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Mares: Civic Transformation

Vincent Feeney’s comprehensive history of Burlington draws upon documents, letters, news accounts, diaries, proclamations, laws, and the labors of former historians like Erin Anderson, David Blow and Lilian Baker Carlisle. And it’s given me a fresh view of the city where I’ve lived for almost 40 years, in the same house, no less.

Most notable events creep by as one-day or one-week stories, while the really big picture is best seen by combining chronological history with cultural, economic, political and religious developments – allowing us to see how what happens locally fits into the larger context of world events like wars and depressions.

I was surprised to learn that in the 19th century, Burlington had bloodless religious wars between Trinitarians and Unitarians, and in the early 20th century a "trolley war" for ridership between transport companies. It had great philanthropists, like the Howard and Fletcher families, as well as forceful political leaders like six-term Mayor James J. Burke, who reorganized the police department, began the city's investment in waterfront property and created a municipal power company.

As across the country, waves of anonymous French, Italian, German, and Jewish immigrants flowed into the Queen City. In the 1930's Jews were the third largest immigrant group after French-Canadians and Irish. Later there were hundreds of students who came to UVM, changed the housing patterns in the city, and stayed to fill a host of jobs. And in the last twenty years have come waves of Somalis, Bhutanese, Bosnians and others.

Urban Renewal in the 1960's tore up the Italian neighborhood off Pearl Street, while four blocks at the center of Burlington’s commercial district was transformed in the 1980’s into the nationally renowned Church Street pedestrian mall.

As Bernie Sanders runs for President, we’re reminded of how he became Mayor of Burlington by a 10-vote margin and the marks he left on the city – especially his role in transforming the Waterfront from rusting industrial site to a robust public center for lakeside recreation.

Malted cereal, refrigerators, plastic brushes and Gatling guns were once made on Burlington’s Lower Pine Street. Now it’s where websites for auto dealerships, futons, chocolate are produced; and it has four breweries within a quarter mile of each other.

Today, the city is being reshaped again – from bike lanes on North Ave, to the Southern Connector highway's path, and the proposed construction of a new downtown mall with buildings up to 14-stories tall.

"History doesn't repeat itself,” Mark Twain once noted, “but it does rhyme."

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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