We’re All In This Creemee Together

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(Host) Recent statistics have shown that Burlington is now predominantly composed of non-native Vermonters. Commentator Philip Baruth wonders what all the fuss is about.

(Baruth) One of the top stories in the Burlington Free Press last week reported that for the first time, ever more people living in Burlington were born outside the state than inside. According to the most recent census figures, Burlington now claims 17,520 native-born Vermonters out of a total population of 38,000 something, for a percentage of 45.1%, down precipitously from the 1990 figures.

When I read a story like this, I always wonder what it is we’re supposed to do with it. Are native-born Burlingtonians supposed to take this as a wake-up call and begin returning to the city they left? Should Bristol and Granby and Franklin – towns where they have a comfortable surplus – send native-born reinforcements to Burlington? And what about these domineering non-natives? Are they supposed to circle the SUVs and raise their cappuccinos in a toast and then join hands in a flatland victory dance of some kind?

Every year or so most of the major American newspapers run a demographic analysis showing that by 2030 or 2055 the population of the United States will be more minority than majority – more African- and Latin- and Asian-American than European-American. I’m always made a bit uncomfortable by stories like that, because they seem at least in part designed to inflame the competitive instincts of the group losing out in the demographic sweepstakes. Because somewhere inside those generally competitive instincts are more specific strains of nativist and xenophobic and racist instinct.

All of the figures about changing demographics in Burlington and Chittenden County underplay two crucial factors. First, the influx of population from outside Burlington has kept the city vital and growing, and it is that boomlet of non-natives who are even as we speak rearing the next wave of native Vermonters. I wasn’t born here, but my daughter was, and she’ll eat Michigans from Beansie’s truck in Battery Park, and she will eventually live down the crushing shame of her parents’ foreign birth.

And the second thing is that Burlington, like any healthy city and like the United States itself, has a way of reshaping inhabitants every bit as much as it is itself reshaped. There is a pace and a tone and a particular sweetness to the city that communicates itself secretly, over time, to any adopted resident.

I was walking down the bike path the other day, and it was fabulously sunny, and I came up on a small family picnic in the trees. It was an Eastern European family, Bosnian or Croatian probably, and the men and the women sat facing away from one another but with their backs pressed together, each the other’s living lawn chair. They looked really sleepy and comfortable. As I came toward them, they stretched and got up and started to pick up the blanket they were sitting on. And the oldest woman in the group, the grandmother probably, looked at the man I’m guessing was the father and she said, “What do you think about a creemee?”

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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