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Urban-Refugee Camp

Urban-Refugee Camp

Travel
By Joe Cutts
posted: 01/17/2002

In Burlington, the sun rises over Bolton Valley and Stowe, Vt., and sets over Whiteface Mountain, N.Y. If your life, similarly, revolves around the sport of skiing, you've picked a great place to live.

There used to be a ski slope in downtownBurlington. Olympic medalist Billy Kidd got his start up on the hill beside Colchester Avenue. A medical-center parking lot now sits in its place, but Burlington still readily answers to the name "ski town."

For starters, it's 15 minutes from Cochran's, a half-hour from Bolton, an hour from Stowe, Mad River or Sugarbush, and a scant two hours from Whiteface, which is just across Lake Champlain in the northern Adirondacks. Down-home Cochran's and Bolton keep the families happy; funky Mad River draws the soulful types; the rest fight over which of the full-amenity resorts is better, Stowe or Sugarbush; while Whiteface makes for a nice getaway.

Rossignol and Lange/Dynastar both make their U.S. headquarters here. And when Jake Burton's snowboard company outgrew its backyard factory, he chose Burlington as his new world headquarters.But maybe it's not the skiing that's piqued your interest in Burlington. Maybe it's one of those magazine ratings of Great Places to Live. You know: Top 10 for Children; No. 3 for Women; Top 5 for Overall Quality of Life (Cities Under 500,000). There have been so many, the Burlington Free Press now relegates them to B-section brief status. Locals cringe, and brace for another wave of starry-eyed transplants.

Except for real-estate agents. "This weekend I showed four couples around," says Brian Boardman, an owner/broker at Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman. "And they're like, 'This place is incredible. Do you realize what you have here?'" Recent events have only reinforced the city's appeal, he says. "Since Sept. 11, hits on our website have been up 30 percent. Even people who weren't directly affected are sick of the commute and sick of missing their kids' soccer games. They want quality of life. Here, they can live 10 minutes from their kids' schools, 20 minutes from their boat slip and 20 minutes from the ski slopes."

Boardman, who skis with his family at Stowe, remembers a smaller, cozier Burlington from his youth, but thinks the city has grown for the better. "For instance, when I was a kid, you didn't go near the waterfront. Now you can take your kids there for a picnic."

Despite the influx of urban refugees, there are fewer than 40,000 people living in Burlington proper; 146,500 in the greater Chittenden County metropolis. That's about a quarter of the state's population. The other three-quarters, it must be said, sometimes wish all of Chittenden County-"Vermont's West Coast" (or, depending on your politics, "Left Coast")-would simply float off to New York State. Since the Vietnam era, Burlington has been a liberal stronghold in a state that was until then profoundly conservative.

It's a city on a hill-sloping gently up from the shores of Champlain, which is at its broadest here (about 10 miles across). The lake is certainly Burlington's defining geographical feature-and also its raison d'être. Abenaki natives watched from the shores in 1609 when "discoverer" Samuel de Champlain sailed down from the St. Lawrence Seaway. Later the lake was a key military and commercial route, linking the St. Lawrence with New York City and enriching Burlington's economy (potash in the 18th century; lumber in the 19th century). More than 200 shipwrecks litter the lake floor, a few dating to a small but key Revolutionary War skirmish, when scrappy Green Mountain Boys under Benedict Arnold (still on our side) swooped out from shore in tiny gunboats to buzz British warships. Beautifully preserved freshwater wrecks delight divers, though zebra-mussel infestation now threatens to obliterate them.

Beyond the lake, the high peaks of the Adirondacks-Marcy, Whiteface, The Gothics-rise starkly from the western shore. They make splendid viewing from Burlington'ss recently revitalized waterfront, where green lawns, a boardwalk, a bike path and a lyrical community boathouse have replaced the industrial decay of the shipping era. In summer, skaters, strollers and bikers pause to watch the sun sink behind the purple Adirondacks, its sunset hues reflected on the lake, silhouetting sailboats gently rocking at their moorings.

From the boathouse, College Street climbs the hill four blocks to the heart of town. Here, visitors can tour the parking lot where two guys named Ben & Jerry once turned an abandoned gas station into their first ice cream shop, or visit Nectar's, the Main Street bar where the neo-hippie rock group Phish played some of its first paying gigs. (Trey Anastasio and Co. still make their homes here.)

The Church Street Marketplace is a lively pedestrian mall lined with shops, bars, restaurants and hardy locust trees that sparkle with lights in winter. On sunny days, it's crammed with shoppers, coffee-sipping students and a fair share of street people. One of the loveliest churches in New England, the red-brick, 1816 Unitarian Universalist, crowns the north end of the street.

But what most defines Burlington's personality is six blocks farther up the hill, where the University of Vermont campus, with its handsome brick buildings and Fredrick Law Olmstead-designed campus green, dominates the crest of the hill. UVM, winner of five NCAA ski titles, remains fairly highly regarded as a state school. No one calls it "public Ivy" anymore, and one prof recently lamented in the Free Press that students seem more concerned these days with chairlifts than dean's lists. (Who can blame them? Student season passes at Stowe and Sugarbush go for as little as $359 and $299, respectively.) But its presence gives Burlington both youthful vigor and a degree of cultural gravitas.

There are problems, too. Between campus and downtown are some of the city's loveliest historic neighborhoods, but middle-income families trying to reclaim century-old homes must compete with landlords who can chop them up for rent to bands of students keen to live as near the bars as the classrooms. The university, with a student body of about 10,000, promises more on-campus housing, but has been prodigiously slow to act. The resulting housing crunch is one of the city's most acute problems.

Still set on moving here? As a newcomer, you can read the history of Burlington on the bumpers of its salt- and mud-crusted cars. Here's a primer: "Bernie," in simple white letters on red background, voices support for now-U.S. Rep. Bernard Sanders. He rose with the Progressive movement as mayor of Burlington from 1981 to 1989, and is now Congress' only Socialist (OK, "Independent") member. How does a left-leaning Brooklyn agitator win in conservative Vermont? Even more than they are conservative, Vermonters are unpredictable: They liked Sanders' support of veterans, the poor and the family farm.

"Take Vermont Forward" is the liberal retort to that other recent classic: "Take Back Vermont." The latter voices opposition to the state's trailblazing Civil Union law, which grants marriage-like rights to gays and lesbians; the former, more common in Burlington, voices support.Then there's "Thank-You, Jim." That's for Sen. Jim Jeffords, the plainspoken, ingenuous Vermonter who, after years as a moderate Republican, turned D.C. on its head last spring when he went Independent and tipped control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats. That's what W. gets for pissing off a Vermonter.

But perhaps the single most ubiquitous Burlington bumper sticker is the one you get free at the Alpine Shop. If you do move to Burlington, it could become your mantra. And not a bad one at that: "Ski Today, Work Tomorrow."

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