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How people use existing neighborhoods for new purposes

The United States was founded by immigrants, and the diversity of our people is not a new story. Two cities at opposite ends of the continental mass have been home to multiple demographic groups since their very beginnings, and the 21st century proves no different.

Burlington, an all-American town in New England, is becoming one of the country’s most attractive locations for recent immigrants. And highway development along Sacramento’s main thoroughfare may have transplanted a historically diverse population, but it also succeeded in expanding the reach of its communities of color.


map of burlington

The northwest face of a Flatiron-shaped brick building in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood is graced with an image of Muhammad Ali, gloves up, a symbolic bee and butterfly orbiting around his head. The memorial to the boxer, painted the day after he died, was partially inspired by the experience of Prince Nartey Awhaitey, the 28-year-old son of the Mawuhi African Market’s owner, Pat Bannerman, an immigrant from Ghana.

As a child, Awhaitey just happened to have Ali as a seatmate on a domestic flight from Tennessee to New York; he remembers the icon entertaining him, performing magic tricks with a knowing wink the entire flight.

The mural was just the beginning of the makeover for the building, part of the motley crowd of colorful Victorians, single-family homes, and siding-clad storefronts that line this working-class street, the occasional cornice offering a hint of turn-of-the-century charm.

The Mawuhi African Market on the corner, with a mural on the side of the building.
Mawuhi African Market in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood.

Later that month, the wall facing North Street was illustrated with an akwaaba, a traditional symbol of welcome in Ghana and West Africa. The traditional meanings of the glyphs include values such as discipline and benevolence—a fitting welcome to the neighborhood in its contemporary incarnation.

The roughly mile-long stretch of North Street goes from North Willard Street, near the market, to the park on Lake Champlain. The strip of stores and small businesses symbolize how a growing immigrant population has become interwoven into this traditional blue-collar enclave, and in turn, helped spark a renaissance. Awhaitey, who has seen this change firsthand, thinks it’s time people see just how colorful the neighborhood is.

“Diversity has boomed,” says Awhaitey, who grew up in the neighborhood before going to college in Virginia. “It’s on another level. When I was growing up here as a kid, I would go two months before seeing a black person outside my immediate family.”

The commercial center of a rapidly revitalizing Old North End neighborhood, North Street isn’t like the rest of Vermont, a state known for its liberal leanings and a homogenous, mostly white population. Due in large part to the city’s strong safety net and progressive beliefs, this region was targeted by refugee programs as a reliable entry point for those fleeing war and persecution.

Left: Purple, green, yellow + orange pattern fabric. Right: An American flag hanging from a house.
Fabric for sale at Mawuhi African Market (left). A growing immigrant population has sparked a renaissance in this historically working-class part of town.

For the last few decades, wave after wave of new Americans has arrived—in total, more than 6,300 have arrived in the state since 1989, most clustered in or around Burlington, a city of just over 42,000. An afternoon stroll down North Street can feel like a cross-cultural odyssey, akin to traveling along a bustling boulevard in Queens, New York. Nepalese delis and dumpling stores, Somali-run halal markets, and Indian clothing stores fill rows of storefronts with bright, boisterous colors and the pungent smells of spices.

In old school taverns such as the Olde Northender Pub, Bhutanese immigrants nurse commemorative Budweiser bottles with the limited-edition “America” labeling. Women in brightly-printed Ghanaian and Somali dresses walk by chatting; smartphones strategically wrapped into headscarves offer a new take on hands-free.

According to Lashawn Whitmore-Sells, the principal at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes, one of two magnet elementary schools in the neighborhood, the mix of students in the area is so diverse, teachers and staff communicate in nine different languages with parents and new arrivals who haven’t started immersive English lessons.

For context, compare the languages spoken in Burlington () to your city, .

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A family with two small children on the street in front of a home.
A family on North Street. More than 6,300 immigrants have moved to Vermont since 1989, most clustered in or around Burlington, a town of 42,000.

The Old North End’s new role as a welcoming center, with organizations such as the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont helping new immigrants get settled, isn’t actually all that new. It’s just the latest chapter in the area’s long history and role as an immigrant launching pad.

Both the street and neighborhood started off on the margins. The character of the outlying area started to change in the 1850s, as a regional lumber boom turned Burlington into one of the nation’s largest lumber ports, and drew immigrants seeking jobs in factories.

Irish, French-Canadians, Lithuanian, and Polish workers and their families settled nearby, living in Victorian worker’s cottages, vestiges of which can be found on side streets, and opening up stores and small businesses.

