious traditional corner taproom, the Olde Northender Pub, that I learned a true lesson about the working class Vermonters and their claim to the Old North End. The woman confessed to me that she only left to live outside of Vermont once, when she went to California and returned after three months, and then the man exclaimed “I only left for a month to live in North Carolina, but I couldn’t live without Vermont, and so I returned!” I was a little shocked by their comments, but I pretended to be casual about the whole thing, and they were happy for me to take a few photos of them.  Later, after I returned home to my own modest lodgings near the University of Vermont, I thought of the couple again, almost as if I had read about them in something written by the novelist William Faulkner about the Old North End, and how people who have endured poverty and social discrimination will fight even if the circumstances are tragic.

Luis Lázaro Tijerina

[i] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans.by Gerald E. Bevan. London: Penguin Books, 2003, 659.

[ii] https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/ready-or-not-is-gentrification-inevitable-in-burlingtons-old-north-end/Content?oid=11967937

[iii] Ibid.  

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