BURLINGTON - Legend has it that the South End enclave of New Harlem got its more familiar moniker - the "Five Sisters" neighborhood - when an early 20th-century developer named five of its streets for his daughters Caroline, Catherine, Charlotte, Margaret and Marion.
No one at the city planning office can say definitively whether the story is true or just another urban myth, such as Champ the lake monster and albino alligators in the New York City sewers. But the Burlington Department of Planning and Zoning hopes to learn more this summer, when it launches a historic survey of the 300 or so buildings in the area bounded by Howard Street to Locust Street, and St. Paul to West Pine.
The $4000 grant for the study was awarded to the city by the Vermont Department of Historic Preservation in December. However, the City Council has delayed accepting the funds in order to discuss the consequences taking the money might have for neighborhood residents.
According to Burlington Comprehensive Planner David White, there are none. White says a historic survey is a "bread-and-butter activity" that simply tells the city which structures the neighborhood contains, when they were built, which ones are significant, and whether they retain their historical integrity and character. The survey will involve physical walking tours and photography of the neighborhood, as well as archival research. Only a quarter to a third of Burlington's neighborhoods have undergone this type of comprehensive review.
Initially, some residents wondered whether a historic survey is the first step toward declaring the neighborhood a historic district. One concern is that inclusion on the state or national register of historic places would impose additional restrictions and expenses on residents who are looking to, say, replace a slate roof or renovate a sagging porch.
About 35 to 40 residents showed up for a recent meeting of the Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee. According to notes from that meeting, the residents expressed their general support for retaining the historic character of their neighborhood. However, they also voiced a desire to see city officials consider the cost impact to residents of maintaining those "historic" standards.
"Of course, we want to preserve some of those characteristics, which tell the story of neighborhoods," says Councilor Tim Ashe (P-Ward 3), a member of the three-person committee. "But the roof over the head is more important than the material it's made of. Ultimately, affordability is an important consideration."
But White says residents need not worry that this review will impose additional burdens on those who are making home improvements. The city already undertakes these reviews on a case-by-case basis whenever a homeowner applies for a building permit.
"This is about inventorying information on what exists, not creating something new," White explains. "It's like wetlands. They either exist or they don't. Inventorying them doesn't really change the situation."
One person who's eager to dig into the stories behind the Five Sisters neighborhood is Professor Tom Visser. Visser isn't just director of the graduate program in historic preservation at the University of Vermont. He's also a resident of the neighborhood.
Over the years, Visser has gathered bits and pieces of historical background on his house and those of his neighbors. Now he'd like to see them placed in the broader context of Burlington's growth and development. For instance, Visser says he knows the neighborhood was built in the era between the late 1800s and 1940; he suspects his own house went up in 1935, based on a newspaper clipping from that year he found nailed to some clapboards on the back of the house.
Visser's previous neighbors, who have since died, told him that the woman who originally lived in his house worked as a waitress on Church Street. "I'm looking forward to sharing some of this oral history, so that it can become part of the community's history," he says.
Visser points out that such reviews are important not only for their historical and economic value - historic designations typically boost property values in the area - but also for what they can do to protect the neighborhood. Eligibility for listing in the state or national register triggers a review whenever a federally funded project is proposed, such as the Southern Connector or new high-voltage wires.
City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5), who represents the Seven Sisters neighborhood, says she's heard from a number of constituents in the area. "I think that the neighborhood generally is supportive," she says. "A lot of people in that neighborhood come from areas outside of Vermont where they've seen their old neighborhoods essentially torn down and big McMansions standing in their place."
Shannon adds that the concern about costly and onerous reviews is unwarranted, since 70 percent of the properties in Burlington are already subject to design reviews, whether they're in a historic district or not. She says, "There's no harm that can come in a survey that just tells you what you have."
Last year, the Five Sisters was named a "top 10" neighborhood in the United States by Cottage Living magazine, which noted its "hodge-podge" of architectural styles, its proximity to downtown, its green spaces and its strong sense of community.