Burlington will soon publicly commemorate what Mayor Miro Weinberger has described as a "dark" chapter in the city's history — a 1960s urban renewal initiative that resulted in the destruction of a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood.
The city council unanimously agreed on Monday to allow installation of interpretative panels that recount the history of Burlington's "Little Italy." Titled "Neighbors Helping Neighbors," "Neighborhood Groceries" and "Family and Religious Life" respectively, the three plaques will be at different spots on the northernmost block of St. Paul Street, near the post office.
"Neighbors Helping Neighbors," planned for the north side of the intersection of St. Paul and Pearl streets, notes "the sacrifices families made in the name of Economic Development." That's a reference to the forced exodus of about 150 families that lived in the 27-acre area bounded by Pearl, College, Battery and St. Paul streets — a neighborhood settled in the early 1900s. Their homes were razed 60 years later to make room for the Burlington Square Mall, St. Paul's Cathedral and what is now the Hilton.
The same plaque also puts a positive spin on the federally sponsored inner-city redevelopment that got underway in 1966. "The existing vibrant and successful downtown with offices, condominiums, hotels, and a shopping mall is the result of this national project that significantly altered neighborhoods, livelihoods, and lives forever," it reads.
The wording reflects a compromise between city officials and members of the Vermont Italian Club, which raised $5000 to cover the cost of the illustrated interpretative signs that include timelines and a map. The plaques are a gift to the city from the club, which raised money for the project through its annual pasta dinner. The Pizzagalli Family and Ernie Pomerleau were also key contributors, club president Adele Dienno said.
"We did have to tone down some of our original wording, which was too harsh to be included on public property," Dienno wrote in an email message on Tuesday. The city was "very agreeable to telling the story of urban renewal," she added. Acknowledging this "flawed public policy," she suggested, will make Burlington "more likely not to repeat those mistakes."
The other two plaques were less controversial. "Neighborhood Groceries," destined for the southwest corner of Pearl and St. Paul streets, notes Burlington's Little Italy was a tight-knit community served by at least five grocery stores "where everyone knew you and your family." It continues, "Some of the buildings that housed the neighborhood grocery stores remain, but changing demographics and the automobile led to most modern American supermarkets to be built outside of city centers."
The plaque titled "Family and Religious Life” to be situated on the east side of Cherry Street at St. Paul Street, features a large photo of the neo-Gothic interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which "from childhood to old age" was a vital part of the Italian enclave. The church was destroyed by arson in 1972. The two-and-a-half-ton bell now standing at the corner of Cherry and St. Paul "serves as a memorial to the loss of the beloved original structure," the plaque says.
It has taken two and a half years for the Little Italy signposting project to be implemented, Vermont Italian Club board member John Varricchione told the city council on Monday. He said the signs will be especially helpful to visitors from other states who "know nothing of the Italian-American community here because it's all rubble."
Varricchione noted that his grandparents and father lost their home as part of the urban renewal project that also created barriers to north-south travel in much of Burlington's downtown.
The set of three interpretive panels will be unveiled in a ceremony scheduled for November 9.