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What's Broken in Burlington? 

Getting a fix on the town's troubles

So, you think Burlington is heaven on Earth. You proudly display your mud-caked "I LOVERMONT" bumper sticker and you named your cats Ethan and Ira. Your veins run with maple syrup and you've found just the right spot to plant your organic garden. Still, be honest: The Queen City isn't all regal.

To celebrate the end of winter, Seven Days asked readers and a select group of citizens to tell us what they think is broken in Burlington and what should be done to fix it.

But isn't that so... negative? you might ask.

Hey, think of it as a citywide prequel to Greenup Day. Besides, grumbling isn't just cathartic, it's educational. We learned that while most Burlingtonians can quickly rattle off a short list of pet peeves, identifying just one problem that truly rankles them requires some thought. Tougher still is coming up with good ideas for how to improve things.

The answers we received ran the gamut from the esoteric to the mundane. As much as possible, we've allowed people to speak in their own words.

Jen Mathews, director of the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign:"Broadly, the problem is what I call 'institutional classism,'" says Mathews, an eight-year Burlington resident. "Burlington decisions often value wealthier people at the expense of low-income people." Mathews believes Burlington isn't paying enough attention to the equitable allocation of resources. For example, she cites the city's lack of public buses for late-night employees, most of whom work in low-wage jobs. Likewise, she says, low-income families often complain their children are tracked with other low-income children in Burlington schools.

"Whether it's true or not, it feels like things get taken care of more quickly in wealthier areas than in low-income areas," Mathews says, adding it's a common complaint heard from low- and moderate-income residents.

Mathews suggests Burlington make a more concerted effort to focus on a sustainable economy. "If we're bringing more multinational corporate stores into downtown that pay low wages, that's not necessarily helping people who live in the community," she says. "People may say there's only so much money to go around, but if lower-income people are prioritized, I think the city can figure this stuff out."

Kathy Olwell, director of the New North End Youth Center:"I think youth programming and education are definitely broken in this city," says Olwell, whose youth center is located in the National Guard Armory next to Hunt Middle School.

"We can't keep doing this. We spend the lowest amount of money per pupil in Chittenden County. That's less than Milton, that's less than Winooski," she says. "We have the highest population of impoverished children needing the most and we're spending the least. That's not the makeup for a rosy future."

Olwell says most of the youth center's money comes from fundraising and private grants, not tax dollars. It's a far cry from the way things are done in Germany, where Olwell lived for 13 years. She suggests Burlington adopt a European model for funding schools. While she recognizes school funding is decided by voters and not city government, she thinks the City Council should revise its charter so school budgets are not subject to the whim of voters.

"We need to take care of our kids," Olwell concludes. "If we're not going to do it, nobody will."

Yves Bradley, owner of The Body Shop and Burlington police commissioner:"It's high time the city officially acknowledges the fact that we have a significant drug problem here in Burlington, specifically in relation to heroin, and ask for the public's help," says Bradley. "I don't pretend to have a magic wand, but if I were a public leader, I'd call a press conference and say, 'It's been in the news a lot lately, and I'm officially saying we've got a problem."

Bradley urges the city to focus more resources on drug education and prevention -- perhaps set up a heroin hotline and bring recovering addicts into the schools to show students how drugs can ruin their lives. Several years ago Bradley was a member of a group that approached Sen. Jim Jeffords to secure a $1 million grant for dealing with the heroin problem. Unfortunately, all that money was earmarked for treatment. Today, Bradley fears Burlington will soon pay a hefty price.

"In terms of the long-term health of Burlington, it's really scary," Bradley says. "That's where our property crimes come from. Think about it: Heroin addicts aren't employable. They've got a $200- to $300-per-day habit. How do they feed it? Break-ins. It's all petty stuff, but the petty stuff adds up to significant problems with quality of life."

Alex Chirelstein, director of Very Special Arts Vermont: Chirelstein, whose nonprofit group provides free arts programs to low-income and disabled Vermonters, offers his two cents with one caveat: "So long as it's clear that I'm not an expert on anything."

Chirelstein identified several problems, but thinks the most urgent one is the housing crunch-- from affordability to homelessness to the quality of rental properties.

"There's some weird air of unreality to the housing situation," says Chirelstein, a 10-year Burlington resident who recently became a homeowner. "I realize the engine behind it is scarcity, but if there aren't enough middle-class people to endlessly trade up their housing, or an economy to underwrite all these middle-class jobs, at some point the bottom falls out."

How can the city improve things? "In general, the mayor has done a terrific job," Chirel-stein admits. "So many of these issues are completely beyond our control as a community." He commends the efforts made in the last decade to create nonprofit groups that focus on affordable housing.

