In August 2004, photographer Dan Higgins set up a digital camera on the windowsill of a downtown Winooski apartment. From that perch, it automatically has been shooting one frame a day of the massive construction across East Allen Street. The project will eventually become "a quick-time movie," his term for speeding up the images to conflate all the changes into a few minutes' worth of action.
This month also marks Higgins' 36th anniversary as a resident of the Onion City, which has always been much more than just the place he calls home. Winooski is his Muse.
Higgins, now 63, was en route to the 1969 Woodstock festival when he heard radio reports about miles of traffic jams leading to the Upstate New York site. "I detoured to Burlington to see a friend," he recalls. "I was offered a job teaching a printmaking course at the University of Vermont. But I stayed on because I really love Winooski." He would stay at UVM for 30 years and also co-found public-access CCTV.
Higgins' passion for his adopted town began fueling his work, as he documented the human dynamics of bingo halls, shuffleboard leagues, pool halls, bars, restaurants, barbershops, cobblers and haberdasheries.
Raised in suburban Michigan, Higgins says "the social fabric of Winooski" immediately fascinated him. He once ran an Ohio field school for archaeology, so observing Winooski's people and establishments through his chosen art form was "visual anthropology."
In the 1970s, numerous Winooski citizens posed for Higgins. They each held an onion, and the pungent bulbs were hand-tinted yellow in those photos that were black and white. He found himself in the vanguard of a new breed moving in back then: the youthful counterculture. Winooski was dubbed "the Soho of Vermont," Higgins points out, "or Woho."
The city, which had experienced an economic downturn when the mills closed in 1954, offered low rents, making it a prime target for urban-renewal initiatives of the late 1960s. The local government wanted to overcome Winooski's reputation as a slum populated by "river rats," a slur once used to denigrate its inhabitants. But federal grant money dried up before structures that were cleared from the east side of Main Street could be replaced.
Higgins chronicled this early 1970s demolition in slow-motion video and still pictures. "I made an interesting record of Winooski getting torn down faster than it was getting built back up," he says. "It was blue collar, or no collar, but there was a town here. Suddenly, we had a parking lot."
Within a few years, attitudes had changed. "In the mid-1970s they started to realize the [urban renewal] program was destroying neighborhoods," says Higgins. Historical preservation funds were available to make the Woolen Mill a residential complex and the Champlain Mill a retail space in the 1980s. Around that time, NASA provided some big bucks to consider putting a Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome over the city.
"How many towns in Vermont would have even applied for a grant like that?" Higgins asks rhetorically, adding an ironic footnote: "Winooski's only one square mile, which is very manageable as domes go." A dome, of course, would have looked sort of onion-like.
"Now, it's all about anti-sprawl," Higgins continues, referring to the work-in-progress known as Winooski Falls that his camera has been capturing. It will incorporate luxury condos, affordable housing units, offices, stores and a bike path.
Although Higgins is skeptical about this development, he has reason to hope Winooski can revive as a meaningful community. "The era that ended in the '80s was the part that excited me," he says. "That feeling was rekindled when new cultures began arriving in the 1990s. We're a destination for refugee resettlement." In fact, more than 20 different languages are spoken in the Winooski school system.
Higgins has been snapping photos of Bosnian, Vietnamese and Iraqi families surrounded by mementos of the lands they left behind -- and holding the requisite onions. He's also writing an essay that's likely to become a book of his archival photos. The quick-time movie might be a DVD included in the publication. Tentative title: Art, Reinvention and the Changing Face of a Former Mill Town.
Higgins envisions his efforts as part of an interactive installation that reflects the old Winooski and its evolution. The exhibit might feature artifacts he salvaged along the way: booths from the long-gone Henry's Cafe -- "a little hole in the wall where a lot of stories got told" -- and the town's fabled bingo machine.
"Winooski is mythical," says the man who helps preserve that legendary spirit.