Wild Onions on the River (Chapter 43 from Life on a Treadmill)

 

“I am the river and I will take you to the sea.
And we got by,
Floating in the water singing, “Hallelujah”,
Waiting on the lord,
To bring us back home.

~Behold the River by The Snake The Cross The Crown

************************************************************

In the prologue of the book, The Mills at Winooski Falls, Bert Villemaire writes:

“The resiliency of the people of Winooski manifested itself many times over the years: when immigrants introduced language and cultural differences, at the time of the 1927 flood and during mill shutdowns…The greatest piece of this resiliency was the religious faith of the people who persevered against great odds…There was a belief that all would be better if we were patient and let God take charge.”

Winooski is a name rooted in the old Abenaki Indian word “Winoskik”, which roughly translates as “place of wild onions”—hence the city’s nickname, “Onion City”.  Historically, Winooski was a city maintained by the hands of its citizens.  Being located along the Winooski River made it the ideal location for mills.  With Burlington and Lake Champlain in close proximity, timber, textiles, and assorted items were traded out of the Burlington area. This established the region as a major point of industry in the northeastern United States from the 1800s on up to 1954 when, as a result of Industrialization, the American Woolen Company closed its mills due to their inefficiency and high costs of labor.

As Bert Villemaire discussed in the prologue of The Mills at Winooski Falls, the hard times that came after the mills closed sparked a volunteerism, which was centered around the city’s churches. While the mentality may have been to wait and let God handle things, Winooskians were primarily working class folks who, despite a spiritual dependence on God, had a tendency to take matters into their own hands. During the rough points in their history many store owners left meals and clothing at local churches for those who needed it.  Additionally, many of the mill workers, who were left jobless, adjusted by taking odd jobs around the city, doing carpentry, plumbing, and the like to get their families through the difficult economic period that occurred after the mills had closed.

After living in Winooski for over year, I noticed the communal drive to help each other get by is still a part of Winooski’s character. When I began this project I was helping organize potlucks at the O’Brien Community Center, which offers after-school programs, a teen center, among many other community-building events that work to lift some of the burden off the city’s economically disadvantaged population.

While the closing of the mills was the most economically damaging event to happen to the city, a large part of Winooski’s continued economic woes stem back to its attempts at urban renewal. Two of the urban renewals have failed, and the third project showed signs of progress, but recently stalled due to the 2008 global financial collapse.

The first attempts at revitalizing Winooski came in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  During a time of severe inflation and the country’s second energy crisis, the idea to build a dome over the 1.39 square mile city of Winooski was jokingly proposed in 1979 by city planners, who were out one night enjoying drinks and food.  The idea stuck, and became something Winooski’s Director of Community Development and Planning, Mark Tigan, was determined to see happen.  It was Tigan’s way of being ahead of his time, looking at the Dome as a symbol for environmental conservation.  It was said that the Dome would save Winooski ninety percent of its energy costs, and that everyone would drive electric cars and bike around in year-round spring conditions, never having to shovel snow again.

The idea garnered national attention, and Tigan even appeared on Letterman, but ultimately the energy over the dome fizzled out when, in 1980, Winooski was denied federal grants to conduct a study on what affect the Dome would have on citizens and how to go about building it.  Nevertheless, Mark Tigan got a street named after him and moved on, leaving Winooski and abandoning the idea of turning the city into a glorified snow globe (minus the snow obviously).

In 1981, after the national attention and curiosity over Winooski’s radical plan to combat rising energy bills had faded, various federally funded community development programs helped restore many of the abandoned mills, turning them into places for people to live, shop, and work.

The mills’ restoration, including a mall inside Champlain Mill, was meant to serve as an economic booster shot, but outside of the new apartments, stores, and offices, downtown Winooski was nothing more than bars and storefronts surrounding a giant parking lot that was made for the mall by leveling many of the downtown buildings.  The mall went bankrupt in 1998, and other stores also left.

