Don’t Refer to a Dive Bar as a “Dive Bar” in Burlington

dive bars, Burlington, Vermont, Green Mountain State, pool table, game of pool, night life, bars

One cool project I decided to take on during my time in Vermont was to blog about the different dive bars in Burlington. I started at the bar in my neighborhood, T Ruggs Tavern. T Ruggs was a pretty nice dive bar, with a few flat screen televisions, a jukebox, a backyard patio with Christmas lights strung around, and a pool table.

Even with all the perks, this bar was the kind of place where the bartenders knew you by face and regular customers consisted of a group of the same 70-year-old men taking up half the bar’s counter space to bitch about sports and swap tales of the good old days. It had that neighborhood feel, the feel of, oh, you know, a dive bar.

But when I showed up with my camera, questions were raised. Mostly people were just curious, and some requested that I photograph them. They asked why I was taking pictures and I said that I’m a blogger looking to write about the best dive bars in the area. Saying this, as I soon realized, was the equivalent of me wrapping my body in raw bacon and throwing myself to the lions.

“A dive bar?! What do you mean a dive bar?!” said the bartender, her eyes wide in disgusted shock at my words. “You think this is a dive bar?”

I, being dumb, said, “Well yeah! It’s a nice dive bar, but it’s still a dive bar. It’s a neighborhood bar!” The bartender glared at me and stalked off to the other side of the bar’s counter to talk about what I had just said with a few of the regular customers.

At this point, one elderly dude decided it was chill to put his arm around me and tell me “how it is around here.” He said that to call this place a dive bar was to insist that it was dirty, grungy, and attractive to a trashy crowd of people. I was surprised to hear this. I also felt embarrassed to have stuck out so much for being offensive and seemingly ignorant. I liked T Ruggs a lot and I generally prefer a dive bar to any other type of bar/club on most days. While I admit that a lot of dive bars are kind of dirty, I didn’t think that was part of the actual definition of a dive bar.

So I went straight to Wikipedia on my phone and looked it up. This is what I found:

“A dive bar is an informal bar or pub. Such bars are sometimes referred to as neighborhood bars, where local residents gather to drink and socialize.”

As I was reading this, the bartender came back over to me and asked, “If this is a dive bar, what do you consider NOT to be a dive bar?” I responded with the first local bar name that popped into my head, Nectars. Anyone who has ever been to Nectars would know that it has two levels of “club” space, the first of which is generally used for 80s and 90s nights, while the lower floor will either have live music or a DJ. In my opinion, if a bar is hoppin’ enough to host decade themed parties every weekend and a DJ, it’s not a dive bar. It’s not the place where everyone knows your name. It’s not the place you go to on a casual Wednesday after work.

But the bartender responded, “Nectars?! Now THAT’S a dive bar!”

Honestly, I was so confused. I told her what my understanding of “dive bar” was when I said that T Ruggs fit the category, and I apologized for offending anyone. Now the older guys were kind of teasing me, saying I come in here and mess things up because I don’t know any better. I thought about reading my Wikipedia definition out loud, but I thought it useless information to bring to a group of offended drunk people all over the age of 60.

And so that ended my pursuit of the best dive bars in the town, because apparently dive bars in Burlington don’t like to be called out for what they are. Whatever.

Old North End: A Neighborhood of Immigrants Both Human and Feline

While looking at a painting, my grandmother once told me, “Art doesn’t become art unless it contains some form of life.” By this she did not mean plants or flowers, but movement – a woman taking a walk, a flock of birds crossing the river. Take what you will of the opinion, but it left me thinking about my photography and how close I was willing to get to “life,” or more specifically, people. People fascinate me, but normally I prefer to be fascinated from afar.

