October 7th, 2011

The Lost Italian Neighborhood, Epilogue (Now With Hawt New Free Press Update)

by Philip Baruth

For those who don’t know their Burlington history, there was once a thriving Italian neighborhood overlooking the lake, where the Hilton and Marriott and Burlington Square Mall now stand. All of it was consumed by the rush to “urban renewal” in the 1960’s. Those families were displaced, and many moved into the Old North End. I wrote about this in my novel Dream of the White Village, and later for Vermont Public Radio, arguing that the city should erect a memorial to that hijacked neighborhood. And now, a decade later, and thanks to the hard work of the Vermont Italian Club, it’s going to happen: I’ll be one of the speakers at a dedication ceremony on Saturday (tomorrow) for a plaque honoring those displaced families and their neighborhood. Starts at one, across from the Hilton. And here’s that 2001 VPR piece. — PB

Notes From The New Vermont
Commentary #22:
Filene’s Bad Karma

When I was in junior high in Upstate New York, circa 1977, the Pyramid Mall Corporation announced plans to build the area’s first full-scale shopping mall — right smack in the center of a thriving wetland. The Pyramid people expected resistance. What they didn’t expect was unbridled war.

Environmentalists jammed the courts, and when they lost in the courts, they linked arms in front of the bulldozers. My English teacher, a birdlike woman who’d been on the barricades in Berkeley in the late ‘60s, got herself arrested and showed us the pink cuff marks around her tiny wrists, which struck all of us in the ninth grade as pretty intense.

When all was said and done, the mall got built, the wetland got filled, and the birds and wildlife got what they least expected. But six weeks before the grand opening, construction workers came into the Sears store anchoring one of the mall’s four huge arms, and they found that it was ten inches lower than it should be. Sears was sinking.

Within two days, nothing was left of it above water but the roof. The wetland ate it: gummed it slowly and mindlessly for a few months and then, making up its mind, swallowed an entire Sears store, pea-green Kenmore washers and dryers and all.

Having lived through the Pyramid wars, I was prepared when Spielberg’s Poltergeist was released a few years later. In Poltergeist, crooked developers locate a housing tract over an ancient burial ground — and to put it mildly, things happen, including a scene with a clown that I find difficult to discuss, even now.

So I came out of those years a firm believer in the ability of the wrongfully displaced to reassert themselves, the ability of the evicted and the repressed to return. It’s a karmic idea, that the sins of developers can be visited on their newborn buildings, and it’s certainly not a new one. But it comes to mind every time I strap my daughter into her elaborate Scandinavian sling and walk down Battery Street to Cherry, where Burlington’s new Filene’s Department Store stands about half-finished.

Because Filene’s now occupies the space that was once a thriving Italian neighborhood in the 1960’s, before developers and pliable city officials decided that it would be best for everyone if the entire neighborhood were condemned and bulldozed to make way for more promotional tenants, including the Radisson and the Burlington Square Mall.

Bluntly put, that land — some of the most desirable commercial land in Burlington, in the entire state, in fact — was taken by legalized force from the people who lived and worked and raised families there. In the name of 1960’s urban renewal, an entire community was disappeared.

Granted, it’s been upwards of thirty years since bulldozers removed every trace of what I call the Lost Italian Neighborhood. And granted, cities grow by sloughing off their scales on a regular basis. But there is a fundamental difference between replacing tenants and buildings, and displacing them, and the difference is a moral one.

So what’s to be done? Filene’s also represents the latest and best hope for keeping the Burlington’s Church Street downtown area vibrant, competitive with suburban sprawl. In almost every way it is a good thing, a powerfully good thing, for the city.

Arthur Miller put it best in Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid.”

When Filene’s opens, there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the Mayor will have a few words to say. There will be music, and no doubt some wealthy people will be offered champagne, a selection of cheeses, and a preview of the merchandise. Somewhere in the fanfare, attention should be paid, mention should be made of the many lives that were moved to one side. Some respect should be shown, that’s all I’m saying, and that’s not a great deal. But the truth is that people and things not laid properly to rest have no choice but to walk.

My daughter can’t talk yet, but when I wander with her in her belly sling down past the Filene’s site, she looks at the strange, almost Egyptian facade and then she cranes her head around to look at me, and I can tell what she’s thinking: “They’re he-e-e-re.”

Late Update, Sunday, 5:29 pm:

A truly wonderful event yesterday: killer weather, a big crowd of big-hearted Italian-American Burlingtonians, and homemade meatballs. Joel Baird at the Freeps captured the nuances, if you’re interested. Abbondanza.