There’s a case to be made for Brattleboro as the coolest place in Vermont. The Connecticut River town 150 miles southeast of the Queen City has many of the same amenities: numerous galleries and an art museum; an Art Deco performing arts theater; a brew-pub; several bars with live music; a boho CD store; and a busy food co-op.
But with less than one-third the population, Brattleboro actually bests Burlington in a couple of cultural and political indices: That busy food co-op is expanding with 20 affordable condo units. Brattleboro has more Progressive members in the Vermont House. More independent bookstores, too. The town benefits from a thriving community of citizen journalists at iBrattleboro.com.
Yes, Burlington gets the national hype. But in some ways, Brattleboro’s lower profile may work to the advantage of the smaller community. Its Main Street has fewer chain outlets than Church Street, which gives the thriving shopping artery a more down-home and quirky vibe. And, while Brattleboro attracts plenty of tourists, its retail economy is less dependent than Burlington’s on summertime festivals — the upcoming Strolling of the Heifers notwithstanding. Outside the state, the Boston Globe has covered Brattleboro’s ordinance allowing public nudity.
Danny Lichtenfeld, director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, sees his town as “really different than Burlington,” where he has also lived. “Brattleboro is aggressively and proudly less commercial,” Lichtenfeld suggests.
The two places do have “many of the same elements, like great restaurants,” adds Sarah Edwards, one of Brattleboro’s two Progressive representatives in Montpelier. But Brattleboro “isn’t dominated by one large institution the way UVM dominates Burlington,” Edwards observes. “There’s not the same huge influx of students here.”
Indeed, locals regularly describe Brattleboro as “a college town without a college.” And that’s technically true. Still, Marlboro College is just a few miles away, as is Landmark College in Putney, which caters to students with learning disabilities. Brattleboro itself is home to SIT, formerly known as the School for International Training, which offers a variety of master’s degrees and coordinates study-abroad programs for U.S. undergrads in 60 countries. Students from all these institutions contribute to the town’s chilled-out atmosphere — and some feel so comfortable in Brattleboro that they end up settling there.
Ana McDaniel, for example, came to Marlboro College from Idaho and has lived in Brattleboro for the past 12 years. She works at The Book Cellar, one of five independent bookshops downtown. How do so many potential competitors coexist in such a small radius — and in a post-print era? “People here go out of their way to support locally owned businesses,” McDaniel says. Brattleboro’s lively literary scene has spawned an annual festival, an October weekend of readings and discussions that has attracted a few celebrity authors such as Mary Gaitskill.
Edwards, the first Progressive state rep to be elected outside Burlington, also holds a degree from Marlboro. She describes Brattleboro politically as “small p progressive.” Republicans, who haven’t won a legislative election in the town for 45 years, appeal even less to the voters of Windham County than to those of Chittenden County. There’s also much less animosity between Progressives and Democrats in Brattleboro than in Burlington, Edwards says. She ran unopposed for a fourth term in 2008 because the local Dems didn’t see any substantive reason to back a candidate of their own. “People down here aren’t concerned with parties as much as they are with issues,” Edwards concludes.
Mollie Burke, Edwards’ fellow Prog from Brattleboro, offers a similar read on local politics. A visual artist and figure-skating instructor, Burke attributes the town’s leftist orientation to its long history as a mecca for Americans alienated from mainstream society. She notes that Brattleboro was the site of a spa in the mid-19th century that offered a “water cure” popular among progressive New England intellectuals such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Famed anarcho-pacifists Helen and Scott Nearing settled in nearby Jamaica in the 1930s, attracting a community of like-minded dissenters who are the subject of a current exhibit at Middlebury’s Vermont Folklife Center. Then there were the storied communes formed in southeastern Vermont in the 1960s by hippies fleeing suburbia’s boredom or bad trips in East Coast cities.
Everyone agrees that the back-to-the-land movement of that decade had — and still has — a profound impact on the culture, politics and economy of the Brattleboro area. The exodus from greater New York and Boston “brought a passionate, highly educated person who saw admirable values here and was prepared to work hard to contribute to this area,” says the Brattleboro Museum’s Lichtenfeld, himself an ex-Long Islander. “Historically, there’s just something about Vermont, especially southern Vermont.”