"The truth is, you can quibble on occasion with specific instances of how those policies have been carried out," he says. "But the city is still on the forefront in coming up with creative ways of dealing with housing issues for low- and moderate-income folks. I think city government has to be applauded."

Leanne Smith, University of Vermont student:"I think what's broke is Spillane's Towing has a monopoly in the Burlington area," says 19-year-old Smith, who claims her car was wrongfully towed in January, costing her $40. When she complained to the company, Smith says she was called "an ignorant and uneducated college student who couldn't read." She also was told she shouldn't worry about the money because her parents would probably reimburse her.

"That offended me deeply, because I work very hard and try to give back to the community, and my $40 does matter," counters Smith, who holds down a 40-hour-per-week job to put herself through college. On top of 18 college credits this semester, she also volunteers six to eight hours a week at the COTS Family Shelter and Women Helping Battered Women.

She says Spillane's "is contracted with so many different places in town that they feel they can get away with it." She thinks if the city used other towing companies, perhaps people would be treated better. She is now posting flyers around town soliciting stories from others who've had bad towing experiences.

John Tucker, director of the Racial Justice and Equity Project at the Peace and Justice Center:"What drives me crazy is [Burlington's] cheerleading mentality. What's wonderful for one group of people is not necessarily wonderful for another group," says Tucker. "There's this 'Kumbaya' attitude by the majority, and when someone dares to confront it, you either get denial or anger."

Despite many well-intentioned people, Burlington still suffers from an acute case of denial about its racial and class strife, asserts Tucker. "The demographics are changing and I think some leaders want to address that issue, but they have a big problem because the majority of the population isn't there yet," he says. "Unfor-tunately, [filmmaker] Michael Moore put his finger on us. Bowling for Columbine sums up Burlington and Vermont in general. It's a painful message, but take it to heart and learn from it."

Tucker complains about the hostility expressed toward the "minority report" -- and he's not just talking about racial minorities. "One of the things that I learned in my career is that oftentimes I learned just as much, if not more, from the dissenters' point of view as from those in my favor," he says.

"Did John Tucker say this is a rotten, dirty place? No," he concludes. "But they do need to wake up and smell the roses. Change is in the air, whether they like it or not."

Melinda Moulton, redeveloper with the Main Street Landing Company:"The only thing that's broken in Burlington is my heart, and that's because they took my train away," says Moulton, who worked for eight years on the Champlain Flyer demonstration project, a commuter-rail line that ran from Charlotte to Burling-ton. "Everybody was really gung-ho about this rail thing and then, boom! The carpet got pulled out."

The project was first proposed as a way of easing traffic created by construction on Shelburne Road, now scheduled for later this year. Proponents envisioned trains eventually running from as far south as Middlebury and as far north as St. Albans, shuttling visitors to Burlington in all kinds of weather. Unfortunately, ridership never got as high as predicted, largely, Moulton believes, because the Shelburne Road redesign hasn't begun yet. But with all the time, money and construction already invested -- 80 percent of which was federally funded -- Moulton says it'd be a travesty if the state lets this rail project die.

"Burlington could see 1000 people a day arriving in the city without their cars," she says, which would mean cleaner air, fewer parking headaches and a boon for the economy.

William Meisenzahl, producer/ director at Northern Image Productions, a division of CCTV:"One of the things that I find to be broken in Burlington is the lack of a true cinema for indie and foreign film," says Meisen-zahl. He knows his way around a camera. "Smaller communities like St. Johnsbury, Middlebury, Montpelier and Hanover, New Hampshire, have venues that constantly screen 'the good stuff,' yet the biggest city in the state is completely devoid of it, especially with the demise of the Nick." Meisenzahl faux-threatens that "If someone doesn't start an arthouse here, I may do so myself."

Kevin Curley, City Councilor from Ward 4:"To some extent I think democracy is broken in Bur- lington," says Kevin Curley, a lifelong Burlington resident who served three years on the Bur-lington School Board before being elected to City Council six years ago. "One of the things that really bothers me is we continually have a massive amount of school votes." And that, he says, puts school extracurricular activities on the chopping block.

"There's just not enough for the kids to do," Curley adds. "People like to think there are, but they're either cost-prohibitive or inconvenient." He recommends moving all of Burlington public school's extracurricular activities into the Parks and Recreation Department. In fact, Curley is already working on such a proposal.

The lone Republican city councilor readily admits his idea faces an uphill battle. But even with a modest increase in funding, he thinks the city could do a better job of providing those services.

