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Word on the Street

The changing voices of the Old North End


Published July 27, 2005 at 5:37 p.m.

The children pedaling their bicycles along the sidewalk on North Street in Burlington don't even slow down as they dodge a tall, thin African woman carrying a large white trash bag on her head. Two or three years ago this woman's bright purple headscarf and gonfu, or Bantu wraparound dress, might have made neighborhood children stop and stare. Today, her impressive laundry-balancing trick is such a common sight that the kids on this block barely notice.

North Street begins with Opportunities -- literally. That's the name of the credit union at the corner of North Street and North Avenue. The sign is also a fitting reminder that more refugees get a new start in this neighborhood than in any other place in Vermont.

The most pervasive symbol of that opportunity is the cell phone. A couple of blocks up from North Avenue, Jeylani Somo, 28, sits on a stoop fiddling with his phone and watching the traffic roll by. Somo moved to Burlington nine months ago, but already his English is quite good. Apparently, the Somali native had a real knack for languages even before arriving in Vermont. He spent 13 years in a refugee camp in Kenya after being driven from his small village along Somalia's Juba River. He says that besides Muzigua, his native tongue, he can speak three or four different African languages, which he learned while working as a bicycle taxi driver in the camp. Today, Somo lives in a $1200-a-month apartment on North Street with 12 other people, half of whom are family.

Asked if he ever takes his family down to Lake Champlain to cool off, he shakes his head and mumbles something about working too much. Then he offers a more revealing answer: "I don't like to see the women," he admits modestly, alluding to all the bikini-clad beachgoers.

Two blocks east, at the corner of North Champlain and North Street, a white, college-aged couple holds hands and sips coffee outside the newly repainted Scrumptious Cafe. A tricked-out Ford Probe pulls up to the red light, its bass-heavy, hip-hop rhythm blasting over the warning beeper of a backhoe several block away. The city just finished paving the street a few weeks ago as part of its North Street Revitalization Project. The $6.6 million refurbishment has brought Burlington's poorest neighborhood new trees, street lamps, traffic lights, sidewalks and buried power lines. But already, the asphalt in front of Lawrence Barnes Elementary School is being ripped up. A 10-inch water main burst the night before and that "does a lot of damage," laments a deeply tanned worker, clearly annoyed about having to work on a gorgeous Saturday.

The traffic light changes and the Ford Probe speeds north, its urban pulse slowly fading. A shiny black Acura pulls up in its place and parks by the curb. A well-dressed, middle-aged Asian man gets out and hurries across the street to Thai Phat Oriental Foods, one of two Asian markets now on North Street. The man returns minutes later with a bag of sandwiches for his wife and kids waiting in the car. The market has been there since 1997. Its Vietnamese owner, Andy Thai, says it caters to a broad cross section of Burlington residents, not just Asians.

"I see every one of them," he says. "I see Bosnia, I see Quebec, I see China, Laos, Cambodia. I see most everyone. All 'round the world."

Several blocks up, Ruzan Aghazadyan and her husband, Mike Kusmit, are browsing the produce aisle at Nhat Long Oriental Foods, a new Asian market at 333 North Winooski Avenue. There's an odd assortment of products here, such as banana flowers, la hop leaves, yucca, bittermelon, chayote and fuzzy squash. Aghazadyan, a transplant from Armenia and former international aid worker with the United Methodist Committee on Relief in Kosovo, says she knows several former Peace Corps volunteers who come to North Street looking for products they used to eat during their overseas service. "It's quite a little UN over here, with the people from all these different countries," she says.

Vermont may be the second-whitest state in the Union, but this half-mile or so stretch of North Street between North and North Winooski Avenues is starting to look more like a microcosm of the world. In the rest of Burlington, fewer than one in 10 residents is "other than white or Hispanic." Here more than 10 percent of the residents can say they have relocated to the United States in the last decade.

Assuming, that is, they can say anything in English, which many of them cannot -- yet. More than 400 households in the Queen City are now considered "linguistically isolated," meaning that no one in the home over the age of 14 speaks English. These days, you're about as likely to hear Serbo-Croatian or Vietnamese being spoken on North Street as English. In fact, Burlington is now one of the few cities in the United States where Spanish is not among the top three most commonly spoken languages -- Serbo-Croatian, Vietnamese, Russian and French are all more prevalent.

How many refugees actually live in the Old North End? That's anyone's guess, says Bob Sanders, the new director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Sanders says his agency doesn't track the movements of the clients they've resettled -- roughly 3000 in the last 10 years, about 60 percent of them Bosnians. "We're not Census Bureau types," he adds. Sanders also doesn't give out hard data on refugees' nationalities or whereabouts in order to protect their safety and privacy. In the last two weeks alone, his office has received two phone calls from "crackpots," and the new director isn't taking any chances.

But the question raises a broader philosophical issue: When does a refugee stop being a refugee? There are now 20 refugee-owned businesses in Chittenden County. Many of these proprietors, such as Andy Thai, have already obtained American citizenship. Asked what's been the hardest thing for him to adjust to, the owner of Thai Phat laughs. "I can't believe taxes this year jump so high. My mortgage went up, too. Why do taxes have to jump up like that? Any idea about that?"

Complaining about taxes -- you can't get much more American than that.