Winooski’s Director of Recreation and Community Wellness, Bob DiMasi, told me, “It was dilapidated—the downtown area. There was an area called Gillbrook that just wasn’t being taken care of.  So it really started to…it was very noticeable. Grocery stores moved out. Everything down there became a dumping area and something needed to be done.”

The lot, which often greeted many of the city’s visitors, and the road that led to it were replaced during Winooski’s third urban renewal project, which was announced in 1999 by former mayor, Clem Bissonette, and became a reality when construction crews broke ground in 2004—five years after Winooskians were informed of the project.  The plan was to reinvent downtown Winooski through the construction of residential and commercial use buildings, in addition to the re-restoration of the mills that ran along the Winooski River.

Yet the expectations of the developers and Winooski may have been too idealistic for the tiny city with bad luck as far as urban renewal is concerned. While things have changed in Winooski, it still is working to regain the prosperity that left when the mills closed, and it is that conflict—the inevitable struggle between change and a long-standing and proud tradition—which has come to oxy-moronically define Winooski as a city stuck in transition.

Now, the city’s centerpiece is no longer a rundown parking lot but a traffic circle that surrounds a nicely landscaped public space made of cleanly cut-and-placed stone walls with granite and brick walkways that are adorned by benches, flagpoles, a stone waterfall, and small grass-covered areas at the top and bottom of the circle.  On one side of the circle are the storefronts and bars that existed before the 2004 redevelopment.  Across from the stores and bars is a collection of buildings, which are made of brick to fit the historic aesthetics of the city.

Among the new additions to the city’s formerly haggard downtown is Spinner Place, which is (for the most part) student housing with retail spaces on the ground floor that are available for rent.  Spinner wraps around ¾ of the hidden, 900+ space parking garage that is shared with the new headquarters of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, who issues student loans and performs other related services.

Behind the Spinner/VSAC complex sits Keen’s Crossing, a modern European-style luxury apartment complex with an underground parking garage located underneath an array of brick façades mixed in among yellow, gray, and red colored squares that make up the main structure of the building, which stands out against many of the traditionally designed brick buildings that are neatly placed around downtown Winooski. The Cascades are condominiums with a river view, priced from $198,000 all the way up to $595,000, and are located across from Keen’s Crossing and next to Champlain Mill.

It’s all very nice looking, almost comforting, but the concern I heard most from Winooski citizens was whether the development is worth the risk of taking on debt in the hopes that the project will yield long-term revenue for the city. The redevelopment of downtown Winooski is essentially creating luxury in the hopes that it will provide a level of economic comfort to benefit the city’s own survival.  However, the timing of the recession and global financial crisis coincided with the completion of many of the new buildings downtown. As a result, filling all the vacancies has been a slow process—especially in regards to the storefronts that were created to bring new businesses to Winooski.

Bob DiMasi attributes some of the failure to attract new businesses to poorly designed retail spaces.

“There’s no storage space…You have to take your trash up and, you know, it’s really uncomfortable. It’s not easy to make a living there. And they have a real, um—the people who developed it—have a real, um, I guess maybe, I don’t know how to describe it, but they have an ideal of who should be in there and it doesn’t meet the needs of the common person,” he told me.  “I think some of the disappointment is that it’s been, I think about 3 years, and there’s nothing down there. And, you know…people got excited about, ‘Hey this is coming! This is coming!’ The excitement is kind of lost.”

Bob adds, “We have more people in the community. That’s ok. I don’t think they really saw that need. I didn’t see it. Do we need more people? We probably needed a grocery store.”

That sentiment is one echoed by other Winooski citizens, who I spoke with at bars and in line at stores. They felt the redevelopment missed the point, and that there were more pressing needs to tend to—like the loss of local businesses or upgrades to the schools—but the developers have continued to claim that more people moving in provides incentive for prospective businesses and creates opportunities to increase the city’s tax revenue, which should enable it to address the other issues of the town.

