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…
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.