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What's in a Name (or Lack Thereof)? Burlington's City Hall Park and Waterfront Park 

State of the Arts

So far this series has examined how particular places in Vermont got their names — the Winooski River and Mount Mansfield, for example, as well as the cities of Burlington and Rutland. This installment considers why a couple of Burlington landmarks — City Hall Park and Waterfront Park — don’t have a “proper” name.

These two prominent pieces of public real estate are named for their location rather than for some bigwig. Pretty prosaic, right?

It’s not as though someone standing in the green space bordered by Main, St. Paul and College streets would have trouble figuring out the identity of that large building — city hall — in the park’s southeastern corner. Similarly, people walking or cycling in the manicured area along the lake south of the Moran Plant can probably tell they’re in a park on the waterfront. Perhaps we could be a bit more imaginative with the names of these sites — such as paying homage to the most historically significant figure Burlington has produced.

Such was the reasoning behind an effort 10 years ago to name City Hall Park for John Dewey (1859-1952). A half dozen or so well-respected local educators petitioned the city to make that change, noting that Dewey is considered one of the most influential philosophers and educational theorists in American history. Dewey’s politics would also be entirely in sync with the progressive ethos of contemporary Burlington. He was a socialist who fought for civil rights, academic freedom and women’s suffrage.

Frank Gonzales, an octogenarian artist, helped organize the campaign to commemorate Dewey at this strategic downtown locale. Gonzales is something of a Dewey obsessive. As a volunteer in the kids’ art program at the Fletcher Free Library, he presided over the construction of a giant papier-mâché Dewey effigy that enlivens the children’s reading room. And Gonzales, an unusually energetic 89-year-old, becomes especially animated when he starts talking about Dewey.

The son of an American mother and Mexican father, Gonzales attended an elementary school in Pasadena, Calif., that followed Dewey’s methods of encouraging children’s creativity. “It affected my life in such a positive way,” Gonzales recalls. “I thought, Man, I owe you.”

But local officials weren’t moved by the push to rename City Hall Park. “They said there was too much tradition associated with the original name,” recounts Jeanne Plo, a mental health counselor who also regards the Burlington-born public intellectual as underappreciated locally.

“When I talk about Dewey with people in Burlington,” Gonzales relates, “they say, ‘Oh, yes, the Dewey Decimal System guy.’” Wrong. That method of classifying books is named after 19th-century librarian Melvil Dewey.

But even if they get their Deweys confused, John’s homies have tried to give the Burlington Dewey his due. A lounge in the University of Vermont’s Old Mill building is named for the school’s most famous alum (class of 1879). His ashes are interred in Ira Allen Chapel, marked by a stone inscribed with a lengthy quote from Dewey’s publication A Common Faith. There’s also a historical plaque in front of the South Willard Street house where he was born, and a marker on one of the swing benches in Waterfront Park. Not least, the building housing UVM’s psychology department (originally the medical college) is John Dewey Hall.

There’s even a Dewey Park in the Old North End, though it’s understandable if even some habitués of that ’hood are unaware of the name of the tiny triangle in front of the Integrated Arts Academy. It’s the site of a Tuesday afternoon farmers market.

In addition, the city council proclaimed in 1996 that October 20 would thereafter be recognized in Burlington as John Dewey Day. And every year since, Gonzales has arranged for the funky, 10-foot-tall statue of his hero to be paraded along Church Street on the Saturday closest to Dewey’s birthday.

All this isn’t enough, however, for Gonzales and his fellow advocates. Having been spurned on the City Hall Park option, they switched their focus a few years ago to 20-year-old Waterfront Park, the name of which presumably doesn’t carry a heavy weight of tradition. Gonzales also offers a specific rationale for renaming this site. Noting that Dewey grew up in a house on George Street (just west of the present-day post office), he says, “I can imagine him and his little brother as boys playing on the waterfront.”

But this effort hasn’t gotten much traction, either. “It’s just incredibly difficult in Burlington to name something for someone,” observes longtime city councilor Sharon Bushor. She points to a failed attempt some years ago to name the Community Boathouse for Peter Clavelle, the mayor who was primarily responsible for the popular addition that spearheaded the lakefront renewal.

Bushor’s lament notwithstanding, it’s clear that if you can supply the dough, you can manage to get your name affixed to something major in Burlington. Just look at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, the Leahy Center for Digital Investigation at Champlain College and Leahy Way — the alley off Church Street where Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is featured in a 124-foot-long mural.

The connection between money and naming rights is long established, of course, but has lately become even more accentuated, with stadiums now routinely named for whatever corporation makes the highest bid. Middlebury College has embraced this practice. It named its arts center for mega-donor Kevin Mahaney in 2007, and three years later announced that its previously nameless library would henceforth be known as the Davis Family Library, in honor of a moneyed alumnus and his relatives.

So if Burlington Telecom’s debts ever threaten to bankrupt the city, will we have to start referring to the Ben & Jerry’s Bike Path? And if shifting demographics destabilize UVM’s finances, will the university’s baseball diamond become known as Field?

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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