That said, with $66 million in loans and federal grants, in addition to millions in private investments, the price tag for renovating downtown Winooski is one that poses a serious economic threat to the city of just over 6,000 people. Property taxes have risen as a result of the development, and the delayed exodus to Winooski—a mass population influx that the developers assured would come once the buildings were built—has created concern among many of Winooski’s citizens and business owners.

Mike Knox, co-owner of the Winooski bar, 38 Main, told me about a similar situation that he witnessed in a neighborhood in Texas.

“When I lived in Dallas, Texas there was a neighborhood, and it had been there forever. And they built a highway right through the middle of it, and it split up the neighborhood. And it turned into a ghost town and there was crime and violence.  And this isn’t quite the same, but this construction over here is kind of like the highway coming through and splitting up the town and taking away its character and changing the face of it.”

Oddly enough, the downtown project has created a clear visual split in the aesthetic makeup of the city as train tracks separate the restored downtown from the part of town that is, as the saying goes, in need of a new coat of paint. This has created what feels like two different worlds in one city.

Before I lived in Winooski, all I ever heard were the reasons why it was such an awful place.  After living there from the fall of 2008 through the summer of 2009, I realized that the truth about Winooski is that it isn’t necessarily the best place to live, but far from the “shithole” I often heard it described as.

Bike thefts and cars being broken into were regular occurrences—so were various drunken disputes outside the bars that surround the Winooski traffic circle.  One of my roommates at Spinner, Steve, a freakishly tall and lanky Army Reserveman, had to ride along with a Winooski police officer for a class and actually witnessed a burglary suspect get chased by the cop he was riding with. The suspect escaped into darkness shortly after crossing the train tracks into the side of Winooski that the cop told Steve was the “bad part of town.”

The divisive nature of train tracks is strange—I mean, they’re no Berlin wall and yet they segregate just the same.  We’ve all heard the cliché, “other side of the tracks,” but perhaps there’s some truth to it.  When I saw B.B. King in the summer of 2008 he spoke of having to sneak across the train tracks just to use a water fountain that was on the white side of town—the side he wasn’t supposed to be on. So, given the historical context of B.B. King’s youth, it seems that train tracks typically separate the haves from the have-nots, the powerful from the powerless.

I was living downtown at Spinner Place, and the only time I would venture past the tracks in Winooski would be to visit my friends in Colchester. There was always a certain quiet eeriness to the other side of the tracks—especially when compared to the amplified noise and neatness of downtown Winooski.  I would often make these trips at night, riding my bike down Mallets Bay Ave past old homes with worn and weathered exteriors.  Many had been converted into multi-unit housing, offered at affordable prices for the families, who were either making enough to get by or dependent on some form of government aid.

I even labeled one of the places I’d pass, “The Crack Stoop”, as it was clear that drugs were being sold by the shady characters who lingered out front at all hours of the night.  A friend of mine, who had some issues with painkillers, told me of a time when he was wretchedly desperate for an opiate fix.  He was fiending so bad that he crossed the tracks, and with very little effort, acquired a bundle of heroin.

My initial impression of Winooski after being there for a year was that it wasn’t the safest place to leave your bike unlocked or your car window down, but outside of that, I viewed it as just another small city on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, attempting to reposition itself through urban renewal.  Like most places that attempt urban renewal, substance abuse and related criminal activity (burglary, fights, etc.) are just an unfortunate element of the city’s condition.

***

Winooski (like the world around it) is part of a never ending cycle of growth, depletion, and adaptation.  Earth is a cyclical living organism, and on the giant planetary mass of Earth there are countries made up of states that are made up of towns and cities where different families and individuals make up communities.  And with each family, individual, and group there is a distinct culture. There is always some kind of sub-division. Inside our bodies are communities of bacteria with varying functions, who may in fact, have communities of other living organisms on and inside them—and on and on it goes, infinitely.

Winooski is a perfect example of that sub-division and America as many different cultures formed the collective character of the city. Even in the current time period, the population is a diverse mix of students, transients, refugees, and people with deep familial roots in Winooski.

