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"Urban Renewal" Film Is Window into Lost Burlington

State of the Arts


Published October 31, 2007 at 4:42 p.m.

Last week, the Orton Family Foundation of Middlebury and a Colorado partner organization put on a sustainability conference, called "COMMUNITYMATTERS07," at Burlington's Lake and College Building. Though it had an unneighborly $450 registration fee, the green gala offered a few events to the public.

One of them, a community-oriented "mini-film series," took place on Tuesday evening at the Waterfront Theatre. The three-hour affair, which attracted about 25 viewers, featured four documentary films on such hot topics as sprawl, local food systems and vanishing mountain villagers. One of them, "The Champlain Street Urban Renewal Project," offered an astonishing view of a neighborhood that once was.

The half-hour film, which was released in 2002 by first-time director Patrick Farrington, documents a controversial building craze that swept Burlington in the 1950s and '60s. Itching for funding from the feds, city planners agreed to raze a working-class section of downtown Burlington to make room for office buildings and condominiums. "A lot of those homes that they destroyed could have been restored," notes one elderly woman at film's end, reflecting back on the project. "You know what I say? They paved paradise and made it a parking lot."

Though a little rough around the edges, the documentary is a surprisingly moving piece of investigative reporting, alternating between archival footage and contemporary interviews with disgruntled former residents.

Farrington attended Tuesday's screening. During a follow-up Q&A session, audience members bombarded him with the usual inquiries about inspiration and creative process. Farrington explained that he found out about the project from his mother, whose childhood home was replaced by the Chittenden Bank.

The director, a local freelance producer who normally does "corporate stuff," says he never expected such a strong reaction from the Burlington community. The film drew a packed, emotionally charged audience in 2004 at the Firehouse Gallery, and it's now shown every year at Burlington College. To accommodate persistent requests for DVD copies, Farrington's brother began selling copies of the film on his website, www.crookedroot.com.

"I had no idea the impact this short film would have on the community," Farrington says. "My goal with it was to just make a documentary - to see if I could tell a story."

Is the film available at downtown stores? Hard to say. "Borders," Farrington says with a laugh, "just doesn't call me when it runs out."