According to local historian Britta Tonn, Burlington’s immigrant story remains largely the same: The tight-knit Old North End street was home to new arrivals, who created a commercial corridor outside of the wealthier, more well-known south side of Burlington.

Left: A boy sitting on the hood of a car. Right: The street sign for North Street.
Abdulhasin near Community Halal Store (left), one block from the intersection of North Street and Lafountain. (right).

“All these businesses, including local department stores, survived because people shopped locally,” she says. “Even in the Depression, the neighborhood was thriving.”

By the 1950s and 1960s, the tightly-wound neighborhood began to unravel, like scores of towns in the northeast, across the Rust Belt, and into the Midwest. So-called white flight and suburban development hollowed out the blue collar part of town, and slowly, businesses closed, rents dropped, and the thriving businesses on North Street thinned out.

The housing stock, from 19th-century Victorian homes built by French-Canadians to bland, blocky two-story apartments with wooden staircases, began to deteriorate. By the 1980s and early 1990s, the neighborhood had developed a down-and-out reputation for drug addiction.

Bill Bissonette—who owns hundreds of apartments in the area and grew up in the Old North End—runs Al’s French Frys, a glorious, greasy Burlington fast food institution that sells fries by the quart. He recalls growing up here in the 1950s and 1960s: “I grew up on Park Street, a few houses down from North. It was a little Wild West at the time.”

Left: Bill Bissonette outside of the front door of his office. Right: Prince Awhaitey in front of the market that his family owns.
Property manager and Burlington local Bill Bissonette outside of his office (left); Prince Awhaitey outside of the market his family owns (right).

Burlington was still a small community when Bissonette started reinvesting his profits and buying property in the Old North End in the mid-1980s. At the time, the housing stock in the area had deteriorated, with many larger homes chopped up into apartments for rent, and most of the renters in the area living off subsidies and Section 8 vouchers. Bissonette didn’t ask questions; as long as he got a check, he didn’t care about the situation or circumstances.

Others who arrived in the neighborhood in the late 1980s or early 1990s found the same withered housing stock. Stu McGowan moved to the Old North End with his wife and two kids in the 1990s, when the neighborhood was primarily white and poor.

“It was rough, but didn’t quite deserve that reputation,” he says. “While there was petty drug stuff, and it could seem a bit desperate, it was the most solid community I had ever experienced.”

Buildings on North Street.
Looking down North Street.

McGowan quickly got involved, umpiring little league games and spearheading the campaign for a bond to fund local schools. He also started investing in crumbling homes, renovating them, and painting them bold shades of green, purple, and yellow. (McGowan, who drives a purple El Camino and has electric yellow hair and a tattoo of his development company on his arm, isn’t your typical developer.)

“I don’t know a refugee family that isn’t super hardworking,” he says. “Renting to them isn’t a gamble,” he says. “We’re a small town, and because of Bernie [Sanders], we’re a progressive place with a lot of social services within walking distance. So, it’s a really ideal place.”

A concrete milestone for new arrivals on North Street involves starting their own businesses. Emigres are not just entrepreneurs but cornerstones of the immigrant community, offering hard-to-get groceries, money transfers, and a taste of home.

At the Nepali Dumpling House, Ratna and Goma Khadka serve an array of regional specialities like momo dumplings, plus imported groceries and clothes knitted by Goma. The Khadkas’ road to being their own bosses began more than two decades ago. The husband and wife left Bhutan in 1992 after Ratna’s father was viciously beaten by the government.

The outside of the Nepali Dumpling House and Goma Khadka and her young son in front of it.
Goma Khadka and her son, Sohan, (right) outside of Nepali Dumpling House (left).

After 17 years of living in Nepal as refugees, they were offered the choice of being resettled in their native country, or moving overseas. On December 17, 2009, the family arrived in Burlington thanks to the International Organization for Migration.

Ratna, a former teacher and principal, discovered his credentials were worthless, and due to his lack of English-language skills, was told he was only qualified to work as a dishwasher or housekeeper. Frustrated, he asked the IOM to send him back. “When we started looking for jobs,” says Ranta, “my wife accepted our situation. I was crying for a month.”

Red fabric covering the windows and shelves stocked very full with merchandise inside of the Nepali Dumpling House.
Inside Nepali Dumpling House. The Nepalese owners, Ratna and Goma Khadka, arrived in Burlington in 2009.

