Parks for the People, Not the Profiteers
In autumn of 2011, City Hall Park in Burlington, VT., was the site of a protest camp during the international protest known as Occupy. The camp was a self-maintained community that fed and housed its residents with the help of local residents and some small businesses. The encampment ended after Burlington police shut it down when a man committed suicide in his tent. The Occupy movement met a similar fate across the parts of the world where it took hold, with police raiding camps and often brutalizing protesters. Despite raising people’s consciousness about the nature of power and class, the movement failed to change much of anything.
I mention the Occupy movement and its home in Burlington because of an ongoing attempt to change City Hall Park into a semi-private piece of land, much like Church Street itself. One of the primary movers behind this endeavor is Anthony Pomerleau, Burlington’s multimillionaire property speculator who hides his buying up of Burlington behind supposedly philanthropic motives. As the debate over this change heats up, the plight of Vermont’s homeless has become one of the pawns in the conversation. Those in favor of the park’s “redesign” pretend that their plan to gentrify the park will solve the growing number of issues regarding that population.
This is just plain nonsense. Further gentrification of the park and the downtown area of which it is a crucial part will most likely only exacerbate the numbers and the issues of the poor and homeless. Burlington is no different than the rest of capitalist society when it pretends that its impoverished castoffs are not the result of capitalism putting profit above all else. When one of those castoffs acts out violently or in some other antisocial manner, capitalism’s proponents ignore their responsibility. Instead, they look for ways to hide, imprison or remove the poor from their sight. Sometimes this takes the form of new laws or harsher enforcement of existing laws. In other instances, the physical nature of the urban environment is designed in such a way it removes the poor from sight.
Like many city parks throughout the world, Burlington’s City Hall Park is a small green space in a concentrated business district. This means that all kinds of people enjoy the park: families, single adults on a date, transients passing through town, homeless men and women, working people on a break and teens hanging out, to name a few. The local police do a fairly decent job of keeping dangerous incidents from occurring in the park and, for the most part, those who use the park are peaceful and fairly considerate of others.
Taking what is an oasis of green and a place to relax in Burlington’s main shopping and business district and turning it into an extension of the Church Street shopping mall is contrary to the park’s raison d’etre. Since I arrived in Vermont in 1992, I have watched as Church Street was intentionally made less hospitable to those from near and far who did not come to eat in a fancy restaurant or shop in a boutique. While I understand that in a capitalist economy, profit must be made, I find it reprehensible that those whose only purpose is to make a profit should decide for the rest of us how our public spaces should be designed and who should be allowed to use them.
City Hall Park and the downtown area it is in are a microcosm of US society. Money rules the street. The wealthy and the powerful of northern Vermont exercise their power from its offices while residents and visitors spend money in the restaurants and shops. The poor panhandle and keep an eye out for the police. As the rents for living spaces and shops increase at rates that make sense only in an economy that requires speculation to thrive, more and more working people are pushed aside. Despite working as much as they can, these workers increasingly find themselves among the ranks of the poor. While Church Street brings in more money for the few, the poor (working and otherwise) watch as their problems are pushed to the curb. To many it appears that the solutions to those problems are not necessarily apparent. Nonetheless, it does seem pretty clear that turning City Hall Park into a monument to Burlington’s master of gentrification and kicking out those residents deemed undesirable by the lords of Church Street is not among them.