Bob DiMasi is representative of the people who found their way to Winooski through the changing circumstances of their life.  He moved to Winooski from the Boston border town of Somerville, Massachusetts around the same time that Boston’s interstate redevelopment project, commonly known as “The Big Dig”, was getting underway.

“I was working at Keene State College for the Marriott Corporation, and I was being transferred to St. Michaels College,” he says. “It was the contract food service for the college at the time…and we talked to a realtor and I said I wanted to be within walking distance from St. Mikes. A house was opening in Winooski, so we checked Winooski a little bit and I think we went in here blindly. I mean, I didn’t worry about the school because I do know my wife and I are involved.”

After moving to Winooski, Bob and his wife had their first child, Tolliver. “Within a year and a half after that we had the second child. So, you know, the kids were in the community and when your kids get out there in the community you do too…and you start to see things that either there’s needs or there’s great things.”

With a Bachelor of Science in Recreation Management and a Masters in Education from Norwich University, Bob naturally took an interest in the condition of Winooski’s parks, eventually securing a position on the city’s recreation advisory board.  From there he worked his way up and became the Director of Recreation and Community Wellness.

“We lived about a mile away—mile and a half away—and we would check out all the parks. And, you know, I thought that some of the parks were cool; they needed a little bit of help to make sure that they are maintained.”

One of Bob’s main focuses, though, was trying to satisfy the community’s need for a community center.

“When I started there was…we had no space, and that was one of the priorities of my department.”

When I first met Bob it was during a meeting at the O’Brien Community Center to discuss the focus and options for this very project.  The center is just past the train tracks and has been converted from an old grocery store that left town like many other businesses.  Before the center existed, Bob ran the teen center and after-school programs out of the armory on LaFountain St.

“They used to let us go in there five days a week, and we would be in there from approximately 2:30 to 6:30. We even extended it to a couple late nights, which was pretty cool. 9/11 happened and they shut it down. 18 months before they let us back in.”

After a one-million-dollar donation by the Tarrant Foundation, Winooski was able to commit to renovating the former grocery store and soon turned it into the city’s community center. Since then, the community center has been an integral part of the lives of many of Winooski’s refugee and working class population.  It provides working parents with a safe place to send their kids, and the monthly potlucks that I helped organize, are one example of the charitable attitude that has defined Winooski throughout its economic hard times.

The present struggles of Winooski are just part of the cycle that I mentioned earlier.  Winooski was once a prosperous working class town, but as the cycle turned, rough times were inevitably bound to come along at some point. The hard work and resiliency of Winooski’s population created a strong community, but as it so often happens, prosperity blinds those who are experiencing it.  When times are good, people rarely consider how long those times can last.  They merely enjoy each moment and continue doing whatever they were doing. Winooski was so dependent on the mills, whose demand seemed like it would never waver, but when it did, Winooski never had a backup plan as it took a little over twenty years before the city took major steps to resurrect itself.

After decades of getting by, Winooski’s government finally feels it has found the solution to its problem with its third urban renewal in 30 years. However, Winooski native and the city’s new City Manager, Katherine Decarreau, adds some context to the current difficulties in an interview with Seven Days.

“We hit a bump in a fantastic idea,” she says. “And it’s the same bump that the whole country and half of Western Europe hit at the same time. The bottom fell out of the financial market and money stopped moving.”

The financial collapse hasn’t just stifled developers, but local Winooski businesses as well. “My capacity is 84. Sometimes I have a waiting line. Haven’t had one in awhile with this recession,” says Mike Knox as he wipes down the bar inside 38 Main.  As a result, businesses have been forced to adapt to the rough economic climate.  Suzanne Podhaizer writes about the changes business have made in her 2006 Seven Days article, “Gourmet Onion”.