So, I decided to take some walks through Burlington and star snapping photos of people. At the end of my walks, I would upload my photos and realize that, still, I wasn’t getting very close to anyone. I started over by heading into a different area of the city, a neighborhood officially called “Old North End.” This is what I found:

 

Old North End

The neighborhood is known for being home to many immigrants and refugees. It is also known, as I learned from my walks, for its enormous abundance of stray cats. Yes, apparently people aren’t the only ones finding affordable housing in Old North End. While I’m still working out my camera shyness towards people, I thought I might start by telling the story of Old North End while documenting the other life forms dominating this neighborhood. And so it goes…

stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

In Burlington’s early industrial years, Old North End became home to immigrant workers seeking employment at local wooden mills and on the waterfront. Irish immigrants came to the neighborhood in 1840, and French Canadian immigrants soon followed in the 1850s and the years of the Civil War in the 1960s. Walking along North Street, the commercial center of the neighborhood, you would pass small grocery stores offering gasoline, tanneries, metalworking shops, automotive repairs, scrapyards, boat building, roofers, woodworking, furniture manufacturing, and more. In these distinct neighborhoods of craftsmen and artisans, a strong sense of community pride rose up.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

Home to Irish, Italian, English, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, German, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Laotian, Bosnian, Yugoslavian, Senegalese, Somalian, and Quebecois immigrants, as well as refugees from other Eastern European, Asian, and African countries, Old North End is one of the most racially diverse areas not just in Burlington, but in all of Vermont. While immigrants have been coming here since the mid- to late-1800s, refugees of darker skin tones are more of a recent phenomenon. In the years 2000-2010 alone, the black population in the neighborhood nearly tripled to reach 9.9%, while the Asian population increased seven fold to reach 8%. The white population also dropped from 84.3% to 77%.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

Finding affordable housing is tough in Burlington. It is especially difficult for low-income residents of Old North End and broke college students finishing up their degrees at University of Vermont or Champlain College. The city of Burlington has attempted to help its housing problem by maintaining an “inclusionary zoning” law, which demands that with every new commercial space, a ratio of affordable housing be opened as well.

The office in which I worked happened to be the first commercial space to open in Old North End in over 50 years, and above it were 6 brand new apartments. Many residents of the area would simply walk into the office and demand to know what we were doing in there. One of us would welcome the neighbor, kindly explain that we were an accelerator for digital marketing, and offer them a look around the place. Most people would just walk back out. There was a definite sense of ownership that residents felt over any new space in Old North End, and it was our moral obligation to respect that as we presented the looming threat of gentrification.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

A lot of residents in Burlington describe Old North End as “the hood.” When I once described the neighborhood as “interesting,” someone responded,”That’s a nice way to put it.” And so it goes that while its definitely filled with more low-income families than any other part of Burlington, it is also certainly the most racially diverse area in the city. Coming from Cleveland, I’ve experienced the unfair stigma of low-income areas being considered “dangerous,” when really statistically, you’re in more danger living near UVM campus. Those who live near the campus have a greater chance of being robbed, mugged, or coming into contact with people using hard drugs, specifically cocaine and heroine.

When talking to one neighbor of Old North End, he told me, “There’s not much you can get away with around here without someone noticing.” That much seemed to be true. On all of my walks through Old North End, you’d see people sitting out on their porch or on the sidewalk in lawn chairs, and others peeking out their windows. My presence was always known, and a lot of people would ask me what I was doing with my camera.
Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

People aren’t the only ones watching you as you enter Old North End. The stray cats of the area are known to keep their eyes on any suspicious intruders – specifically, dogs. One man told me a story about a big Siberian Husky that came through the neighborhood until slowly, one by one, the stray cats surrounded and attacked the dog. The poor dog survived but wound up having to get surgery.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

So what of my experience in Old North End? It ended up being one of my favorite parts of Burlington. Sure, Church Street is great and filled with delicious restaurants, but it’s also pretty touristy and filled with white people. Being in a culturally diverse neighborhood makes me feel more at home since living in Yonkers and then Washington Heights, New York – also known as Spanish Harlem.

I also really liked the little shops that are around. The small bakeries and coffee shops that are never too crowded, the best burgers in Burlington that came out of a convenience store, the Halal store where I bought incense and candles. The people were definitely aware of me, but never rude or abrasive. Even the cat-calling felt very mild. All-in-all, Old North End made the experience of Burlington more real to me, more raw, and I would definitely recommend that any visitors to Burlington explore the neighborhood at least once during their stay. Just don’t bring your dog – those cats mean business.

Photo Series: Summer 2014 in Burlington

Below is a series of photos taken from approximately the same position on my balcony, documenting the beautiful summer we’ve been experiencing here in Burlington, as the weather changes over Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains…

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

Lake Champlain

 

Backyard View, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

Backyard View, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer

 

backyard view, Lake Champlain, Adirondack Mountains, Burlington, Vermont, beautiful views, sunset, beach, beach life, summertime, summer