It’s been little more than a year since the Greyhound bus terminal moved from its Pine Street quarters to the airport. In its day, however, waiting passengers probably wondered about the pale tops of tractor-trailers visible beyond the wooden fence out back. Plenty of passersby still do.
To make your way past that fence — adorned with American and POW-MIA flags — you have to brave a collage of unwelcoming signs: No Trespassing. No Dumping. 5 mph. Beware of Dog.
That last one is no empty threat: Passing through the gate elicits fierce barking from behind a fence of plywood and chicken wire. There, a white-and-sky-blue trailer sits surrounded by dozens of tree stumps, milk crates, bricks, hubcaps … and a grill. Near the front end of the trailer, an awning covers an outdoor sitting area with a worn couch and a few chairs.
One of the two snarling dogs is a pit bull; the other is a Rottweiler. Despite my cooing and gentle entreaties, they won’t let up. Nearby, a mama duck ignores them, placidly stewarding her seven ducklings across a muddy pool and into some reeds. Beyond the gate, a serpentine, pitted dirt road weaves among rows of wheelless tractor-trailers — about 80 in all.
A few weeks ago, the trailers sat in murky, knee-high water that had spilled over from Lake Champlain. It was the first time Mick — no last name provided — had seen that happen in the 15 years he has watched over this reedy five-acre lot. A wiry, deeply tanned man with white hair, Mick uses the trailer (which lacks running water) as an office. It’s also where he spends most of his time. Mick is congenial; he says he used to welcome weary travelers from the bus station who smelled his grill and wandered over to say hi.
Originally from Hartford, Conn., Mick arrived in Burlington about 20 years ago and slept “rough” for a while. Eventually, the land’s owner, Dennis Havey — who also owns Vermont Equipment Supply — gave Mick two Hood milk trucks to live in and charged him with keeping other homeless people away. “Basically, this was a breeding ground for all kinds of crap,” Mick recalls as we walk around, dodging puddles. “One becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight. I had to steer them away from here. They do things in trailers you wouldn’t do.”
Early in Mick’s time here, tragedy struck: A nighttime fire at his milk trucks killed two of his dogs, including a beloved terrier named Tara. Still, Mick stayed on, tending and washing the trailers and keeping out riffraff. “I said, ‘Look, I’m here to stay,’” he says now.
Over the years, Mick learned the history of his home. “Once upon a time there were oil tanks here. This was the hub of coal and lumber,” he says, walking authoritatively, his eyes darting beneath a John Deere cap. Mick’s pit bull, Mojo, now docile and panting, strolls between us.
Some of the trailers are covered in graffiti tags, and a few are adorned with the swirly drawings of a local artist. All of them retain logos that reveal their former use: TIP, USPS, Diet Coke. What’s inside them? Lots of stuff. These are now storage trailers leased by Vermont Equipment Supply for $75 to $125 per month. Though they’re far from climate controlled, they’re suitable for renters such as RunVermont and ReSOURCE, and there’s very little vacancy, according to Mick.
More than a dozen trailers hold furniture and building materials for ReSOURCE, which is inundated with donations at certain times of the year. “We started with two trailer loads full of furniture” in 1997 or 1998, says the nonprofit’s executive director, Tom Longstreth. “All summer things come in, and we feed off of it in the winter.” The storage space is “convenient because it’s so close — except when it floods,” he notes.
But storage and public art are not the only goings-on here: The city of Burlington has purchased an option to buy the lot from Havey and is exploring the parcel’s possibilities. “The city has some interest with regards to a couple of different purposes,” confirms Larry Kupferman, director of the Community and Economic Development Office. Those purposes include building a long-planned connector to South Champlain or Battery Street that would run along the back of the property.
The ground is contaminated from the oil-gasification plant that used to reside here — and, so far, that has complicated efforts at development. What will happen to the current occupant if the city’s plans go through, or if some other developer claims this prime $500,000 parcel?
“Look, there will come a time in my life when I need to move on,” acknowledges Mick. “Of course, I’m not going to stay here forever.”
As he shows me around, Mick seems to see beyond the oil in the ground, the tired-looking trailers, the pile of abandoned mattresses and leftover puddles. He asks if I’ve noticed the mother duckling with her babies, and reports spotting carp in the lot during the flood. He most likely knows the place better than anyone. “This is probably one of the most beautiful spots,” Mick muses. “If we leave it here, Mother Nature will take over.”
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