February and March 2017

Editorial

Pipe Line/Land Mine: Ruminations from Standing Rock, Garret White

Letters

Burlington Remake, Charles Simpson

On Deciding to Marry, Jessie Owens

Environmental Bookkeeping, Robert Herendeen

Love Letter, Brother Michael Carter

Libertarian Municipalism: A Politics of Direct Democracy, Murray Bookchin

Is Polygamy the Next Marital Rights Issue? Janet Bennion

How Do You Become Part of a Town, Emer Pond Feeney

A Very Brief History of the Modern Technological/Utilitarian View of Nature, Dharman Rice

It’s About Time: Getting Winooski Kids to School, Infinite Culcleasure

Dream Local, Trevien Stanger

Jaeger Skis Into Trump and His Minions, George Voland

From Vermont to Kurdistan: Direct Democracy Takes Root, Debbie Bookchin

Love Poem for Meg Reynolds, Samuel Hughes

Love Poem for Samuel Hughes, Meg Reynolds

Save the Guard: The Big Lie, Richard Joseph

Mayor, Manor, Norma, Armor, Moran, Louis Mannie Lionni

Cartoons by Michelle Sayles

Photographs by Suzanne Levine

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The Burlington Re-make

The Weinberger administration and the Burlington planning establishment have used every tool available to government to support development by means of “creative class” gentrification. The term was coined by Richard Florida to denote a minority of workers who add value to the urban economy through their ideas and designs rather than making material goods.[1] Many are gig workers in the digital economy. Clearing the way for such workers requires a reallocation of space away from existing houses, natural areas, air rights, public land, or remnant industry, that is, gentrification. Where present occupants contest their removal, they must be dealt with through a combination of political marginalization, status denigration, and police power.  These eviction efforts are collectively referred to as “urban revanchism”.[2]  As Neil Smith points out, both gentrification and revanchism are aspects of a unitary phenomenon of spatial transformation under capitalism[3] in which public policy is used to generate a “rent gap,” the space between the cost of redevelopment and its price on the market.

Discussion of Burlington’s governance should begin with the city’s current dislocation from the wider political economy. In the 19th century, Burlington drew in raw and semi-processed natural resources from as far away as Canada (timber) and the South (cotton, coal). The city processed these and redistributed them via railways and the Champlain water system. Profits were in-part spent on consumption—Hill houses, higher education for the elite, religious and municipal buildings—and passed back to sawmill workers and stevedores in thin pay packets. This last was sufficient for them to build or rent modest housing west and north of the city center.  Wars in the first half of the 20th century brought military production to the city, General Electric and Bell plants in the South End along with supporting industrial facilities. The transshipment economy continued with as many as 83 bulk tanks filled with heating oil and jet fuel lining the waterfront by the 1950s. This was the post-war temporal “sweet spot,” when U.S. manufacturing was globally dominant and significant portions of the city’s population could consume both necessities and discretionary goods: higher education, healthcare, adequate housing, automobiles. By the 1980s the macro-economic tide was running the other way. Factories fled South from unionized labor, then skipped overseas. The Eisenhower highways sucked retail and distribution activities to the suburbs where tax policy underwrote new housing. By the 1990s, the commercial use of the Champlain Canal was past and much of the South End factory zone and waterfront a wasteland.

Faced with an economic vacuum, the business community began the process of pedestrianizing Church Street in 1981 to shore up downtown property values. The Sanders administration wrested back 60 acres of filled land along the shore, invoking the Public Trust Doctrine, defined by the State Supreme Court as allowing only public recreational and associated uses there. New projects came—the  boathouse in 1988; the ECHO Aquarium in 2003—public  investments in the city’s ambience for residents and tourists.

During the same period, city leaders embraced federal urban renewal funds, clearing residents from a swath of the downtown in favor of banks, professional offices, eateries, hotels, and a retail mall of their own. While a service economy based on higher education, healthcare, and public employment expanded, the production of things continued to slip away.  Despite the adoption in 1988 of a pedestrian function for Church Street, suburban support for malls and big box retail ate into downtown store traffic. The walking street concept, ubiquitous in Europe, was here a victory of political will not ideas.

