The northwest face of a Flatiron-shaped brick building in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood is graced with an image of Muhammad Ali, gloves up, a symbolic bee and butterfly orbiting around his head. The memorial to the boxer, painted the day after he died, was partially inspired by the experience of Prince Nartey Awhaitey, the 28-year-old son of the Mawuhi African Market’s owner, Pat Bannerman, an immigrant from Ghana.
As a child, Awhaitey just happened to have Ali as a seatmate on a domestic flight from Tennessee to New York; he remembers the icon entertaining him, performing magic tricks with a knowing wink the entire flight.
The mural was just the beginning of the makeover for the building, part of the motley crowd of colorful Victorians, single-family homes, and siding-clad storefronts that line this working-class street, the occasional cornice offering a hint of turn-of-the-century charm.
Later that month, the wall facing North Street was illustrated with an akwaaba, a traditional symbol of welcome in Ghana and West Africa. The traditional meanings of the glyphs include values such as discipline and benevolence—a fitting welcome to the neighborhood in its contemporary incarnation.
The roughly mile-long stretch of North Street goes from North Willard Street, near the market, to the park on Lake Champlain. The strip of stores and small businesses symbolize how a growing immigrant population has become interwoven into this traditional blue-collar enclave, and in turn, helped spark a renaissance. Awhaitey, who has seen this change firsthand, thinks it’s time people see just how colorful the neighborhood is.
The commercial center of a rapidly revitalizing Old North End neighborhood, North Street isn’t like the rest of Vermont, a state known for its liberal leanings and a homogenous, mostly white population. Due in large part to the city’s strong safety net and progressive beliefs, this region was targeted by refugee programs as a reliable entry point for those fleeing war and persecution.
For the last few decades, wave after wave of new Americans has arrived—in total, more than 6,300 have arrived in the state since 1989, most clustered in or around Burlington, a city of just over 42,000. An afternoon stroll down North Street can feel like a cross-cultural odyssey, akin to traveling along a bustling boulevard in Queens, New York. Nepalese delis and dumpling stores, Somali-run halal markets, and Indian clothing stores fill rows of storefronts with bright, boisterous colors and the pungent smells of spices.
In old school taverns such as the Olde Northender Pub, Bhutanese immigrants nurse commemorative Budweiser bottles with the limited-edition “America” labeling. Women in brightly-printed Ghanaian and Somali dresses walk by chatting; smartphones strategically wrapped into headscarves offer a new take on hands-free.
According to Lashawn Whitmore-Sells, the principal at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes, one of two magnet elementary schools in the neighborhood, the mix of students in the area is so diverse, teachers and staff communicate in nine different languages with parents and new arrivals who haven’t started immersive English lessons.
The Old North End’s new role as a welcoming center, with organizations such as the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont helping new immigrants get settled, isn’t actually all that new. It’s just the latest chapter in the area’s long history and role as an immigrant launching pad.
Both the street and neighborhood started off on the margins. The character of the outlying area started to change in the 1850s, as a regional lumber boom turned Burlington into one of the nation’s largest lumber ports, and drew immigrants seeking jobs in factories.
Irish, French-Canadians, Lithuanian, and Polish workers and their families settled nearby, living in Victorian worker’s cottages, vestiges of which can be found on side streets, and opening up stores and small businesses.
According to local historian Britta Tonn, Burlington’s immigrant story remains largely the same: The tight-knit Old North End street was home to new arrivals, who created a commercial corridor outside of the wealthier, more well-known south side of Burlington.
“All these businesses, including local department stores, survived because people shopped locally,” she says. “Even in the Depression, the neighborhood was thriving.”
By the 1950s and 1960s, the tightly-wound neighborhood began to unravel, like scores of towns in the northeast, across the Rust Belt, and into the Midwest. So-called white flight and suburban development hollowed out the blue collar part of town, and slowly, businesses closed, rents dropped, and the thriving businesses on North Street thinned out.
The housing stock, from 19th-century Victorian homes built by French-Canadians to bland, blocky two-story apartments with wooden staircases, began to deteriorate. By the 1980s and early 1990s, the neighborhood had developed a down-and-out reputation for drug addiction.
Bill Bissonette—who owns hundreds of apartments in the area and grew up in the Old North End—runs Al’s French Frys, a glorious, greasy Burlington fast food institution that sells fries by the quart. He recalls growing up here in the 1950s and 1960s: “I grew up on Park Street, a few houses down from North. It was a little Wild West at the time.”
