Local Color(s)

by Arlene Weiner

I’ve been spending time in the Old North End of a northern town, near the intersection of North Avenue and North Street. Really, literally. It’s Burlington, Vermont, near the shore of Lake Champlain. Depot Street runs steeply down to the lakeshore, once a busy port, now an attractive park with a bike trail, swinging benches, a boardwalk, a shack that sells cremees (the localism for soft-serve ice cream), and a dock. The old warehouse, an eight-story hulk, slightly mars the pleasure center. Ferries leave for towns in New York State. Sailboats and kayaks skim the lake.

Straight, wide, and treeless, North Avenue. The buildings along it aren’t the white-clapboard and green-shuttered charmers of imagined New England greens. Nor are they elaborated Victorians and Queen Annes, like some houses nearer the university. Many are two- and three-story boxes, flat-roofed, without shutter, porch, or lintel. Utilitarian, I’d say, though in this climate, where people shovel accumulated snow off porch roofs in winter to avoid their collapsing, a flat roof seems an impractical idea.

North Avenue is now a focus for recent immigrants. And it shows. It seems that the various national groups like to display their colors. Next to a Himalayan grocery a house—this one does have a porch, paneled doors, turned posts—is painted red, blue, and yellow, colors as bright as a kindergarten’s poster paint. Half a block down from it a newly re-sided three-story box is painted the same colors. A food store/convenience store called “Cool Runnings,” after a movie based on a Jamaican luge team, has a large grill painted equally bright yellow, black, and green. Round the corner is a house in those colors.

A halal grocery seems an exception. Shouldn’t it be painted green, the color of Islam? But it’s white with a blue star. Then I notice that the side wall IS painted green, a little faded. And it turns out that the flag of Somalia is blue with a white five-pointed star. There is indeed a Somali community. I enjoy seeing the women in long, brightly printed dresses. Today I saw one carrying a bundle on her head, with a poise I’ve always envied.

I’ve been having an e-mail discussion with some of my family about, roughly, the Other. It began with one man’s disgust with intolerant religious fanatics and was countered by another that religion wasn’t the problem, tribalism was. And that people would divide into tribes on any basis. I recalled that I’d visited Quebec just after Canada’s voters had rejected a proposal that Canada become bilingual, the official languages to be French and English. Naturally French-speaking Quebecois wished the referendum to pass.

I’d noticed that many houses in the countryside were painted white with contrasting bright trim. Quite pretty. Eventually I realized that the houses with blue trim were expressing allegiance to French and those with red trim were expressing allegiance to English. Tribes, and a good deal of hostility behind the flying colors. But at least they weren’t slaughtering each other.


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