But Ratna refused to give up. He had been given four months of support by the IOM before he needed to find a job, so he took that time to learn English and qualify for a nurse’s aide position. Within a few years, the couple saved $25,000 to pay for their small corner store, while raising two boys, Shayel (now nine) and Gohan (now five).

Today both parents work part time running their grocery store-slash-restaurant. They make money selling clothing and groceries to Nepali neighbors, and the take-out restaurant is booming, but the Khadkas don’t have enough to pay a clerk or a babysitter, so one of them needs to be in the store at all times.

The refugee resettlement program isn’t without its issues, of course. Strains on the state’s generous social welfare program lead to budget issues, resentment can fester when new arrivals are perceived to have received more help than many long-time residents, and some new neighbors may not integrate as well as past waves of immigrants. In the nearby town of Rutland, there’s been backlash over the mayor’s decision to volunteer the town to accept Syrian refugees.

Faid, a young man, sitting on top of a counter in front of fully stocked shelves in the Community Halal Store.
Faid inside the Somali-run Community Halal Store.

But overall, old and new neighbors feel the Old North End community is rebounding after years of being written off. New businesses have attracted more new arrivals, and as the profile of the Old North End changes, it puts property owners like Bissonette into an enviable position.

He’s begun to remodel his apartments, adding tile floors and stainless steel appliances to previously bare-bones units. Formerly known as the cheapest neighborhood in the city, yielding $400 a month for a one-bedroom, Old North End is now seeing $550 to $600 a month on average for a similar unit, with pockets of new developments commanding a premium.

He’s not just renting to refugees anymore; he’s seeing chefs, employees of Burton Snowboards, University of Vermont students, and tech workers. “We’re getting a lot more young professionals these days,” he says. “I’m even adding raised garden beds in the backyards. The kids love this shit. Some even have chicken coops and collect eggs.”

Clothes drying on a line outside of homes.

The area’s diversity, recalling the melting pot ethos that has become American folklore, carries additional value in today’s world.

“It definitely benefits children,” says Principal Whitmore-Sells. “They’re growing up in a global society. The more interactions they can have with someone else, the better they’ll get when they’re older. Kids today talk about race, they’re ready to have those conversations. There’s a lot of pride here, which is really great to see, and people do care about each other. It takes a village, it truly does, and this is a part of that village.”

Patrick Sisson, Curbed’s senior reporter, lives in New York City. His best piece of advice from reporting in Burlington: Don’t sleep on the momos at the Nepali Dumpling House.


map of sacramento

The curious thing about Broadway, Sacramento’s most storied street, is that it’s cleaved in half by a 10-lane interstate, California Route 99.

To the west, it reaches to the Sacramento River, passing one of the oldest cemeteries on the West Coast and running through the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. To the east, it stretches just shy of the Sacramento State campus, passing through Oak Park, a neighborhood with deep ties to Sacramento’s culture.

In the parking lot of a gas station on 24th and Broadway, a few blocks west of the 99, there’s a mural of an Indigenous man named Ishi. Shown holding two golden nuggets, presenting to the world the riches this land once yielded, Ishi was the last member of the Yahi people, one of the first groups to call Northern California home. Ishi, who died in 1916, has a story that symbolizes some of the earliest changes in the Sacramento Valley and the history of the West End, then the most racially diverse part of Sacramento.

A young man walking along the side of the highway.
Broadway, one of Sacramento’s busiest thoroughfares, is characterized by the 99, a ten-lane freeway that bisects the road into east and west sides.
Left: A mural at a gas station. Right: Signs for the highway.
A mural of Ishi, who, when he died in 1916 was the last remaining member of the Yahi tribe (left). The freeway that cuts Broadway in half is coupled with Business Loop 80 and the I-5, or West Side Freeway, which would eventually run directly through the old West End neighborhood (right).

“That was where immigrants landed,” says Robin Datel, a Sacramento State geography professor, describing the land around western Broadway, between the Capitol building and the Sacramento River. “That’s where Japantown and Chinatown was, [and] the largest African-American community; lots of Latinos, and Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans. It was an amazing melting pot kind of place.”

But a trio of post-World War II federal acts—the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 coupled with the Highway Act of 1956—brought a combination of freeway construction and redevelopment, and laid the groundwork for an urban makeover. City officials deemed 60 blocks of land blighted, and the diverse West End neighborhood was wiped off the map and its residents were displaced.