By 2017, malls were proving a failure, both here and in suburbia. Amazon’s on-line and tax-subsidized model now rivals Walmart in sales volume. The Burlington establishment has turned to deregulation and public subsidies to recreate a favorable “rent gap”.  In the old mall footprint, they seek a mixed-use Town Center (BTC) supported by $22 million in public street improvements and buoyed up with commitments for a college dormitory and medical offices. BTC is three blocks from a second and larger college dormitory, again supported by public infrastructure funds. But rather than being strictly local resources, institutions of higher learning have themselves globalized and become reliant on children of the well-off from around the world. Increasingly this means from China, where the manufacturing that fills Burlington store shelves originates. Only a third of the students at our flagship public university here are Vermont residents. Nor can we expect public universities to maximize the potential for local employment. Tech workers at the University of California were just given layoff notices because their jobs are being shipped en masse to India.

Along with subsidization of housing for the present and about-to-be tech sector of the workforce, the city planning establishment is pursuing a culturally-led model of development, seeking to underwrite entrepreneurs and “young professionals” through street vibrancy and cultural fixes—a jazz festival, Mardi Gras, full and partial marathons, First Night, and so forth. While many of these pre-date the Weinberger administration and do serve local residents as well as the intended tourists, they focus on consumption rather than local production, cultural or material. Missing is adequate support of local artists, the creation of more performance venues, or subsidizing artist live/work spaces. For example, the city’s largest public performance and youth music setting, having been allowed to fall into disrepair, is now boarded up and on the block with the hope that the nearby university will undertake costly renovation, not for arts and culture broadly but for their hockey rink. Where a block of buildings that housed the department of public works could be repurposed for light industry and arts space, it has sat largely vacant for over a decade.

What might a post-industrial economy include? Burlington is well located to become a food processing center supporting the emerging organic food economy. This has begun spontaneously in the areas of craft beer and cider. But this potential requires government attention for locational help. The City owns four acres of public land in the Enterprise District of the South End. But rather than channel that space to food and data entrepreneurs, the planning establishment’s idée fixe is to build a limited access highway designed thirty years ago to service the downtown’s past history as a retail center.

The “creative city” approach includes city-as-brand.[4]  Most obviously this appears in current planning documents here that package Burlington as “BTV,” a name borrowed from the designation of the city’s airport and familiar only to those few who study their boarding passes. Gone is any reference to our deep Revolutionary and immigrant history.  While public spending needs abound, a neglected but essentially sound City Hall Park sits in the middle of the central business district. Officials in pursuit of rebranding wish to spend $3 million on a new modernist design supporting the jazz festival, visitor use of a planned café, and an expansion of the city’s public art gallery program. Opportunities lost or ignored are those that specifically serve residents: a tot play lot; fixed chess tables; retention of an historic fountain, an arboretum.

Pursuit of development through cultural display can only work where cities have an enormous amount of inherited cultural capital—think Florence—where collections the wealthy have gathered from around the world are located—New York City comes to mind—or  where a city supports contemporary culture workers. The demand by the global elite for acquiring cultural experiences and second homes in re-purposed lofts is insufficient to support gentrification in every rusted-out factory district or downtown. Will Burlington make the competitive cut? Our planners and investors hope so, if only to prop up their property values and public salaries for a few more years. But unless we generate wealth and distribute it widely, our officials can only pump up the “rent gap” by cannibalizing the public realm. The Echo Center Aquarium is surely a local educational resource but one whose garish neon façade tips its hat to potential visitors. The New Cambrian Rise Park—to give this token slice of green an appropriate name—once represented a substantial natural area open to the Old North End population and not a few of the homeless. Now, lacking formal playing fields and sharply minimized, it is reduced to an ecological prop for the adjacent 733 housing units and offices planned there

In sum, the Burlington experience confirms the academic analysis of post-industrial urban planning as a gamble on gentrification and a redirection of public resources. Unless we do something to steer things in a new direction.

Charles Simpson

 

[1] Richard Florida, Cities and the Creative Class, 2005. Routledge.; Plan BTV: Downtown & Waterfront, City of Burlington, 2013, p. 49.

[2] Roland Atkinson, “Domestication by Cappuccino or Revenge on urban Space? Control and Empowerment in the Management of Public Spaces”, Urban Studies, Vol. 40, N0. 91829-1843, August 2003.

[3] Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, Routledge, 1996.

[4] Malcom Miles, A Post-Creative City?” Revista Critica de Ciencias Socias, No. 5, 5/2013.

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Author: Genese Grill

Genese Grill is the editor of 05401PLUS.

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