A Better Brattleboro

The southern Vermont town has reinvented itself with artistic flair and a respect for its rural heritage.

New England

Cover Story

August 07, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Making my way through the Brattleboro-area farmers' market on a glossy Saturday morning, I found an international feast of offerings: slow-roasted Moroccan olives, farmstead cheeses, pear tarts, almond horns, sweet and hot garlic jelly, Malawian sweet potato stew and Thai rice cakes.

Then I spotted a beatific young pregnant woman with flowing hair and a long, loose dress moving through the crowd.

It seemed as if the 1960s had returned in this southern Vermont town - but with much better food.

Later that day, another sight brought me abruptly back to the present - a new bridge named for Brattleboro's first soldier to die in Iraq. In 2002, Kyle Gilbert was killed in an ambush. The inscription on the bridge's granite monument reads: "As Kyle Said, `Just Don't Forget Me.' "

During a four-day visit to Brattleboro in May, such images formed a portrait of a community where counterculture beliefs coexist with patriotism, perhaps under the same roof.

Listening in on conversations about neighbors, new babies and friends of friends, the dense web of connections that bind the town of 12,000 together were as evident as its vitality and the apple trees and cows adorning the surrounding countryside.

With its tolerance for multiple world views, Brattleboro, perched on the Connecticut River in southeastern Vermont, has become a dynamic mix of natives and newcomers, family farms and alternative healers, artistic enclaves and outdoors enthusiasts, wood-fired maple sugar houses and upscale restaurants.

Although my friend's country home in neighboring Guilford is a favorite destination, previous trips "downtown" to Brattleboro were always brief. I hadn't paid attention to the town's steady investment in its own resources, both built and natural.

During my stay, I imagined myself as one of so many Vermont transplants, scrubbing garden dirt from my nails, then swerving around a moose on the drive into urbane Brattleboro for a gallery opening or dinner with friends.

At the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, employee Margaret Shipman, a painter and newcomer to the area, described the town's immediate allure for her and her husband: "We walked down the street [and saw] all these little galleries and bookstores. You can throw a stone and hit an artist."

The town has "all the amenities of the city, but you don't get the hassle," added Shipman, 28, as she admitted visitors to the museum's show "Fun and Funky: Pop for a New Century." At one point, Shipman left her post to give Cynthia Houghton's mobile of water ballet Barbies a twirl, in accordance with the absent artist's instructions.

Seven years ago, Brattleboro's air of natural prosperity was challenged by big-box stores and the possibility of suburban sprawl. In response, merchants and property owners, dismayed by 29 vacancies on Main Street and declining sales, formed a revitalization program called Building a Better Brattleboro.

Capitalizing on the town's melange of architectural styles spanning from Greek Revival and Victorian to modern and Georgian Revival, downtown champions used government grants to polish Main Street facades. They also campaigned to strengthen the town's economy by cultivating its community of artists and other creative spirits.

The state's seventh largest town, Brattleboro "has always been artistic," said Tom Franks, director of Building a Better Brattleboro. "But there hasn't been a tremendous presence of it downtown." Now, a bounty of independent bookstores, galleries, theater companies, music venues and cafes have rekindled Brattleboro's street life.

On the first Friday of each month in particular, when Gallery Walk draws visitors to 45 exhibition spaces, Brattleboro's synergistic marketing strategy shows its mettle.

"It got to the point where people began opening galleries in what might be other types of businesses simply because Gallery Walk existed," said Joy Wallens-Penford, the event's coordinator and editor of a monthly guide to area galleries and exhibits. "They knew it would bring people into [their] shops, hotels, cafes, jewelry and clothing stores."

Brattleboro's cultural riches have earned accolades from American Style and Yankee magazines as well as in author John Villani's The 100 Best Art Towns in America.

Creative, cosmopolitan

On my first morning in Brattleboro, I stopped at the recently restored Latchis, an enchanting 1938 art deco hotel and movie palace with Greek Revival murals. A cornerstone of Brattleboro's recast identity, the Latchis is a popular stage for movies and concerts.

The complex also houses two smaller screens, a hotel, pub and restaurant. Erected by the family of Demetrius P. Latchis in honor of the Greek immigrant's New England theater empire, the Latchis is included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of great American movie theaters.

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