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Vermont Quarterly

Maria Hummel '94

Marginalia

Industrial debris on lakeshore
Photograph by Andy Duback

Departments /ALUMNI VOICE

Marginalia

Notes on a remembered waterfront

by Maria Hummel ’94

When I was six, I learned to swim in Lake Champlain by walking out until I stood chest deep, closing my eyes, and diving toward shore, kicking hard until my belly scraped bottom. At eight I skated out onto Burlington Bay and saw my first black ice, deep dark galaxies that extend from the January shorelines around the Queen City. At nine I found a thick oak staff on the beach, and trapped in a Tolkien phase, burned magical inscriptions into it. At thirteen, now living 20 miles inland, I drank my first illicit beer on the cliffs of Red Rocks Park. Soon after my sixteenth birthday, my friends and I came upon a castle of ice in Oakledge Cove, a glassy confection thrust up by a sudden winter storm. We gamely climbed all over it, nearly sliding to our deaths in our cheap shoes.

Born in 1973 and raised in the Irish-French neighborhoods of the South End, I grew up with a waterfront very different than the greened-up expanse people know today. It was a mysterious borderland, watched over in the north by Battery Park with its smell of French fries from Beansie’s school bus, and in the south by the great round oil tanks and the old barge canal, a coal-slag Superfund sight shrouded by trees. When I was a kid, people went straight to the beaches, but didn’t traverse the in-between. For most, the Burlington waterfront was a series of destinations instead of journeys. But not for my brothers and me.

According to the Burlington Waterfront Revitalization Plan, in 1990 there were “more than 100 acres of land that could be characterized as blighted, neglected, underutilized and/or inappropriately utilized.” Junkyards, abandoned warehouses and factories, and even the weedy remains of the railroad tracks scarred the landscape from an earlier industrial time. Inappropriately utilized, yes, but what a place for a kid’s imagination — the hulking wrecks of our common history crowded against the mirroring shore. We biked and walked among them, picking up rusting railroad stakes, bringing them home to litter lake sand across our bookshelves.

The city had been trying to revitalize the area since long before I was born, but was stalled by a lengthy court battle with the Central Vermont Railroad (CVR), which owned 62 acres along the waterfront. In 1989, Burlington finally won a huge victory in the Vermont Supreme Court. The filled-in waterfront lands were declared to be a “public trust” and CVR had to give them up.

After entering UVM in 1990, I found the shoreline dramatically changed. The beautiful Community Boathouse had been finished, and by 1991 Waterfront Park was open and Church Street foot traffic had migrated west to the lake. Rollerbladers, bikers, and strollers conquered the margin where transient men once slept out the winter in empty warehouses. By the time I graduated, the bike path extended for miles, from Oakledge to the Winooski River, and the waterfront was a place of zipping, jogging excursions for hundreds of people a day. There were future plans, too, all “appropriate” uses such as government facilities, parks, marinas, museums, research centers, restaurants, and snack bars. In other words, no private industrial development.

As I began researching Burlington history for my novel, Wilderness Run, I realized how revolutionary this decision was. When waterways were the great transportation arteries of our country, Burlington was a thriving lumber town, stacks of wood piled like I-Ching characters along the water’s edge. In 1873, there were 1,021 steamers, ships, and canal boats registered in Burlington, and pictures of the time show a dense, crowded city surging to the shoreline. The railroad had also nudged in at mid-century, adding to the congestion, and when a fire burned the waterfront in 1888 it made quick work of devastating the close-set buildings. For most of its history, Burlington had prized function over form on its shore, but not anymore. Food festivals would replace factories, and the tourist and recreation economies would punch a few more nails in the coffin of New England industry.

In the last decade, the city has steadily continued its erasure of the industrial past, taking down the old grain tower and the oil tanks. While the overall revitalization has put Burlington high on the livable city charts, those lost rusty relics contributed to my sense of the city’s history when I started my novel. Wilderness Run chronicles the coming-of-age of Isabel and Laurence Lindsey, the children of Vermont lumber barons, at the outbreak of the Civil War. In the first chapter, they’re standing on a castle of ice in the frozen bay when they hear the voice of a runaway slave, and their choice to help him changes their lives forever.

I discovered the inspiration for that castle the day my three closest high-school friends and I took the SAT. After we finished darkening endless ovals with our No. 2 pencils, we decided to head to Oakledge and breathe some fresh air. To our amazement, we found a twisting rampart of frozen water spilling from the shoreline cliffs. Within two years’ time we would all head off to different schools, our fates partially determined by the major test we had just taken. As we climbed the ice, we felt simultaneously giddy and precarious, full of fear and hope, which were exactly the emotions that run through Laurence and Isabel in their own scene.

That dance of danger and possibility is what I miss most about the old waterfront, but Vermonters are stubborn nostalgics by nature and my own wistfulness is probably as much for the raw, unfinished awe of childhood as it is for history.

Is our waterfront cleaner now? Yes. Is it easier to enjoy? Absolutely. But remember how the smell of rust used to hang over the shoreline air? Remember how the weeds dragged at your shins when you went walking and sometimes you spied something glimmering, half-hidden, in the grass and took it home? Remember how you called it treasure not because it was worth a dime but because you had found it? It was yours. You found it on the edge of the world.

—Maria Hummel (’94) is a novelist and poet living in Los Angeles. Her first novel, Wilderness Run, was the winner of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and an alternate selection of the Doubleday Literary Guild.

Originally published in the Summer 2004 issue.

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