"We've got good kids but we don't give them positive outlets," Curley says. "A tiny youth center in the back of the armory is a nice thing, but we can do better."

Andrew Montroll, Ward 6, City Council president:"One of things I would put up at the top of the list is dealing with some of the quality-of-life issues in our neighborhoods," says Montroll, a 15-year Bur-lington resident. "We've certainly gotten better at that, but we still have a long way to go."

Montroll admits "quality of life" means different things in different neighborhoods. For some it's noise and trash; for others it's the availability of affordable housing. Montroll says Burlington can improve enforcement of housing and life safety codes for such problems as inadequate heating, inoperable smoke detectors and substandard plumbing. "Most units are supposed to be inspected every three years and we're far, far from that cycle," Montroll says. "What we have done recently is put into place a lot of the tools we need to address these problems."

Montroll says it will take a concerted effort on the part of police, the Code Enforcement Office and the mayor's office to ensure the new laws are en-forced. Finally, he says, good follow-up will be key, because "Oftentimes when you've got one set of problems at a location there are other things going on there as well."

Erica Spiegel, University of Vermont physical plant employee:With a recycling background to back up her lament, Spiegel asks why "a supposedly environmentally conscious city" relies on a free enterprise system for sanitation, which she says results in excessive trash-collection truck traffic in her Old North End neighborhood. She also cites additional wear on city streets, residents driving around with bags of garbage in their trunks, and illegal dumping into a neighbor's or business' dumpster.

"A municipally coordinated approach where one truck is routed through each neighborhood just once per week is more efficient globally, environmentally and economically," Spiegel suggests. "Neighborhood contracts can be competitively bid among private haulers." The former Michigan resident notes that municipal collection works in Ann Arbor and Madison. "Why not here?"

Rev. Gary Kowalski, Unitarian Universalist Society:Kowalski prefers to say he has "priorities" rather than problems with the Queen City. "People in Burlington need to work to improve racial attitudes and human relations," says the 14-year resident. "If we're not going to repeat the mistakes that have been made elsewhere, we need to be proactive about this."

The minister believes many Vermonters feel isolated and disenfranchised from the mainstream culture because it's a relatively homogeneous demographic. "Our kids are going to grow up in a multicultural world and they need to be prepared to live and move in that diverse society," he says.

If Vermont businesses want to succeed in a global economy, they'll need to work with people of different nationalities, languages and races, Kowalski suggests, adding, "We have to break out of the parochial insulation that for too long has enveloped us."

Kowalski is encouraged by the momentum he now sees building in Burlington. However, "As far as the average citizen goes, I think there's a lack of awareness here." And, he knows good intentions don't always translate into action. Kowalski recalls one State of the State address in which Howard Dean made a closing remark about eliminating racism in Vermont. "It was a line that drew a resounding ovation from the audience," Kowalski says. "And yet it was kind of a throwaway line. It didn't really draw any sustained action at the state level."

John Anderson, architect:"To me, what's broke is that you can get away with mediocrity when it comes to architectural design," says Anderson, who is responsible for the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts and the Keliher Samets Volk renovations. Burlington, he says, is a very hip city for music, theater and the graphic arts. "The one art form that lags behind all the other art forms is architecture," he charges. "When it comes to architecture, Burling-ton is almost like a backwater... There's very little demand for avant-garde or cutting-edge design philosophies."

Anderson is disheartened by some of the buildings that go up, and says it's too easy for "boring, middle-of-the-road" designs to get city approval. Though he doesn't fault anyone in particular, he says Burlington needs a public dialogue about architecture. "A mediocre band is not going to get that far in this town because the standards musically are really high," he says. Why, he asks, don't we demand the same high quality in our built environment?

"Architecture is an art form, and we need to talk and think about it that way," Anderson says. "You see the waterfront edging toward historical revisionism. But I don't think Burling-ton can survive on trying to recreate its past. It's kind of a Disneyland thing."

Beth Wasmund, landscaper with Colby Hill Landscape Co.:Wasmund is in a good position to note that "Dog poop is one of Burlington's biggest problems." Every spring, she says, "a winter's worth of unscooped poop surfaces as the snow recedes. It's disgusting and unsightly, and I feel it's a health hazard."

Despite the pooper-scooper law, Burlington police are too busy to enforce it, Wasmund believes, saying the responsibility lies with dog owners or walkers. "I think it's ridiculous to have to scoop poop from my own yard when I don't even own a dog," she says.

Wasmund suggests the city provide dispensers with biodegradable bags located around town. But the bottom line, she says, is that "dog walkers need to be more responsible and always carry bags with them and scoop the poop!"

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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