McKee’s Pub, at the top of the circle next to TD Bank, started serving Sunday brunches in 2005.  They eventually began serving food throughout the day, and now McKee’s has a pretty well-rounded menu of pub fare that is served into the night.  Owner, Lance McKee noted in the article, “If you don’t grow with the community, you go out of business.”

Around the same time, 38 Main was toying with unique cocktails to bring people in.  The innovation which began when construction slowed business has continued after the bulldozers and cranes have left. Recently, Mike has been making the 38 Main experience a bit more interactive through live entertainment be it DJs or special events.

One evening, my roommate, Ben, and I went down to 38 Main for some beers and a few games of pool.  When we entered, there was an energized crowd that was predominantly Hispanic. While 38 Main’s population varies by the hour, this turnout was still a departure from the typically white and working class group that I often noticed quenching their thirst at the Winooski bar.

Outside the bar is a keg with a metal number 38 welded on it, hanging over the door of a building with white paint chipping off the red brick.  Various neon signs promoting assorted beers and booze are hung in the window, enticing Winooskians to step inside and enjoy a nice draft or mixed drink.  38 Main is a bar named simply, by its address, and decorated (simply) by the tastes of the owner.  A portrait of Cosmo Kramer (from Seinfeld) is hung dead center on the wall across from the bar, and mixed sports memorabilia from Red Sox and Bruins gear to a New York Giants’ Bud Light tap are strewn throughout the bar with a seemingly out-of-place Green Bay Packers sign on the back of the wooden bar.

Much of the décor is surrounded by dark wood and a creamsicle-colored paint that wraps around the bar like a warm blanket on a Fall night in Vermont.  Past the arch at the bar’s edge is a back room where a pool table waits for anyone with four quarters and time to kill.  The back room has an isolated feeling to it and the creamsicle paint covers much more area in there than in the main part of the bar where the majority of the drinking and conversing happens.  The popcorn machine, which sits in a corner right before the entrance to the pool room, is a great source of comfort as anyone looking to balance out the contents of their stomach can go grab a plate.

As we waited for our beers, a young lady with a little too much booze in her belly dropped the plate of popcorn she had gathered. She swept the tainted treats back onto the plate and threw it into a nearby garbage can, returning to the circle of people that had formed right next to the bar.

“What’s going on?” I asked Mike as he was handing me my beer.

“Salsa night.”

“Salsa night?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “They were getting sick of Burlington and wanted someplace else to have their Salsa Night.”

“That’s cool.  So, is this going to become a more common thing—events, that is?”

“I’d like to do more.  This is great.”

Someone needed a beer and Mike tended to them just as the music started and the people began dancing.  A man with a red bandana around his neck took center circle, and was soon joined by another man. They danced side by side, in what looked like a choreographed routine, as the crowd cheered them on. A random drunk college kid, who came for beer rather than Salsa dancing, jumped in and tried to keep up.  His face began to blush as he struggled to follow the other two men, who clearly knew what they were doing.  The song had ended, the men hugged and high fived, and then returned to the outskirts of the circle.  A new song came on and couples entered the dance floor.  Ben and I went to play pool.

The cycle of growth, depletion, and adaptation occurs on both the macro and micro levels, and Mike Knox has either experienced or been linked to each of those eras in Winooski. Firsthand, he witnessed the era of depletion growing up, and now he’s experiencing the period of adaptation as evidenced by a changing Winooski and his own business adjustments to rising property and alcohol taxes during a recession. Secondhand, however, he experienced the period of growth and prosperity through the stories of his grandparents.

“My Winooski experience, well, I guess it started back in the early 1900s when my great grandfather moved here from Champlain, New York and he worked in the mill,” he told me.

Mike might not have grown up in Winooski, but his family has deep roots there.  Instead, Mike was born in Burlington, grew up in Essex Junction, and spent some time as a kid in Burlington, but Winooski is a place that he is very familiar with.