Burlington was still a small community when Bissonette started reinvesting his profits and buying property in the Old North End in the mid-1980s. At the time, the housing stock in the area had deteriorated, with many larger homes chopped up into apartments for rent, and most of the renters in the area living off subsidies and Section 8 vouchers. Bissonette didn’t ask questions; as long as he got a check, he didn’t care about the situation or circumstances.
“It was rough, but didn’t quite deserve that reputation,” he says. “While there was petty drug stuff, and it could seem a bit desperate, it was the most solid community I had ever experienced.”
McGowan quickly got involved, umpiring little league games and spearheading the campaign for a bond to fund local schools. He also started investing in crumbling homes, renovating them, and painting them bold shades of green, purple, and yellow. (McGowan, who drives a purple El Camino and has electric yellow hair and a tattoo of his development company on his arm, isn’t your typical developer.)
“I don’t know a refugee family that isn’t super hardworking,” he says. “Renting to them isn’t a gamble,” he says. “We’re a small town, and because of Bernie [Sanders], we’re a progressive place with a lot of social services within walking distance. So, it’s a really ideal place.”
A concrete milestone for new arrivals on North Street involves starting their own businesses. Emigres are not just entrepreneurs but cornerstones of the immigrant community, offering hard-to-get groceries, money transfers, and a taste of home.
At the Nepali Dumpling House, Ratna and Goma Khadka serve an array of regional specialities like momo dumplings, plus imported groceries and clothes knitted by Goma. The Khadkas’ road to being their own bosses began more than two decades ago. The husband and wife left Bhutan in 1992 after Ratna’s father was viciously beaten by the government.
After 17 years of living in Nepal as refugees, they were offered the choice of being resettled in their native country, or moving overseas. On December 17, 2009, the family arrived in Burlington thanks to the International Organization for Migration.
Ratna, a former teacher and principal, discovered his credentials were worthless, and due to his lack of English-language skills, was told he was only qualified to work as a dishwasher or housekeeper. Frustrated, he asked the IOM to send him back. “When we started looking for jobs,” says Ranta, “my wife accepted our situation. I was crying for a month.”
But Ratna refused to give up. He had been given four months of support by the IOM before he needed to find a job, so he took that time to learn English and qualify for a nurse’s aide position. Within a few years, the couple saved $25,000 to pay for their small corner store, while raising two boys, Shayel (now nine) and Gohan (now five).
Today both parents work part time running their grocery store-slash-restaurant. They make money selling clothing and groceries to Nepali neighbors, and the take-out restaurant is booming, but the Khadkas don’t have enough to pay a clerk or a babysitter, so one of them needs to be in the store at all times.
The refugee resettlement program isn’t without its issues, of course. Strains on the state’s generous social welfare program lead to budget issues, resentment can fester when new arrivals are perceived to have received more help than many long-time residents, and some new neighbors may not integrate as well as past waves of immigrants. In the nearby town of Rutland, there’s been backlash over the mayor’s decision to volunteer the town to accept Syrian refugees.
But overall, old and new neighbors feel the Old North End community is rebounding after years of being written off. New businesses have attracted more new arrivals, and as the profile of the Old North End changes, it puts property owners like Bissonette into an enviable position.
He’s begun to remodel his apartments, adding tile floors and stainless steel appliances to previously bare-bones units. Formerly known as the cheapest neighborhood in the city, yielding $400 a month for a one-bedroom, Old North End is now seeing $550 to $600 a month on average for a similar unit, with pockets of new developments commanding a premium.
He’s not just renting to refugees anymore; he’s seeing chefs, employees of Burton Snowboards, University of Vermont students, and tech workers. “We’re getting a lot more young professionals these days,” he says. “I’m even adding raised garden beds in the backyards. The kids love this shit. Some even have chicken coops and collect eggs.”
The area’s diversity, recalling the melting pot ethos that has become American folklore, carries additional value in today’s world.
“It definitely benefits children,” says Principal Whitmore-Sells. “They’re growing up in a global society. The more interactions they can have with someone else, the better they’ll get when they’re older. Kids today talk about race, they’re ready to have those conversations. There’s a lot of pride here, which is really great to see, and people do care about each other. It takes a village, it truly does, and this is a part of that village.”