Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist. This is the sixth installment. All of the essays in the series can be found here.
Mayor Gordon Paquette tossed a copy of the latest Public Occurrence on his desk and barked, “What’s this sh**?” He had already confiscated a pile left near the entrance to Burlington’s City Hall. But thousands more were circulating all over the city and across the state. The same “call to action” was being printed in several community newspapers.
At the bottom of the back page, below an article headlined “Stop the South End Connector!” was my byline. The mayor could barely believe it. Someone working in City Hall had attacked the biggest commercial project in city history. But I wasn’t a city employee. I was a contractor funded by a grant, and its advisory panel didn’t care about my volunteer activities.
I had been coordinating research on “youth needs” for several months, using survey tools with more than a thousand kids and staff at various schools and social service agencies. In the process I built rapport with members of the Burlington Youth Council, which the mayor himself had appointed to supervise the project. It was led by Vivian Hartigan, a savvy local matron with solid city and Democratic Party roots. She didn’t trust Paquette to do much about the problems but was determined to make him try.
Access to city records netted useful information about several local projects. I reviewed the files and fed relevant information to concerned residents and activists. Despite the high stakes for Burlington no statement had been issued about the true scope of urban redevelopment. The politicians and planners were hoping to ease it through, bit by bit, apparently concerned that if the general public saw the full scope of what was proposed, before all the money was in place, there could be trouble.
After examining economic and planning data, and identifying various pieces of the proposed master plan, I reached the conclusion that the South End Connector, a proposed access road designed to link the interstate with the waterfront and downtown, was a lynchpin. It was the key incentive developers expected, and could only be built if the city won approval for spending, probably by floating local bonds, to cover its share of construction.
If the road was stopped, or at least questioned and delayed, other projects might be prevented or improved.
But my thoughts went farther. Step one was to broaden the local debate, to convince enough people that Burlington faced a series of related problems – challenges in housing, employment, traffic, and commercial development. Doing that meant finding ways to legitimize divergent viewpoints through local media and organizing tactics. It would also be necessary to create more media alternatives. One was Public Occurrence, a statewide magazine launched by The Frayed Page in 1975.
Step two was to connect the dots between issues, build links between neighborhood groups with a specific but related focus, and create new ones to deal with issues like the connector, mall development, and suburban sprawl. It might take years. But in the end officials and governments would have to respond. Finally, a new political coalition would be necessary if we were going to attract part of the Democratic Party’s base, motivate the disenfranchised, and win political power.
Paquette had no idea what I was thinking. He barely knew who I was, just some consultant brought in to appease a few locals about the kids. A report would be filed and promptly forgotten, he assumed. But he was not about to let someone work in his City Hall and criticize his agenda.
I had prepared for this encounter. My consulting contract with the city would not last beyond the summer. There wasn’t much Paquette could do beyond bluster. But I could find out something – what made him tick perhaps, or what he thought about what he was doing. Basically, I could size him up.
I ignored the bluster and spoke as if we were equals, just two guys shooting the bull.
People were skeptical about his plans, I said. They didn’t understand why he was ignoring local problems and seemed to be rolling over for commercial developers.
His defense was a shock. “I have no choice,” Paquette complained. If he didn’t back these public improvements some of the city’s biggest local merchants were threatening to relocate to the suburbs. It was blatant commercial blackmail.
Williston, a nearby “bedroom” community with interstate access, was destined to become a commercial center; an upstate New York mall chain called Pyramid was already eyeing property. He basically argued that the only way to “save” the city was to improve access and make downtown more attractive to developers, chains and tourists.
Paquette was supposed to be a “strong mayor,” the reputed boss of the city for more than a decade. But he sounded powerless, weak. Almost whining, he protested that he was really a man of the people, but the people didn’t understand the stakes. I acted somewhat sympathetic but stood my ground.
Meanwhile I thought: this guy can be beaten with the right campaign.
A nearly chance to test the theory came when the Youth Needs report was finished. Embedded in the recommendations was an expanded role for city government. There was also a proposal to create neighborhood councils as a way to improve communication and accountability. I had persuaded the Youth Needs Panel that this democratic initiative was needed to make the administration keep its promises. About six years later, under a different city administration, a version of the same idea was adopted in the form of neighborhood planning assemblies.