He talked about the experiences of his grandparents and the various phases Winooski has gone through. “I wasn’t alive then, but from what I understand is that everyone knew each other. People went to church on Sunday. You know, the old American family.  Just a nice little community.  It’s always been a blue-collar town—in my life—and I imagine generations before that also.”

When the mills stopped and the work stopped with them, the quality of life in Winooski began to fade. It started to slowly slip under as though trapped in quicksand, and despite failed attempts to revitalize the city, Winooski finally has taken the first semi-successful steps towards changing the city’s image.  But even after reinventing the downtown, Winooskians remain confused and unsure about the city’s future. They wonder how the redevelopment will alter the character of a city that Mike Knox considers a place grounded in reality.

As Mike put it:

“Burlington is more of the Shangra La for progressives and liberals from all over the country, and they come here and they think they found this magical land and they have sort of taken over Burlington. And really, Winooski is the first real thing outside of Burlington, so when you get into Burlington you live in this fantasy land: they overspend, their government is bankrupting the city, and they’re spending money on all types of stupid things–like the Burlington Telecom thing. They’re just making all these ridiculous moves because they believe that that’s the future and the way it should be, but they lack financial sense.”

That sentiment was echoed by other patrons of 38 Main, and it introduces some questions worth considering. Is Winooski following in the footsteps of Burlington? Or are they doing what Winooski has done for so long, which is to stabilize themselves through adaptation and perseverance?

Mike feels Winooski has moved in a different direction, using the new collection of mixed-use buildings that have gone up across from his bar as an example. “It’s already changed,” he told me. “They’ve already built that monstrosity next to us. My feeling was better get in politics now because it’s going to be overrun with all those creeps from Burlington.”

When I asked if that feeling was echoed by others in Winooski he replied, “No. Most people don’t give a shit. Hopefully I’m wrong, but they wanted it. Most of the people in Winooski wanted the change.” And that change hasn’t just been to the downtown area, but to the school systems and sports teams as well.

“One dynamic of Winooski that has changed a lot—I’m 48 years old, born in 1961—when I grew up in Winooski they had sports team at their high school and they were a proud sports town. And they had baseball teams, and football, or hockey. And now they don’t have any of it. I mean, they do have football, but they’re not any good. There’s not any kids in the school system—there is, but they’re all the imports, which is fine,” Mike tells me, his right leg propped up on the cooler behind the bar.

He continues, “They’re struggling to keep a football team, and I think that bothers a lot of people. When Winooski’s on the news for sports, it’s for the soccer team, and then there’s not one Winooski native or kid on the team. And, you know, it’s definitely changed.  A lot of Vermont towns, they still have their football teams, and their hockey teams, and their baseball teams. You recognize the kid, or that family’s been here, or that guy sells cars around town. Winooski’s been stripped of all that.”

Mike’s disappointment in the dwindling presence of sports in town is understandable. Sports have long been a source of local pride not just in small cities like Winooski, but across the country and world. And while a professional sports team coming into a town can be a major boost of revenue to an area, local and school sports are important in their own right: They don’t just entertain, but they bring citizens together.  Similar to religion, sports unite people by giving them one ideology to agree on.  In the case of sports it’s the common desire to see the home team win.  In religion, it’s the common agreement over a set of sacred rules and beliefs about human existence, now and later.

Nevertheless, Bob DiMasi, who also is a volunteer coach for the Winooski high school soccer team, offers up a more optimistic outlook on the current situation for sports in Winooski.

“Basketball did great last year. They went to the state finals. Soccer went to the state finals. Baseball has done well. You know, right now, last year there was some, um, great experience with cheerleading and their team. I think it’s cyclical.”

Bob goes on to mention that the lack of athletes is the result of a smaller school system and the Winooski students who attend high school in Burlington. “What we also forget is that we have a predominantly large Catholic population here, and this is funny, but a lot of those athletes go to Rice Memorial High School. So 8th grade comes and they’re going to Rice, and they do ok over there.”

