'Violence and Despair': The New York Times on Burlington's Bike Thefts | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'Violence and Despair': The New York Times on Burlington's Bike Thefts


Published November 14, 2022 at 1:55 p.m.

Burlington - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Burlington
Stolen Cannondales. A defunded police force. Drug users tweaking outside the Patagonia store. Murder in a city park.

Burlington’s swirl of public safety problems proved as irresistible to the New York Times as a pint of Ben & Jerry’s — which, naturally, also gets a mention in a new lengthy feature by the New York City-based publication.

The story, “The Bike Thieves of Burlington,” appeared online on Saturday and led the newspaper’s business section in Sunday's print edition, along with a photo spread of city officials and halcyon scenes contrasted with urban grit. Times reporter Michael Corkery, who worked briefly at the Burlington Free Press in the late '90s, followed a group of citizens who began patrolling the Queen City earlier this year to retrieve stolen bicycles. Corkery uses the band of unarmed vigilantes as tour guides to what the story describes as the “world of violence and despair that lurks barely below the surface of this beautiful place and, at times, bursts into the open.”

The citizen patrollers, in the Times’ framing, have tried to fill a void created when Burlington city councilors cut the number of sworn police officers in 2020. In the years since, Burlington, like many cities nationwide that did not cut their police forces, has experienced an increase in violent crime.
  • Courtesy of John O'Neill

"Like small businesses dealing with belligerent customers, or retailers locking up detergent, makeup and other items popular with shoplifters, the bike recovery group has found itself on the front lines of a debate about crime and policing that is confounding many American cities," the Times reports.
The piece pedals through issues that are familiar to readers of Seven Days, including the increased prevalence of methamphetamine, safety concerns at City Hall Park, the sharp uptick in gunfire and debates over why police haven’t made many arrests for theft. The Times leaned heavily on a “clash of ideals and reality” in a city with a history of progressive politics. (For those playing tired-trope bingo: Yes, former Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders gets a name drop.)
The owner of Betty’s Bikes, Julie Williams, is quoted as saying she’s been traumatized by watching the city “fall apart before your eyes.” A Howard Center street outreach worker told the Times that she no longer feels safe going into City Hall Park “at any time of the day.” A 58-year-old homeless man who sometimes sleeps in the same park told the Times that he recently tried meth and reported that it “makes you crazy.”

The Times' treatment is generating plenty of debate. Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, who was interviewed and photographed for the piece, criticized it on Twitter for omitting reference to the city’s housing crisis, which is driving up rents and property values and increasing homelessness — criminal hellscape notwithstanding. She wrote that she talked to the reporter “somewhat incessantly” about the city’s “failure to meet many folks [sic] basic needs.”
Corkery declined an interview request from Seven Days.

Mayor Miro Weinberger, meanwhile, wrote on Twitter that he would be introducing a resolution in December “for needed action to support public safety in #BTV.”

Asked about the forthcoming resolution on Monday morning, the mayor's communications director, Samantha Sheehan, did not specify what policies it would include. But she wrote in an email that Weinberger will "continue working to strengthen the City’s resources to end gunfire and related violent crimes, address substance use disorder, reverse recent trends around increased retail and vehicle theft, support crime victims, and to respond to the rising need for mental health services."

The Gray Lady isn’t the first national outlet to situate Burlington's recent crime problems in the context of police staffing; NBC News took its big swing last December.

For longtime residents, this weekend’s piece might ring a bell. In 1992, as the country was dealing with historically high violent crime rates, the Times also saw in Burlington an example of how the scourge of violence had metastasized in idyllic small towns.

The 30-year-old piece, “A Taste of Urban Violence Sours A Quiet Town’s Sense of Security,” reported:

For years now, Burlington, with its attractive mix of small-town atmosphere and big-city amenities, has drawn newcomers expressly because it did not seem infected by the ills of urban America.

But for many of the city's 39,000 residents, that cherished perception of safety vanished over one violent weekend in May. Left behind in the wake of drug arrests and a killing was proof that urban America had arrived.