“You Either Die the Hero, Or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain.”

Hey, remember when Seven Days was the “alternative” newspaper in Burlington?

Well, if there was any doubt that the scrappy underground outfit has adulted itself into the establishment, last week’s “From the Publisher” column settled it once and for all. If you were to Google “White Privilege,” you might very well find a link to the piece.

The essay’s subject is the former Greater Burlington YMCA building at College and South Union Streets, now derelict and unused. It’s sad, but publisher Paula Routly sees it as emblematic of an entire city on the edge of an abyss.

Paula Routly is a real contributor to the city life and culture of Burlington. She and co-founder Pamela Polston are to be admired for what they have built. In a time when other print publications are shadows of their former selves, Seven Days is an invaluable part of Vermont’s media ecosystem.

But that column. Woof.

Whiny. Entitled. Fearful. Classist.

Lest you think I exaggerate, I call your attention to the last paragraph of the essay.

Will the new out-of-state entity that recently purchased the building finally turn this local landmark into something positive? Or at least clean it up so it doesn’t look like a crime scene? Once a symbol of a healthy community, the building is now a glaring illustration of what ails Burlington: uncaring property owners, stalled development, rampant homelessness, unchecked vandalism and a growing sense that this beautiful small city has lost a step.

Yeah, um. I would humbly suggest that if you want to choose a physical marker of Burlington’s troubles (which I would not do), you should start with The Pit or the Memorial Auditorium or the city’s still-extant brownfields. Myself, I see all of those things as evidence of a living, changing city. Barring outward growth a la Houston, a community’s opportunities for regeneration come through decay and abandonment. It’s the Circle of Life, don’tcha know.

The entire column is drenched in two of our most cherished faults: (1) the aversion to change of any sort and (2) Vermont exceptionalism.

Before you even get to the Burlington-as-hellhole narrative, you have to wade through a fair bit of sludge. Routly spends the first two paragraphs basically acknowledging that the old Y desperately needed replacing — but even so, she can’t get over [squints at text] the loss of her personal toiletries basket.

A blow, to be sure. And what else did we lose? A building that wasn’t fully wheelchair-accessible, which is kind of Job One for a place like the Y. Even if it was grandfathered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, noncompliance is a disgrace in a progressive community like Burlington. I daresay that the old Y couldn’t have been much of “a symbol of a healthy community” if it couldn’t accommodate people with disabilities. More like a symbol of a privileged community.

Otherwise, “mazelike hallways,” “the windowless pool [and] workout room,” and a place that had, ahem, “plenty of quirks,” a phrase that I suspect is doing a lot of heavy lifting. The topper? “Very few people had anything nice to say about the old building.”

Which is not to say that Routly was alone in her view of the building. She was one of many who gathered on the facility’s last day to wallow in self-indulgence.

Listening to people’s personal recollections made me cry. Fueled by nostalgia — I’d spent so many hours there over 35 years — I walked through the facility, taking pictures of the pool, the communal showers, the steam room and the sauna. Out of pity, someone found my basket and gave it to me as a keepsake.

A Kodak moment, for sure.

Routly’s sense of loss has only deepened with the decline of the abandoned Y.

…the historic building has suffered one indignity after another, spiraling into disrepair. A faceless owner has come and gone without so much as sweeping up the debris on the sidewalk. The old brick is covered in graffiti. For months during the pandemic, a single guy pitched his camp — tarps and all — right outside the main entryway.

Horrors! An unswept sidewalk! Graffiti!

A homeless person!

This brings us to the closing paragraph and its lament over Burlington’s “uncaring property owners, stalled development, rampant homelessness, unchecked vandalism and a growing sense that this beautiful small city has lost a step.”

I hadn’t realized that the Pit had so infected the entire metropolis. But then I don’t get up to Church Street all that often.

Methinks Routly views the Burlington of the past through rose-colored glasses. Was it really a living Eden when its industrial base gave way to brownfields? When the waterfront was a wasteland?

Were there no drugs, no crime, no graffiti, no homelessness?

This ain’t no Hallmark movie, after all. This is a real, living, breathing, imperfect community, just like any other.

There’s only one place in Vermont that looks anything like the fictional playground of big-city professional women on the brink of finding life and love on a picture-perfect Main Street.

That would be Grafton. The first time I visited, I was taken by its classic Vermonty charm. And then I learned that Grafton isn’t so much a village as a theme park born of the deep pockets of Dean Mathey, a Wall Street tycoon who yearned for the picture postcard Vermont that shone brightly in his imagination.

Prior to its founding, Grafton, like many small towns in Vermont was struggling to find its way in the 20th century. Mathey came along and bought up properties in town, including what is now known as the Grafton Inn, the general store and many of the buildings in the heart of the village. He also established the Grafton Village Cheese Company, which became widely acclaimed for its aged cheddar products.

It’s a nice place, but its foundation is less reality than one rich guy’s dream.

Every other town in Vermont has its postcard images and its abandoned buildings, its sunny streetscapes and its places to avoid after dark, its well off and its less fortunate. Heck, the city’s brownfields are more of a stain, literally and metaphorically, than any unoccupied building. Burlington is far better off than most places, but it is not Heaven on Earth and it never was.

And it sure isn’t the loss of an old, outmoded fitness center that symbolizes the Queen City’s troubles, personal baskets or no.


1 thought on ““You Either Die the Hero, Or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain.”

  1. rudigervt

    What bothered me about the piece, was the assumption that the Y was, first and foremost, a health club. In fact, I think it’s more accurate to say that the health-club-like facilities serve a secondary function of supporting their programs. In particular, preschool education, much of it for people who couldn’t otherwise afford it without the subsidies secured by the Y’s effective fundraisers (and thus, of community members who make those contributions).


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