We’re a city that has a long-valued sense of community, in which our successes and tragedies are shared and our human condition informs our decisions. While the city has transformed continuously there has been a constant recognition that as a people, we aspire to be our best selves.

In the face of war — in sending our family members toward danger on other shores over a dark horizon where not even their silhouette can be held in sight with tenderness, we’ve found ourselves resolutely persevere. In these circumstances, the city has drawn even more closely together, with compassion, hope, and empathy for one another.

We try to be the best neighbors; the best citizens. We strive to serve our future generations, who are meant to build on our legacy and improve on our superlative efforts to reflect these ideals during our brief lives.

Our history as people of this character led in the 1920s to the construction of Memorial Auditorium, erected to honor those who served in the armed forces of our country. John L. Southwick, Editor-In-Chief of the Burlington Free Press, wrote in 1925, that Memorial Auditorium would commemorate our military leaders, “as well as the names of all our soldiers in the different wars, including the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Burlington boys in khaki in the World War.” These wars and those that followed remind Burlington that shared community spaces are critical for bringing people together, in good times and especially during times that test our composure, wellbeing, and hearts.

Mayor Dr. Clarence Beecher said presciently at the 1928 grand opening ceremony, “If the people will insist that the Memorial Auditorium be kept always at its best it will ever be a real tribute to those living and dead who served their country well. If our citizens will use the building as their own and make it serve the needs of community, the State and even the Nation, it will be a blessing to Burlington.” Memorial Auditorium has stood in memory of our soldiers and our common values for nearly 100 years and honored them with every use — our farmer’s market, basketball games, graduations, pottery studios, maker spaces, concerts, educational programs, political assemblies, trade shows, and every version of coming together as a people to ‘use the building as our own.’ The teen center in Memorial Auditorium earned Burlington a place in our nation’s cultural history.

We’ve come recently to recognize that as a city we’ve also neglected the trust we inherited and — in deferring maintenance and abandoning oversight — allowed Memorial Auditorium to become unsafe and unusable. The lack of responsibility is so objectively apparent, even a current city councilor acknowledged, “We’ve been bad landlords.” Memorial Auditorium — Burlington’s principle tribute to those who stepped toward harm and ultimate self-sacrifice in uniformed service on behalf of every one of us — was intended to serve a public which was trusted without unreasonable burden to simply maintain and make use of it, has become more a symbol of our failure rather than our highest principles.

The disrepair of Memorial Auditorium is our city’s greatest shame, and one that as a people we should rise to and make right, because repairing Memorial Auditorium and making use of it again — to bring us together as a community with values we live up to — is how we would, in 2017, be our best selves.

James Lockridge directs Big Heavy World, a volunteer-run music office, and is a champion for public process and the preservation of 242 Main, Burlington’s historic teen center, save242main.com. This piece draws from research by Emma Rose Haggerty published at http://www.uvm.edu/~hp206/2016/pages/haggerty/default.html Photo of 1940s recruiting service at Memorial Auditorium is courtesy Special Collections, University of Vermont Libraries, (edited with texture and the superimposed flag image).

Update: Sending thanks to VT Digger and True North Reports for publishing this commentary.

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