As far as Paquette knew in 1976, the Board of Aldermen was his to command. But Hartigan, the Youth Council’s chair, had quietly worked the phones and convinced a majority to support her. When the issue came up, the mayor didn’t know what hit him and couldn’t convincingly sell his disapproval. Plus, he looked a bit tipsy, a suspicion pursued several years later in the pages of The Vermont Vanguard Press.
Paquette glared at me, angry and frustrated, not sure whether I had over-maneuvered him or he was just having a bad night. It turned out to be both, and the first of many tough evenings for the mayor. Another occurred a few weeks on, at the first meeting of a Citizen’s Advisory Committee formed to look at the Southern Connector.
On July 1, the Burlington Free Press announced:
MAYOR ADDS 2 WOMEN TO SOUTHERN CONNECTOR STUDY
“Reacting to charges that the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the proposed “Southern Connector” didn’t include enough ordinary citizens, Mayor Gordon Paquette Wednesday conditionally added two more southend residents to the 10-member panel…”
The Highway Department and the Department of Transportation controlled the money for the road. But it had asked the city to set up a local committee, mainly to look at different routes. In planning circles construction was a foregone conclusion, yet technically the planners had to give the appearance of considering “alternatives.” They especially couldn’t ignore complaints by people who lived near or along the route.
Outreach had attracted some new blood to our sustainable development alliance, young residents like Jean Hanna and Millie Gautherate. They weren’t trying to “overthrow” anything. They simply wanted neighborhood concerns to be heard. At the Advisory Committee’s first session, they made the case that the panel contained too few South End residents – the group most affected by the road – and too many members from interests that would naturally favor it over another way of handling traffic problems.
Paquette and William Aswad, a manager at the local General Electric armaments plant in the South End and chair of the City Planning Commission, defended their choices – local commissioners and representatives from industry and adjoining governments. Anyone else could participate just as effectively, Aswad offered, by attending meetings as “observers” and speaking out at hearings. He preferred members with technical expertise, in other words people who would not question the basic assumptions and decisions.
“I would have liked a 25-member committee,” claimed Paquette, “but when you start getting committees this large, why, it gets a little unwieldy.” The remark reeked of insincerity. But the aldermen were impressed with Millie and Jean, and urged Paquette to put them on the committee. He huddled with the key players behind closed doors and emerged to announce his decision. Both women would be allowed to join.
A modest victory, this nevertheless provided a foothold, a public platform through which to discuss alternatives to more roads, parking garages and unsustainable development. We needed to move fast. Several months of organizing had attracted more supporters, residents worried about similar projects in half a dozen nearby towns. It was time for a multi-issue regional group, the Burlington Area Citizens Alliance.
Connecting the dots
BACA would be the clearing house, an ad hoc planning committee for “action projects” and a grassroots response to “shoddy regional planning, unnecessary road-building and uncontrolled development.” We set up the group within a few weeks with a general call, quickly organizing task forces on the connector, the proposed Church Street Marketplace and adjacent parking garage, the looming expansion of University Mall in South Burlington, and the potential behemoth in Williston known as Pyramid Mall.
Burlington didn’t need another “four-lane highway” when local services were being cut and “ecologically sound mass transit” was possible, BACA said. Suburban development posed a serious threat to a healthy downtown. But turning the city’s center into a better mall wasn’t the answer. BACA would monitor regional development, organize campaigns, and tie the issues together.
In reality it had a core group of around a dozen people. The powers-that-be didn’t know that, however. Almost overnight groups questioning various development plans seemed to be popping up everywhere. Articles were getting into the daily papers. Whenever city officials held a “dog and pony show,” we brought out an audience and offered a different point of view.
The critique became more direct and aggressive once I left City Hall. The city Planning Commission had finally gone public with a design for a pedestrian mall on Church Street. The first version featured commercial kiosks along the street, walkways connecting them with second floor commercial space, and electrically-heated sidewalks to melt the snow. In response the Frayed Page created a multi-media critique, promoted attendance at a public hearing, and commandeered the agenda after the planners finished their presentation.
It was an irreverent guerrilla theater presentation, a multi-media direct action that linked the overblown marketplace design with other less-visible pieces of the urban redevelopment puzzle. Documenting where a minimum $50 million investment would be spend, we generated a visceral audience response. Soon afterward, the marketplace design was shelved and the architects went back to the drawing board.
Next: Alternative voices question the consensus