Homes and storefronts were demolished—even the former California Governor Goodwin Knight got in on the destruction, manning a crane to destroy a West End building in 1957—and by the end of 1965, the Capitol Mall Development project had brought about pristine tree-lined walkways, new housing options, and more towering office buildings than ever before.

A car underneath the highway overpass.
Parking under the 99.

That was coupled with the development of a highway interchange between I-80 (Business Loop 80) and I-5 (the West Side Freeway), which would eventually run directly through the old West End neighborhood.

Some of the historic buildings in the neighborhood—railroad-related relics—were preserved and turned into tourist attractions, but the residents were pushed out. Datel says those people could only move to certain neighborhoods, citing anti-Black covenants, anti-Japanese laws, and other forms of discrimination.

Wry Luang Lee, on the sidewalk with his bicycle.
Wry Luang Lee.

One exception was the east-side neighborhood of Oak Park. “It was built before racial covenants came into play,” says Datel, who is also the author of the Oak Park walking tour guide. “Oak Park was available to people of color, as was Del Paso Heights (on the north side of town). And those became the major African-American spaces, even to this day.”

One day in August, I met a handful of longtime Oak Park residents: Robin Ware, an African-American community activist and former president of the Sacramento chapter of the NAACP; Joy J. Gee, a Chinese artist and educator; and Masako Yniguez, a Japanese artist, historian, and part owner of the neighborhood’s Belmonte Gallery. William Burg, a white guy who works as a Sacramento historian, organized the meeting.

As we ate, the group discussed the history of Broadway and how the area has changed. Burg has a theory on the evolution of Sacramento.

An area of McClatchy Park located off of Broadway.
McClatchy Park, located off Broadway in Oak Park.

“A lot of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, they were small towns that grew up into a big city. Sacramento was a big city that grew up into a small town.”

He notes that from the Gold Rush until about 1880, Sacramento was the second biggest city on the West Coast. And now with a population of just under 500,000, it’s the sixth-largest city in California, behind Fresno.

Burg jokingly recaps the city’s history: “A white guy built a fort, and this other white guy discovered gold, and then these four white guys built a railroad.” The historian challenges the perception of Sacramento as a “farm town.” “It was an industrial city from day one. It was a diverse city from day one.”

In fact, Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in the country. Compare the ethnic makeup of Sacramento () to your city, .

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In 1891 a streetcar line was created to take people from the jobs in downtown and railroad yard near the West End, to the far-eastern neighborhood of Oak Park. Just before the start of World War II, Broadway, originally called Y Street, had developed into a booming community.

Train tracks.
The train yards built in the early 20th century spurred development of Sacramento’s West End.
Left: The Tower Theater surrounded by palm trees. Right: The exterior of the Guild Theater.
The Tower Theater (left) and the Guild Theater (right) are relics of Broadway’s past, when, in the 1930s, developers wanted to model it after New York City’s theater district.

Local merchants successfully pushed to rename the street in 1938, in effort to give it the appeal of New York’s theater district. Venues like the Alhambra Theatre, Guild Theatre, and Tower Theatre were surrounded by a variety of restaurants and thriving neighborhoods.

Sacramento Electric, Gas & Railway Company (which later became the Pacific Gas & Electric company) owned the streetcar system. At the end of the line, they constructed Joyland, an electric theme park, which eventually burned down, twice. In 1927 Valentine McClatchy purchased the park and dedicated it to James McClatchy, The Sacramento Bee newspaper publisher, renaming the park in his honor when it became possession of the city.

Council Member Steve Hansen sitting on the deck of his home.
Council Member Steve Hansen, at home in the downtown Sacramento neighborhood of Alkali Flats. He represents Broadway from the river to 19th Street.

On top of the business and community developments in the mid-20th century, Broadway had turned into a strip for used car lots and auto mechanic shops, as well as a place for people to show off their low riders and hot rods—there are still anti-cruising signs on the street to this day. The culture in and around the corridor was starting to thrive. Then the freeways closed in.

“Before the WX freeway was built here, Broadway was a main drag,” says Council Member Steve Hansen, who represents Sacramento’s District 4. Hansen’s jurisdiction includes the far western end of Broadway, but he purchased his first home in Oak Park, so he’s familiar with the eastern side of the corridor as well.

The selection of plants at The Plant Foundry.
The Plant Foundry, at 3500 Broadway on the east side.

Hansen also believes, like Datel, that the use of freeways to “redevelop” communities around the nation really ended up displacing and destroying them. “We designed these big roads with the thought that everything else was second,” says Hansen. “And now we’re trying to repair and resurrect communities that suffered because of that thinking.”

