Downtown Phantoms | History | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » History

Downtown Phantoms

A new plaque marks Burlington's lost Italian neighborhood


Published October 5, 2011 at 9:50 a.m.

Walking down Cherry Street in Burlington on a recent autumn morning, John Varricchione pauses in front of a high stone wall beside the courthouse. “This was the driveway to my grandmother’s house,” he says, gesturing with his arms. The house where Varricchione spent much of his childhood — watching her make fresh pasta or running next door to Girard’s Bakery to pick up dough — has been replaced by office buildings.

The alleys, parking garages, shopping centers and hotels of downtown Burlington can seem impersonal. For a slowly shrinking number of residents, however, they’re reminders of an entirely different kind of neighborhood — one that was razed in the mid-’60s as the city pursued urban renewal.

The mostly working-class families who lived here nearly five decades ago — in the area bound by Pine, College, Pearl and Battery streets — tended houses, planted gardens and grapevines, played bocce, and gossiped at Italian food markets. Over three years, their homes and businesses were leveled to make way for the Champlain Street Urban Renewal Project. Though the area was home to people of various ethnicities, it was notable as the thriving epicenter of the city’s Italian American community. “There was a very strong Italian flavor” to the neighborhood, says Varricchione, whose grandmother relocated to South Union Street when the demolitions began.

This Saturday, October 8, some of the people who once lived in this neighborhood, along with various officials and friends, will gather to dedicate a commemorative plaque in Battery Park Extension, and to share their memories.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Mayor Bob Kiss and Lola Aiken, widow of longtime Senator George D. Aiken, will speak at the event, which is sponsored by the Vermont Italian Club. The plaque, approved by the zoning board, recognizes the sacrifices Italian American families made for the city’s new business center. Following the ceremony, participants can gather at nearby Main Street Landing for Italian food, a panel discussion and two screenings of the documentary The Champlain Street Urban Renewal Project, made in 2002 by local filmmaker Patrick Farrington. Next year, the Vermont Italian Club — a 130-member group that regularly convenes for Italian conversation, meals and cultural events — will place information markers at various downtown spots to acknowledge the bygone Italian community, says current VIC president Adele Dienno.

Burlington’s urban renewal, like that of many American cities, can be traced back to the 1954 Housing Act. The federal government offered money to cities willing to knock down and rebuild “blighted” neighborhoods. First, those “slums” had to be identified and labeled; then city officials could claim blighted property via eminent domain, and funds for rebuilding would flow.

In Burlington, this fate befell a 27-acre area that was home to 157 families, including extended clans of Varricchiones, Maiettas and Boves, and 41 businesses, among them Merola’s and Izzo’s markets and Antonicci’s Barber Shop. While the Italian Americans who lived there remember tidy homes and teeming gardens, there were also some distressed buildings in the ’hood. City voters officially recognized the “blight” there in 1958, and in 1963 they approved a plan to relocate residents and rebuild the neighborhood, according to news accounts of the time.

Soon afterward, families were offered what some considered inadequate sums for their houses, in the range of $6000 to $13,000. For many families whose mortgages were paid up, the money covered only a down payment in the new neighborhoods to which they scattered. But they had no choice, and some in the community still feel the sting of that injustice. “What was done was not fair and just,” asserts Dienno, who moved to Burlington from South Philadelphia in 1972 and schooled herself in what had happened to some of her Vermont friends and neighbors.

Some families took the payments and left. Others brought lawsuits against the city to challenge its offer. Still others, such as Victoria Dutra — who lived with her seven children on Cherry Street — resisted moving at all. According to news articles and Farrington’s film, Dutra hung a sign on her porch that read “Dutra’s Ponderosa,” as the family held out against relocation.

Regardless, demolitions began in the spring of 1966. By 1968, with the rest of the neighborhood flattened around her, Dutra and her family slipped away, several days before officials realized she was gone. A Burlington Free Press photo from May 1968 shows a clothesline as the only remnant of Dutra’s homestead.

Joe Maietta remembers Dutra as “feisty.” Now 81 and living in the New North End, he was born in his grandparents’ house on Battery Street, where the Hilton Hotel now stands. Maietta spent the first 14 years of his life there, he says, before moving with his parents to Rose Street. He later joined the Marines and left town.

Maietta settled for a time in Connecticut, then returned to Burlington with his wife in the 1950s. His memories of Burlington’s Little Italy remained sharp, though. Ten years ago, he drew a map of the urban-renewal area, noting many of its former families and businesses.

“I vividly remember playing bocce ball, the men sitting around with a glass of vino and smoking cigarettes,” Maietta says, narrating a cascade of memories during a recent visit to his home. He recalls his grandparents’ yard, their grapevines — “They were something!” he says — and the wine-stewed pigeon they sometimes served at dinner. He also remembers how an elder member of the Bove family used to push his popcorn wagon to Battery Park on sunny days, and how circus train cars came to the waterfront and the elephants were led through town.

Maietta will share some of these memories at Saturday’s event. As he sits in his kitchen surrounded by papers and photos, his gentle voice still carries a trace of bitterness about what happened to his old Burlington ’hood. “They were giving people peanuts for their homes. It was not right,” he recalls. There’s so much to tell, Maietta laments, not sure he can do it in the space of his 30-minute presentation. “I will try,” he says.

For his part, Varricchione was a young man when the displacements began. In some ways, his family was typical of the area’s Italian Americans, many of whom had come to work in the rail or lumberyards, or as entrepreneurs. Varricchione’s grandparents arrived on a ship from southern Italy when his father was 3; they passed through Ellis Island and finally north to Vermont.

Varricchione, now 64, eventually became an English teacher and coach at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington. He grew more deeply engaged with the city’s Italian history after hearing a talk by Joe Maietta in 1999.

Retired, but still fit and energetic, Varricchione deftly weaves through alleys and a parking garage as he leads a reporter through the phantom neighborhood. “Right here was my Bank Street house,” he explains, standing in front of People’s United Bank. He recalls living here until the age of 3 or 4, when his family moved to a nearby home on South Champlain Street, across the street from the demolitions.

Back on Cherry Street, at the corner of a parking lot at Cathedral Square, Varricchione notes, “This is the spot where the last house was standing.” He’s referring to Dutra’s Ponderosa. “She was a champion of the entire endeavor,” he recalls.

Dienno, who accompanies us on the walk, acknowledges that Burlington’s urban upheaval of the 1960s is long past, but she says mounting an informational plaque is as much for the current public as for the neighborhood’s former residents. “We need to do this now,” Dienno says, pointing out that many of those who relocated have passed on, including Victoria Dutra, who died a few years aga. “We want to give voice to the ghosts,” Dienno says.