The South End of Burlington: Where Art and Progress Meet

DVT-FALL-2015-CRAIG-THOMAS-3-copyWords // Chea Waters Evans
Photos // Craig Thomas

It’s a summer Friday night in the South End of Burlington, and grill smoke, delicious smells, and the sound of live music wafts through the air and onto Pine Street. In a parking lot behind an unassuming brick building, there’s a party going on. Hipsters abound, with their bushy beards and dark-rimmed spectacles, but there are also older couples out on a summer date night and young families with babies in slings and toddlers wiggling out of strollers. This is Truck Stop, sponsored by ArtsRiot, a local bar, restaurant, gallery, and community space. Every Friday night, May through October, food trucks from around the state and farther afield gather in their parking lot to provide tasty bites, good drinks, and a unique experience to hundreds of diners.

Events like this are typical in the South End, a part of the city known for its artistic and culinary edge. The mention of Pine Street today conjures up images of Vermont-brewed hard cider, soy frozen yogurt, surf shops, yoga studios, and art galleries. Almost two centuries ago, though, this lakeside section of town was known for manufacturing and industry. Though there are no official boundary lines, most agree that the South End is west of Route 7, from the Queen City Parkway up to around Maple Street; Pine Street is the north-south thoroughfare that connects these roads.

This corridor was originally developed because of the lumber industry; from the mid-19th century until the 1920s, lumber yards and shipping companies dominated the area. Proximity to the lake made this an ideal spot for importing and exporting lumber from Canada and the forests of Vermont. Once new tax laws made the lumber business less lucrative, other industries moved in, and over the following decades, the South End was home to Citizen’s Coal, the Welch Brothers Maple Company, The Lane Press, the Kilburn and Gates Mill, and many other types of manufacturing. By the end of the 20th century, these industries had all moved elsewhere, though, and the South End was at a standstill. Slowly, drawn by the quirky spaces and inexpensive rents, artists and other creative workers began to gravitate to the area.

DVT-FALL-2015-CRAIG-THOMAS-6-copyThe physical appearance of the Pine Street area mirrors its eclectic personality. The large, sleek building on the northern end represents the modern, technology-based industry that supports the area economically. Old, almost-ramshackle brick buildings, many of them still standing from the days of lumber and gas, house artist lofts and musicians’ practice spaces. As is to be expected, there is some tension between the artists who work and collaborate in the South End, the business owners who have a lot of financial clout in the area, and the city government itself.

The city of Burlington recently unveiled a development plan for the area, called planBTV South End. They hope to develop a central community hub that allows artists to keep their inexpensive workspaces, yet add housing that would appeal to those who work at Burton Snowboards and, two big employers in the area who are interested in attracting and retaining corporate talent. City Market, a local natural foods store, is planning to expand in the area, and Lake Champlain Chocolates, a longtime fixture in the neighborhood, recently added a restaurant to their factory and chocolate shop. Progress is inevitable; the city government and area residents are working together to guide its direction. The art community is worried about being displaced by high rents and wealthy people infiltrating the area; local businesses are eager to attract more patrons with new parking options and pleasant, walkable streets.

The most popular event in the South End each year is the ArtHop, which was founded in 1993 and is held every September the weekend after Labor Day. Presented by the South End Arts & Business Association (SEABA), this three-day celebration draws more than 30,000 visitors to the area. This year’s ArtHop hosts a fashion show featuring clothing from local designers, installations from over 300 artists, special events for children, a juried show, and an Artist Market Extravaganza where attendees can shop for affordable art.

The ArtHop weekend is a fun, festive affair, with families and tourists and neighborhood residents mingling to experience the creative output that this unique part of the city has inspired. There is a fiercely independent streak to the people who live and work in the South End; unfortunately, a common side effect of gentrification is that those who made it so cool in the first place might not be able to afford to stay. Growing pains are inevitable, but the happy crowds, eager to support the artists and enjoy the creative atmosphere, are a clear indication that no matter how it changes over the coming years, the South End has a permanent place on the cultural map of Burlington.