Hansen is behind the effort to once again make Broadway a place people want to hang out by pushing the Complete Streets effort, a plan to make the western side of Broadway more accessible and inviting to pedestrians.

A mother and son with their bicycle on the sidewalk.
Mother and son, Selena Paradee and Niles Monti.

The plan covers the Marina, Tower, and Upper districts of Broadway, but stops where Route 99 separates those areas from Oak Park. Although there are a number of Asian-owned stores and a nice-sized Hispanic population in the area, it is the mostly white neighborhoods of Curtis Park and Land Park that will be the immediate beneficiaries of a more walkable corridor.

“Broadway itself hasn’t flourished the way it can because of this mentality around it being a place to pass through, not a place to be,” says Hansen. “And when you don’t create a good urban context, a good urban design, people just don’t want to be there.”

Hansen has no qualms about advocating for the potential of Broadway. The street is a restaurant haven, and to this day, there is economic and cultural diversity along the thoroughfare. “It’s a fascinating cross-section of Sacramento, it’s the epitome of who we are.”

A garage.
A man in front of his yellow 1972 Beetle.
Joshua Weitzelwith with his 1972 Beetle.

That cross-section is well illustrated by the great denominator: real estate prices. According to Zillow, the median home price on the west side, around Land Park, is $570,900. On the east side, around Oak Park, the median lives somewhere around $218,000.

Dave Gull, owner of the east-side New Helvetia Brewing Co. and board member of the Greater Broadway Partnership, has straddled both sides of the 99. Gull says that as a teenager in the 1980s, he’d leave his home in Oak Park and get his music fix by listening to tunes at the free headphone stations inside of the nation’s first Tower Records.

Dave Gull, founder and CFO of New Helvetia Brewing Co. inside of the brewery.
Dave Gull, founder and CFO of New Helvetia Brewing Co. in the West End. Gull grew up in Oak Park (east of the 99) and is helping spur local business as part of the Greater Broadway Partnership.

And over the decades he’s spent on Broadway, Gull has grown to know a little bit of everyone. “It’s Sesame Street. The neighbors know each other! I know every business owner within earshot of my building.”

Gull agrees with Steve Hansen’s view that Broadway is a microcosm of Sacramento—but says it needs more institutional investment. In reference to a 10-year plan to build a bridge connecting the western portion of Broadway to the city of West Sacramento across the river, Gull doesn’t seem to be waiting for the results: He likes Broadway as it is. “It’s a bit funky, with an international flare, and working-class feel,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of Bentleys or Teslas flowing through here.”

Broadway’s heartbeat is most evident in the people who inhabit it. The ever-busy Mother Rose owns Underground Books in Oak Park, not too far from where she raised her son, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. (The polarizing Mayor Johnson has seen a mixed bag of media coverage: sexual abuse accusations and legal proceedings related to withholding emails considered public records; as well as stories about his efforts to bring affordable housing, federal education initiatives, and tech startups to the community.)

Mother Rose, proprietor of Underground Books in Oak Park, sitting on a chair inside of Underground Books.
Mother Rose, proprietor of Underground Books in Oak Park, and mother of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Mother Rose believes Broadway, and her Oak Park community, is on the incline, noting that across the street from her store, a stagnant auto business has been replaced by a flourishing plant nursery.

The heartbeat is shown through the people flowing in and out of Joe Marty’s sports bar, the people shaking hands outside of the convenient store on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and the people eating at the Wingstop on the edge of sleepy Tahoe Park on the eastern end.

The pulse flows through the students riding the 51 bus line and the dedicated members of the Women’s Civic Improvement Club—an organization that has been around for 80 years, originally created as a safe housing option for women of color.

A man riding his bike underneath the 99 highway overpass.
The unavoidable 99.

There are “Triangle District” signs on the light poles of Oak Park, evidence of the remarketing of the neighborhood—gentrification as some would call it. Black Lives Matter signs sit in the windows of African-American and Hispanic-owned businesses, not too far from where the local chapter of the Black Panther Party headquarters was once located.

“The way the West End looked 100 years ago is more like the way Sacramento looks as a city now,” says William Burg. “At the time, minorities were hidden away, a source of shame and embarrassment for the powers that be,” says Burg. “[The thinking] was: We’re just going to destroy this, and hope that they vanish. Instead of vanishing, they flourished.”

Pendarvis Harshaw is a writer and photographer from Oakland, CA. Contact him on Twitter at @OGPenn.

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