But as much as small-town and rural life appealed to those ’60s-generation transplants, many of them remained enamored of the urban charms they’d left. Brattleboro’s relative proximity to two Northeastern metropolises gives it an orientation distinct from Burlington’s.
When locals leave town, McDaniel says, they tend to go south or east rather than north. “It’s funny, really. There’s not a lot of interaction between southern Vermont and the rest of the state,” she finds.
Brattleboro area residents actually feel neglected by state government, which they view as showering largesse on Chittenden County, adds Jerry Goldberg, head of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. “All the activity seems to be up north. There’s a sense that they [state officials] forget about us,” Goldberg says.
Perhaps partly in response to that sense of being second best, Brattleboro practices a high degree of self-sufficiency. “There have always been groups of residents who pay attention to Brattleboro’s needs,” says Gail Nunziata, managing director of the Latchis Corporation, which runs the downtown Latchis Hotel and Theater. Opened in 1938, the theater has operated continuously (unlike the Flynn Center) and was never permitted to fall into disrepair, Nunziata notes. But it has undergone a couple of interior reconfigurations that have created three — soon to be four — spaces for film screening or performance.
The Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center also reflects efforts inspired by civic pride. It’s housed in the former Union Station, which was slated to be torn down in the mid-1960s and replaced by a parking lot, Lichtenfeld recounts. The town was so traumatized, however, by the contemporaneous demolition of its old public library building that “citizens came together to save the station.” It became a history and art museum, and later an institution devoted solely to displaying “the art of our time,” Lichtenfeld explains.
“We all love living here,” Nunziata says. “There’s a tendency to band together.” When Wal-Mart opened an outlet just across the river in Hinsdale, N.H., a few years ago, “we got together and dealt with it,” she recalls. Support for downtown businesses grew even stronger, contributing to the failure of the Brattleboro Home Depot, which closed last year. Main Street has retained its Brown & Roberts Hardware store.
Besides boutiques and bookshops, the town’s economy rests on the medical sector; its top two employers are Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat. The Retreat is actually expanding, with plans to open treatment centers for uniformed service personnel and for members of the LGBT community.
The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in nearby Vernon, which employs some 650 workers, also plays an important role in the local economy. Brattleboro’s cadres of eco-activists have been campaigning for years to shut down Yankee, with the result that the plant “has been a very polarizing issue in our community,” State Rep. Edwards says. Though she joins Yankee’s proponents in their concern about saving jobs, Edwards argues that even more local employment opportunities can be created by developing renewable sources of energy.
The arts function as another powerful economic engine in Brattleboro. “There’s a very big community of visual artists and musicians here,” notes Maia Bissette, a barista at Mocha Joe’s coffeehouse and roastery on Main Street. She counts nine bars downtown, “a lot for a town of this size,” with many of them presenting live music. Bissette, 26, says there’s plenty of night life for the town’s young adults.
Mocha Joe’s, described by owner Pierre Capy as “a coffeehouse for lovers,” ranks as a favorite spot for conversation, chess matches and art projects — but not for “Twittering.” Capy has refused to install WiFi. “It would change the kind of atmosphere we’ve got here,” Bissette explains.
Appearances to the contrary, not everything is groovy in Brattleboro. It has no equivalent to the Church Street pedestrian zone; cars regularly clog Main Street. Tourists won’t find anything similar to the Queen City’s waterfront bike path, either; downtown Brattleboro has turned its back on the Connecticut River.
Poverty ensnares many residents, State Rep. Burke says, noting that “there are really two Brattleboros” — one full of hipsters and middle-class shoppers, and another that includes the 52 percent of the town’s public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The local homeless population is so large that the town’s shelter exceeded its capacity this winter; a Main Street church opened a drop-in center to handle the overflow, Burke says.
Those shortcomings aside, Brattleboro has color to spare — if only of the cultural kind — racially, it’s no more diverse than Burlington. Its northern neighbors would do well to come on down, stroll the streets and savor the flavor of the other half of Vermont.