by Dot Helling
Montpelier is steadily changing. Change is inevitable and can be good, but change can also be unsettling and create a sense of loss and displacement. I’m viscerally aware of the changes because I leave each winter for Colorado. I return each spring because this is my home, Vermont is my politics, and this is where generations of people I love reside. Upon returning I always savor the beauty at this time of year: spring’s shades of green, the blossoms and scents permeating the air, the bright colors of the tulips. Each year, despite changes within our downtown, I have continued to feel this is my home and community — welcoming and familiar.
This year is different. As a close friend and year-round resident put it, we have taken some significant “physical hits.” Montpelier is a community that thrives on its relationships with businesses and with each other. Without those relationships we flounder and stagnate.
A big hole was created in this city with the unexpected, quick and shocking closing of the Coffee Corner, a 58-year chapter in Montpelier’s social and culinary history. Coffee Corner was a hub for the coming together of diverse people, the making of lifelong friends and for political and business negotiations. There is no replacement, not for the people who assembled there and not for a place to have an early morning “diner” breakfast at a reasonable price. There is a dwindling diversity of eating establishments, and the loss of a true breakfast place.
On the brighter side, many invasive plants have been successfully removed from downtown, including the burning bushes alongside the Bethany Church property. The barberry in front of City Hall should go. Our Tree Board works hard to green up and beautify our city. Alas, Japanese knotweed continues to spring back after hundreds of volunteer hours spent trying to eradicate it, and this year’s crop looks far too healthy. Good growth in town has included ebullient blooming yellow forsythia (the best I recall seeing in more than 10 years), as well as rainbows of tulips. The St. Paul Street tree project is spreading its branches around town and someday, thanks to Lynn Wild and her school kids and volunteers, will shroud the city with the kind of shade and beauty once experienced under the great elms that lined our streets before Dutch elm disease.
The Carr Lot project moves on at a glacial pace, but — Hallelujah! — our streets are finally being repaved. It will be a long summer of construction noise and delays, but it’s so worth it. It won’t help parking or business, but then we’ve experienced more loss and change of late than the Coffee Corner. Mainstay Vermont Trading Company closed its doors, while the One More Time space remains noticeably vacant. McGillicuddy’s has a new name, and new establishments include the classy Lotus Day Spa. Julio’s just celebrated its 35-year anniversary and, operating for 46 years now is Charlie O’s World Famous, a special place that serves a population no one else does. In the words of the same full-time resident mentioned above, Charlie O’s exudes “earthiness” and a “primal nature,” and is a place where you can “feel the rhythm of life” and listen to great music while playing pool.
Front Porch Forum is a valuable communication forum and a great place to share and sell those extra items in your garage and basement.
In my view, however, the Forum has given too much voice to critical stupidity. The incessant, demeaning and controversial banter this winter about cats being kept indoors or out, and now, once again, the dog behavior in Hubbard Park, is beyond the pale. Come on pet owners, take responsibility and don’t expect others to love or tolerate your dog or cat. Control them and pick up the poop.
As we do each year, we lost a number of community members this winter. These days the difference for me is that the persons lost to illness and death are closer in age to me, and often part of my circle. A big shock was the unexpected death of Jed Guertin, a passionate water advocate whom I got to know working on the citizens’ committee to save Berlin Pond’s municipal water supply. Jed’s obituary revealed aspects of his life most residents did not know, such as that he and his wife Page once sold their house and sailed the seas for five years. What life stories lurk behind the smiles or frowns on the faces of those we see each day on our streets and sidewalks? What amazing accomplishments? What talents? What adventures? Who are we really, behind what we show the world? For instance, Scott Skinner, local attorney and previous executive director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union and then Vermont Public Interest Research Group, has been a competitive discus thrower since his youth, and has won his division in the Vermont Senior Games.
And here’s something many people don’t know about me. I was born in Japan to German parents, came to the United States at age 7 and became an American citizen at age 18. I was recently pulled out of the boarding line for a flight home at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris as a “questionable character.” Another white American was also singled out along with Indians and Asians, i.e., people of color. Toward the end of my inquisition the facts of my non-native personal history came out as the basis for being pulled aside. The government knows what we don’t know about each other, and keeps us under the microscope in our daily lives. This fact frightens me and makes me ever more thankful to call Vermont home.
There is no question that this year’s “physical hits” are significant and have occurred within our local community, as well as nationally, internationally and within each of us personally. These hits impact my daily relationships and activities. I’m not sure I’ll keep up this “beat,” but you have my word that I will continue to try to make a positive impact while I remain in this community. I hope you will too.