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From the Green Mountains to Gotham

Thirtysomething Vermonters take bites of the Big Apple


Published December 7, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

Quick: Name a Vermonter who lives in New York City. Trey Anastasio splits his time these days between Richmond and the Upper West Side. And there's Jessica Sklar, a Burlington native who now lives in Manhattan as Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld.

But lots of other woodchucks are also making their marks on the Big Apple. While flatlanders have been ditching the city to raise goats and make cheese here since the 1960s, a younger generation of Vermonters is quietly traveling the opposite path. Call them rural transplants.

"I don't want it to look like I'm selling Vermont here, although I guess that's kind of what we're doing," says Paris Smeraldo, extending an arm to indicate his new restaurant, called Northeast Kingdom, in Bushwick -- one of Brooklyn's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. Smeraldo, 36, and his wife, Megan Lipke, 35, both grew up in the Burlington area, but they didn't start dating until five years ago, when Lipke's art career brought her to the city. They opened their Vermont-inspired bistro in late October.

Working feverishly during the six months before, the couple gutted the space and built from scratch the business whose name acknowledges their Vermont heritage, and the restaurant's location in the northeast sector of Kings County. With its tea-stained walls, vintage lights and booths made from salvaged wood, Northeast Kingdom provides an oasis of buttery warmth on a treeless industrial block. Inside, carved-wood deer heads stud the walls -- "We didn't want to scare off the vegetarians with real antlers," explains Lipke. Inspiration for the decor came from Deer Camp, John Miller's book of photos co-published by the Vermont Folklife Center. On a recent evening, pumpkins and candles cast an autumnal glow on the communal table and bead-board ceiling. Antique beer cans, graced with pictures of birds, line a shelf above the bar.

Although foot traffic is relatively sparse, the restaurant sees a steady flow of customers -- a mix of loft-dwelling artists and working-class community members -- hungry for seasonal comfort foods such as nitrate-free bacon, lamb stew and organic chicken pot pie. Essential city guides such as Zagat's and TimeOut have also taken note, listing Northeast Kingdom amongst the city's eateries. The New York Times recently ran a rosy review.

Smeraldo does the cooking, but it's not his only job. By day he does research for a Manhattan law firm. Lipke, who mostly handles design and publicity, is looking forward to her first solo show in a commercial New York gallery, in January, at a space called Outrageous Look. Her large abstract oil paintings, which evoke images of topographic maps, anatomy and mortality, are more visceral than crunchy.

"New Yorkers perceive Vermont as an all-natural hippie haven," Lipke says. "They think we don't brush our hair, that we wear hemp and listen to Phish. But that's not my experience of Vermont." Lipke has fond memories of hanging out in Fletcher with her father and uncle, who spent a lot of time telling jokes over beer and eating game for supper. "We did consciously model our restaurant after a Vermont aesthetic," she says. "One that's inspired by the deer camps and old farms of rural places like the Northeast Kingdom, where people are still connected to the land."

Lipke is excited about her latest find: paper placemats printed with seasonal nature scenes. She also built a mini-diorama consisting of a tiny pond, deer and trees into the wall across from the bathroom door.

Dr. Michael McKnight -- a 37-year-old Underhill native -- came to New York for its arts scene. As a kid, he went down to the city regularly to attend alt-rock concerts and cultivate his affinity for electronica. Now, the internist practices general medicine by day, and by night, sees live music and works as a DJ at an East Village club.

When McKnight's patients find he's from Vermont, the UVM med-school grad reports, "They say, 'Ah, that's why you're so mellow. That's why you're not neurotic.' Then they ask if I ski." McKnight admits he's laid-back compared to most of his medical peers.

Does he still consider himself a Vermonter? Yes, with a caveat, he says: "I don't like to camp." But, he adds, "there will probably come a day when urban culture will be less important to me and I'll want to get back to the land."

A urban-rural migration is not in the cards for Burlington-born Rachel London. "I've wanted to live here from the day we brought my brother Saul, 14 years my senior, to Columbia Univers-ity," says the 37-year-old fifth-generation Vermonter. "We drove through the Bronx and got lost -- I was 4 or 5 -- and even then everything seemed more 'real' to me in this place. It was like finding a soul mate." A poster of the Manhattan skyline adorned London's bedroom wall through her childhood. It remains there, in Vermont, to this day.

London came to New York in 1995 to finish college. She went on to earn a Master's in fiction writing from the New School. In 2004, she quit her waitress job to open a used bookstore-cafe. Located in a developing waterfront neighborhood of Brooklyn, Freebird Books & Goods has a view of the downtown Manhattan skyline. But London and her business partner, a former bartender, sought advice from Burlington's Keith and Amanda Terwilliger of Crow Books.

