City Portrait: Vermont's Queen City

Text: Ken Aiken • Photography: Christian Neuhauser, Ken Aiken

I was prepared to die. With my long hair whipping in the wind, I leaped the railroad tracks into the fuel storage compound, leaned the bike over to avoid the chain-link fence, and hung on for what seemed like eternity as it circumvented the storage tank and catapulted me back through the gate. Shaking, I returned that shiny new bike to the dealer. No one had told me that Beemers didn't have return springs on the throttle or that the opposing cylinders would act like a gyroscope.

That was my first solo ride. Cruising down Lake Street on my current Beemer (I still cancel my throttle return), I reflect on the changes that have taken place during the past 30 years. The rundown row of clapboard warehouses that once housed the BMW dealership is gone. So are the fuel storage tanks, the rail yard, and the gristmill. The seedy lakeshore district is now a rare jewel with a lakeshore park, public boathouse, natural history museum, sail dock, skate park, and a bike path that follows the shoreline for miles. The old brick warehouses are renovated and a row of modern, upscale townhouses curve up the slope beneath Battery Park. Much has changed in Vermont's Queen City during the past three decades and most of have been for the better.

Located on the shore of Lake Champlain, the city of Burlington is considered one of the most popular small cities in the country. Whether true or not, I can't say, but I can honestly state that with dramatic panoramic views of the lake and Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Presidential Range of the Green Mountains to the east, it's the most scenic city I know of in the contiguous United States. It's also a college town, the financial center of the state, and it supports one of the largest medical facilities in northern New England and numerous high-tech companies. The population is predominately young and highly educated. During the summer the lake becomes a playground for boating, swimming, sail boarding, SCUBA diving, and fishing; and in winter most of Vermont's premier ski areas are within an hour's drive.

The Lake Champlain/Hudson River passage was the most important waterway in eastern North America from the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth century and the Champlain Transportation Company (founded in 1826) holds the distinction of being the oldest steamship company in the world. In 1842, Charles Dickens described the CTC's luxury steamship Burlington as superior to any other in the world, "an exquisite achievement of neatness, elegance and order." The era of luxury steamships is past and Dickens would shudder at the current fleet of lake vessels, but the company still operates diesel-powered ferries that cross the lake on regularly scheduled runs. Burlington grew and prospered as a port and the best entrance into the City is still by water - boarding the ferry at Port Kent, NY, and 45 minutes later debarking on the dock at the foot of King Street.

It's late March. Despite an unusual bout of warm weather, Burlington Harbor is still locked in ice and the ferry remains moored in its winter berth. Perkins Pier, a bustling place during the summer months, is deserted today except for the migratory waterfowl that have arrived to line the narrow openings of water along the shore. However, along the waterfront, the bike path is already busy with skateboard, rollerblade, bicycle, and baby-stroller traffic. I stop to watch an attractive young woman skateboard down Lake Street while responding animatedly on a cellphone call, and then continue my ride up the hill to the heart of the city.

Burlington has often been referred to as a blend of Montreal and Boston, but these days the social flavor of the city leans more toward the former. It has a vibrant arts scene and supports the best variety of quality dining choices I've discovered between Montreal and the Big Apple. To gain a sense of what's happening in the Queen City, I peruse the postings on the bulletin board on the sidewalk by City Hall Park - one of several in the vicinity advertising current events on campus and around town. The Green Mountain Film Festival is going on, and across the street at the Flynn Theater, a renovated Art Deco masterpiece on Main Street, a large crowd is waiting to gain entrance to the next presentation. In the park, residents lounge on the steps of city hall and bask in the thin but promising sunshine around the central fountain. A street away tables are filled at the first of what will soon be many outdoor cafes along Church Street, where three blocks have been transformed into a pedestrian mall that's now the social center of the city.

The University of Vermont commands the heights of Burlington, affording spacious views both west and east. Established in 1791 by Ira Allen - the cornerstone of the first building placed by General Lafayette (1825) - this institution has grown over the centuries to become one of the most popular state universities in the nation. But UVM (Universitae Verd Mont - University of the Green Mountains) is not the only school in town: Champlain College, widely known for its business curricula, occupies only a slightly less exalted topographical and social position on the Burlington hillside. Social position in Burlington was, with rare exceptions, always reflected by where you lived on the hill. While the splendid architecture designed and constructed for UVM represented the apex, the exquisite mansions of the "Lumber Barons" and Burlington elite were constructed on the slopes leading down to Church Street. Today most of these splendid homes are owned either by UVM, Champlain College, or various fraternities and sororities. When you're riding the streets running across the slope (South Prospect, South Willard, and South Winooski, and downhill along Pearl, College, Main, and Maple) the richness of this city's architectural heritage quickly becomes evident.

Bud Shriner is one of those who came to attend UVM and never left. These days he can be found on the corner of Church and Maple streets blowing creative glassware in the workshop beneath his art gallery where I stopped in to see new designs he developed during the long Vermont winter. The vitality of Burlington is expressed by the inspirations of it's artists, craftspeople, musicians, and performers. Frog Hollow State Craft Center, Phoenix, Doll-Anstadt, and the Firehouse represent just a small sampling of the fine galleries in the city, and music events like the Jazz Festival held in June and performances at the Flynn and Royal Tyler theaters should also be checked out while in town. There's always something creative happening in Burlington.

But Burlington isn't just Church Street or the commercial developments that stretch down Route 2 to Tafts Corners in Williston or Shelburne Road to the township of the same name. Burlington is also about neighborhoods, so I cruise along North Street, the line of demarcation for what is known as the "old north-end." There's a sense of continuation in old familiar family businesses like the Gordon Stamp company and new entrepreneurs, like the purveyors at the oriental food market Siêu Thi Thái Phát, infuse a diversity that was lacking when I lived here 30 years ago.

There are popular waterfront parks to explore during the summer: Red Rocks, Oakledge, North Beach (with campsites), Leddy Park, and, of course, the Burlington waterfront itself. The vast wetlands, reserves, and parks of the Intervale along the Winooski River are not publicized in popular brochures, but definitely worth a look-see, and the community of North Burlington on Appletree Bay is hardly ever mentioned by anyone but locals in the know. However, when the sun begins to set the best place to be might just be at the foot of Pearl Street in Battery Park, site of the cannon fortifications erected to protect Burlington during the War of 1812. I suggest stopping at Beansie's Bus for the best fries in northern New England before settling on a park bench or sitting on the old stone walls to watch the sun dip behind the Adirondack Mountains. It's one of the best shows in town and admission is free of charge.

Burlington presents a pleasant counterpoint to the popular image of Vermont as a rural landscape of woods and farms populated by black and white cows. It's a place to recharge your cultural batteries in an amiable, personal atmosphere, where strangers mingle and strike up conversations in parks and at café tables. Most of all it's a beautiful town to visit and a wonderful place to relax in after a couple of days of touring. But I warn you: Once you visit Vermont's Queen City you may never wish to leave.