242 Main opened its doors in the spring of 1985, establishing itself by a firm margin as the nation’s longest-running all ages venue and, from the start, a youth-driven safe space. Some of this history was captured in 2015 by both Vice Magazine and Seven Days, as 242 celebrated its 30th anniversary.
242 Main has been at the heart of some of Vermont’s best memories. It’s brought a community of young adults together where they can fearlessly share what matters and learn to respect each other. It’s the city’s voice for diversity in art and the human experience, fostering social bonds and confidence. It’s launched many young people on creative paths that led to fulfilling lives. It has a treasured history of inclusivity and a triumphant legacy of being the nation’s oldest, longest-running all ages punk rock venue.
Memorial Auditorium, the building that 242 Main has been inside of since its start, has experienced a slow material decline over the decades, resulting from neglected maintenance, lack of prioritization throughout the terms of multiple mayors, and failure of voters to invest in the building as a capital project. The result is an imminent closure of the building due to safety concerns and the eviction of all the programs that occupy it, including 242 Main.
242 Main has suffered a debilitating withdrawal of city supports over time, with staff dwindling and hours and programming shrinking. As a program, it was ejected by Burlington City Arts, slid sideways to the Parks & Recreation Department where it could not meet its potential, and in 2016 was transferred, as a program — but not as a space — to the Fletcher Free Library. The library will be a conscientious steward of the 242 Main intentions and youth-guided model, but is not prepared to champion the preservation of the space that 242 imbued with its immense legacy.
The common wisdom is that 242 Main is closing in December when the building’s heating system is shut down, in need of a $4,000,000 repair. The city says the building needs rehabilitation with a cost of many more millions of dollars. A request for proposals is said to be pending, which might invite concepts for repair that may include partial or total redevelopment of the building. As of mid-October, we know that the city doesn’t yet have a plan for a community conversation about the future of Memorial Auditorium. So, the future of 242 Main is unwritten.
The city could preserve 242, the space, if it wanted to. If what 242 stood for when it was built mattered then and matters now, and if its historic meaning is valued, and if Burlington having something unique and purposeful for its younger citizens to benefit from as they learn important lessons about being self-confident, having a voice, recognizing they’re part of a community, participating in art – if the city valued any of that, this public conversation could have a very optimistic and persevering personality. When the city wants to build a marina, it builds a marina. When the city wants to build a skatepark, it builds a world class skatepark. All the city has to do is want to preserve a cinderblock hall with more historic and cultural relevancy than anything else it’s built in the last thirty years.
That RFP could include the expectation that the 242 space be preserved as a cultural heritage contributor to Burlington’s identity; as a rare and necessary opportunity for youth, many from backgrounds that led to 242 being a critically important positive formative experience. It’s possible, if not likely, that the historic south and east facades of Memorial will have to be preserved anyway. Saving 242 inside a ‘superblock’ development that extends down the hill a block beyond Memorial’s foundations would be stupidly simple. The city could choose to value art, youth, and history enough to include them while they expand commerce, housing, and revenue through the redevelopment of Memorial. There’s no reason they would choose not to, beyond preferring political expediency over deeply-felt community values that have improved the lives of Burlington kids for 30 years.
Every regional commercial property developer — and UVM, in talks with the city about building a sports arena on the Memorial site — ought to know they could support some of Burlington’s most important values by preserving the 242 space. They could and should value and play an angel’s role in its history and its future, where 242 is sustained for even more generations to know and love and be better people because it exists.
I hope Mayor Weinberger, his staff, and city councilors understand that they are poised to avoid unnecessary tragedy and a stain on Burlington that takes away from its personality as a creative, compassionate, inclusive, community-minded city. I’d like to think it’s a choice they haven’t made already, and that the door is open for every one of us to still matter to 242 and its future. The city could surprise us by loving what we love: Respect and mutual support for one another; awe for the history we built together; the legacy of generations made stronger and wiser by having this place of their own.
Photo at top: Baltimore feminist hardcore group War On Women perform at 242 Main in 2014. Photos by James Lockridge.
Thank you WCAX and reporter Alex Apple for the conversation and July 26 news segment about Memorial Auditorium and 242 Main.
Thank you, also, to Louis Mannie Lionni for publishing this post in 05401 PLUS, a noncommercial magazine with a mission to “synthesize the problematics of utility and beauty in the Lake Champlain bio-region.”