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Choosing Burlington

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"Mostly what he likes doing is taking things apart. And he has an uncanny ability to dismantle our household items. Not destructively, mind you, but methodically."

Jack Benson was telling me about Jess, his son, who was about to turn 2. In his voice, I could hear the pride of this relatively new dad. We were on the way to the airport for Jack's flight to Los Angeles, where he works for a law firm. Like many professionals in the digital era, his job allows him to work remotely, though he occasionally needs to show up in the flesh.

"Sounds like you have a budding gearhead in your house," I said. "Some folks seem to be born with an urge to figure out how objects are assembled and operate. My kid brother was that way, and he became an appliance repairman. What has Jess gotten into lately?"

Jack chuckled from the shotgun seat. He was a tall, good-looking man, maybe in his mid-thirties. "Just yesterday we found the remote on the living room floor broken down to its component parts. I swear, the kid is like a Marine trained to speedily disassemble his rifle. He was sitting there, smiling proudly up at me, and I was, like, "Jess, how the heck did you do that without a screwdriver?"

We were taking the 1-89 route to the airport. Normally, I might take side streets up to Williston Road, but it was a few days after a record-breaking snowfall, and cars were still parked a foot or so from the snow-banked curbs, narrowing the roads for traffic. So, whenever I'd had the choice, I'd been sticking to the main thoroughfares.

"Do you like living in the South End?" I asked. "I love that part of town."

"We do like it, but at this point, we're still renting. We just moved here a year and a half ago. What do you like about the South End?"

"The modest single-family homes and duplexes are evocative of the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. A lot of families with kids. Of course, coming of age at the peak of the baby boom, the streets were streaming with kids. Back then, it wasn't uncommon for families to have four or more children, and we all played together on the sidewalks, streets and schoolyards. And here's the kicker: There was absolutely no adult supervision! Nowadays that sounds like child neglect, but we kids just roamed the neighborhood — playing street games, looking for mischief. There was camaraderie, for sure, but also a Darwinian aspect to the social order — like, every kid for himself, sink or swim. I mean, God forbid if you were a gay or effeminate boy — it could be brutal. But, for better or worse, that's how I was socialized."

"I've heard similar stories from my dad, who grew up in Philly. There's something to be said for letting kids be kids and figure stuff out on their own."

"How did you end up locating in Burlington?" I asked.

"Well, my wife and I are the kind of folks who make deliberative decisions, particularly the big ones. My job, as I've told you, allows me to live most anywhere, but my wife is a naturopath, and we needed a community with a market for her profession. Plus, we wanted a place that shares our progressive values. Eventually, we narrowed it down to four cities: Madison, Wisconsin; Ithaca, New York; Austin, Texas; and Burlington. We actually made trips to each of the towns, and, while each one was terrific in its own way, we absolutely fell in love with Burlington."

"So, you're renting your place on Flynn. Are you actively house hunting these days, or is that for the future?"

"No, the house is already feeling kind of cramped, and we want to have another kid, so we do need more expansive digs. So, we're looking. But, as I said, we are deliberative, so there's no rushing the process."

"Where in the area are you considering?"

"Well, we want to be in town or close to it. We're not suburbanite types. Winooski has real potential. That town offers a good bang for the buck in real estate. Last week, we looked at a place on Malletts Bay Avenue, which was potentially workable, but, ultimately, we couldn't see living on such a busy street."

"Winooski's great," I agreed, "and it's developing a nifty little downtown of its own. I have a buddy who grew up on Manseau Street in a great little neighborhood. His father was a beloved professor at St. Mike's. When he was a kid, he told me, he and his pals would spend the occasional afternoon hanging out at the main intersection, which is now the roundabout, and they would wave at cars coming down the hill from Route 15. It would be, like, five minutes between cars. Isn't that unbelievable? This would have been in the '60s."

"I guess the area has really grown over the last few decades."

"I've witnessed it in the nearly 40 years I've been living here. Like, when we first arrived here, the town — and I'm including all of Chittenden County — had exactly four pizza places. I randomly checked on the web recently, and I counted nearly 30!"

"Well, as someone who could live on pizza, I have to say I like the trend."

I laughed and said, "Yeah, me, too. And when you throw in the progressive values and good demand for naturopaths, it sounds like your family landed in the right place."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

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