The changes (wanted and unwanted) that have occurred are merely part of the process. Attempting to reinvent a city with a rich history is always going to be a difficult task. The same struggle is happening all across America as tradition butts heads with progression. Humans are sentimental creatures, and the possibility of losing a piece of their past is not an easy thing to cope with.

At the same time, the circumstances of life are constantly changing like water in a river—and when they do there is no consultation, and certainly no consideration for the sentiments of the people those changes will affect—in this case, the people of Winooski. When that does occur people must either adapt and adjust to the circumstances or cling to the traditions and ideals that have either been washed away or threatened by the changing of times.

Even then, circumstances could be restrictive.  Whenever I’d be at a store or bar in Winooski, I would typically ask any person I began a conversation with what they thought about the redevelopment.  A lot would say, “Oh, it’s great. Really nice looking and needed!”  But many others would say, “Eh, I guess it’s better than before, but I don’t know what’s going on with it.” It was that apparent indifference, which interested me, leading me to ask Bob DiMasi about it in our interview, a portion of which can be read below:

Joe: I’m of the mindset that most change is going to happen on the local level, not by being reliant on state and federal government. They’re there for times of dire need, like natural disasters, economic collapses—stuff like that. And I think as a country we’ve become so reliant on the federal and state government that, you know, we should really look to ourselves more. Like what can we do in my town that I live in? And you don’t really see—and even here when I talk to people they don’t seem—there’s an indifference in a sense of like, “I know they’re trying to do something. It seems like a good idea. But I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m just going to exist.”

Bob: I like the point you just brought up, and I think I even alluded to it that I have an indifference sometimes to what they’re doing because I don’t know, I don’t understand. You get involved and you get kicked around, and maybe the longtime residents feel like they’re getting kicked around. I definitely feel like sometimes when I put my two cents in that I get kicked around. And that, you know, some say, “It doesn’t affect me I’m not going to worry about it.” When you do a redevelopment the tax base gets affected, school programming can be affected, so it’s not the best attitude to have.

J: And it seems like the people with the most desire to see their vision come to reality are typically the ones who will stop at nothing to do that. You know, a regular person isn’t going to throw rocks at the police station or throw rocks at city hall unless there’s something really awful going down. If it’s something like the redevelopment’s stagnant they’re not going to get up in arms over it.

B: We also, in this community, have a large number of refugees and some immigrants, and people who live on the lower side of the socioeconomic status, who live for the day. And so voicing their opinion about something we’re going to do 5 years from now is not a priority. You know, getting food on the table is priority. So sometimes (pause)…

J: It’s the distractions of…

B: Yeah. We have a small group of the haves speaking for everyone. Where sometimes getting the input from the have-nots might be really valuable, but we don’t do that. We use the excuse, “Oh we tried everything,” and I think that in this community we have to be better about it. Right now in our city government and in the school board, the ethnicity is very—the ethnic makeup of each of those is very limited, if not all one common denominator.  Even on our finance committees and stuff, we need to have representation from all segments from the population of Winooski.

As far as Winooski’s circumstances are concerned, the limited perspective of the city’s government that Bob spoke about is just one more thing that illustrates the complexity of redeveloping Winooski.  After all, if the government itself is comprised of one particular group in a city with dozens of groups, it would be easy to see why a large segment of the population is voiceless. The era of Winooski, when Mike Knox’s grandparents were living there, was one where the community fit the traditional ideal of America as a melting pot: everyone knew and mingled with each other. Now, however, the mixed ingredients are different flavors on the same plate rather than merged together to create one distinct flavor—and in the case of people, culture is flavor.

Winooski, as Bob put it, must, “Maintain that old history and bring it to the top and mix it in with the new stuff, so that we can say we’re all in this together… You don’t want to lose that kind of stuff. And so sometimes, you know, a new development comes in. Ok, great. They’re energized about it and all of sudden they look and say, ‘What for? We lost. Nothing happened. No new event to create a new history about Winooski.’ It’s still right now the same old Winooski getting kicked around sometimes.”

 

 

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