A typical day finds customers reading in comfy chairs while they snack on corndogs and Moxie soda, both of which are for sale in the back of the store. Readings and live music shows attract an evening crowd.

In the last year Freebird has been featured twice in The New York Times. Other local publications have also raved about the place. But even with good press, keeping an independent bookstore afloat is challenging. "It's hard work but a lot of fun," says London, watching her 1-year-old son, Cooper, pretend to buy an art book. "My life is here. Though I do wish there was more grass nearby for my kid to roll around on."

Who says you can't take it with you? "For the last five years I've used the soil from underneath my family's house in East Corinth as a physical material in my sculpture," explains Corin Hewitt, an eighth-generation Vermonter who is now a Brooklyn-based sculptor. "The soil has formed a sort of material foundation of 'place' in my work." Hewitt has also made art using the interior of the house in Springfield, Vermont, where his grandmother and father -- the late artist Frank Hewitt -- grew up.

Hewitt, 33, has lived in New York since 1997. After assisting multimedia artist Matthew Barney, he supported himself as an electrician and plumber. He's shown at Taxter and Spengemann, the Chelsea gallery co-owned by fellow former Vermonter Pascal Spengemann, and, most recently, at the Whitney Museum of Art. Hewitt's best-known work is probably his 8-foot, cast-marble sculpture of weatherman Willard Scott -- whom his grandmother used to watch "religiously," he says. Originally installed in a Manhattan airshaft, the meteorologist now resides in a grain silo in Richmond.

Hewitt's late father also moved to New York as a young man, making a name for himself as a painter before returning to Vermont, with his New Yorker wife, at 35. "This return occupies a large space in my mind," says the younger Hewitt. "My childhood was split between the more urban Burlington and rural Corinth, and I always had a specific relationship to what those places and the state of Vermont meant to me. I continue to have the most attachment to East Corinth -- it's the place I imagine moving back to when I return to Vermont."

After 14 years in New York, Charlotte native Colin Dickerman, 36, may have found the perfect balance. During the week, he's the editorial director of Bloomsbury Publishing in Manhattan, with an author list that includes New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, novelist David Leavitt and "Tonight Show" correspondent Chelsea Handler. On the weekends, he finds refuge two hours north. Five years ago, Dickerman bought a small house on a stream in Sullivan County.

Operating in the publishing capital of the world means obligatory attendance at book launches, readings, dinners and lunches with other publishing professionals -- the kind of constant networking that characterizes so much of New York life. Extravagant "literati" soirees can be amusing, but the life gets exhausting.

Dickerman says, "I'm not sure how I'd be able to live in New York at this point without having somewhere to flee to on the weekends."

In New York, people aren't defined so much by where they're from as by their work, says Jack Lawson, who grew up in Williston and moved to Brooklyn in 1999. "I work many more hours here than I did in Vermont, often from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I also drink far more espresso and eat more chocolate than I used to."

Lawson, 37, attended Champlain Valley Union High, graduated from UVM, and earned a Master's in development economics from the University of London. His various jobs have included working on slate roofs in Vermont, building ski cabins in Colorado and caretaking a small Orca research facility in British Columbia. He also backpacked through Central America and Mexico, where he learned Spanish. Today he's a PhD candidate in economics at the New School

in Manhattan, and is the director of the cooperative bank he founded in 2001.

He transacts with "immigrants from Ecuador, Hasid property owners, entrenched NYC bureaucrats, local teen thugs, and hipster bartenders," he says.

It's not the life he expected to have, but it's one he finds worth the struggle. "I did not always want to live here," Lawson says. "I came here for school, then realized I needed a job." Although he had no practical experience running banks, he managed to land a position with a not-for-profit organization that needed someone to launch a community-development credit union in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. Since then, Lawson has grown to love what he calls "the varied fabric" of the people in New York, which, he says, "you experience in an everyday, all-the-time kind of way." The sharp inequalities he sees through his job feed his determination to strengthen the urban, working-class community Lawson now calls home. But he misses his family in Vermont. "I'd like to live there again. It will depend on the normal, big things: work and love."

The grass may be greener in Vermont, but in New York "it feels good to be competitive in a field crowded by the best," says Smeraldo. "Even if you fail, you've given it your shot." And, until they find their way back, these Vermonters in the Big Apple have each other. As London puts it, "We stick together like wet maple leaves."