The City of Winooski is turning 100 years old in March. Burlington’s small yet mighty neighbor to the north might cover a mere 1.4 square miles, but it packs a punch, ranking number one in population density for northern New England and holding the distinction as the most diverse area in Vermont. For over a century, this stand-out city has attracted people from across the globe who come in search of opportunity and a better life, shaping the community’s rich, multicultural character. Winooski, which means onion, or leek, in Abenaki, is situated on the falls of the Winooski River that once powered the textile mills and the industry that defined the city for generations. While it has seen ebbs and flows of prosperity, several decades of revitalization have prompted economic growth and a renewed interest in the Onion City.
Today, Winooski’s lively downtown, burgeoning restaurant and bar scene, and creative, international buzz have dubbed it the Brooklyn of Burlington. But the comparison irks some locals, along with the myth that the vitality and diversity of the city are somehow new. With the centennial around the corner, this is the perfect occasion to set the record straight and highlight how Winooski’s vibrant present reflects its dynamic past, making the city so unique.
TODAY & YESTERDAY
The Winooski Bridge is the perfect vantage point for viewing downtown. One can watch the steel river roll west towards Lake Champlain, and take in the prominent brick facades of the historic Champlain and Woolen Mills flanking the bridge. This critical connector between Burlington and Winooski feeds into the rotary, the main thoroughfare humming with the constant flow of traffic. Eclectic shops, cafés, restaurants, and bars edge the rotary capped by the iconic Winooski Block on the north. At the heart of it all sits Rotary Park, a public green space where several events are held each year. The annual Waking Windows music festival builds its main stage in the rotary every May, injecting Winooski with an extra dose of energy. Since it started in 2011, Waking Windows has grown along with the city from a small, underground event to a multi-venue happening vaunted for its edgy lineup of music and art.
THE HERITAGE MILL MUSEUM & NEW AMERICANS
Winooski, aptly called Vermont’s City of Opportunity, has long been a draw for immigrants looking to build a new life. In the early 19th century, it was nicknamed “Little Canada” because scores of French Canadians came to work in the mills. “There were so many people speaking French in the city,” says Perron, “that stores in downtown Winooski would advertise [for] bilingual help.” Workers from abroad continued to flock to the city; the Irish came in the 1840s with the building of the railroad, and from the Civil War into the early 1900s, a wave of immigration brought a “panorama of immigrants,” says Perron. Syrians, Lebanese, Armenian, Polish, and Italians made Winooski their home. In the last forty years, the city’s proximity to Burlington has made it a critical location for refugee resettlement. Cambodians, Vietnamese, Bhutanese, Iraqis, Sudanese, and many more have found a place where their families can settle, assimilate, and be welcomed.
LOCAL FLAVORS & THE BEVIE
That influx of immigration has infused the local dining scene with a diverse range of international flavors. Some newcomers just beyond the rotary include Morning Light Bakery on East Allen Street, which opened in 2019, specializing in Hong Kong–style buns. Their menu of boba teas make a tasty accompaniment to the from-scratch pastries. If you’re looking for a proper lunch or dinner, the Fusion Café has a variety of authentic dishes from Nepal, Vietnam, India and more. Bhola Dhaurali opened the establishment in October of 2021. Born in Bhutan, raised in Nepal, Dhaurali moved to the U.S. in 2009 and brings his love for different cuisines to the table. He believes that a fusion concept fits the community well. “Winooski is growing bigger,” says Dhaurali. “It’s a small city with a lot of opportunities to grow the business.”
Before Prohibition was enacted on a national level, Vermont had its own prohibition. Towns had the option to vote on whether or not to serve alcohol. Can you guess where Winooski stood on the matter? Aye. Downtown bars became a magnet for the thirsty, feisty, and down-and-out. Enlisted soldiers camped at Fort Ethan Allen would descend on nearby Winooski looking to blow off steam with a couple of drinks. “That added a lot of color to the community,” says Perron, “There is this dichotomy in the 20th century of Winooski history—of the very highest immigrant story with these families who are God-fearing and trying to do their best for their families . . . And then there are these soldiers who are coming into downtown Winooski trying to find the red-light district.”
Owner Jen Swiatek took over the business from her parents in 2003, having worked there since she was 15. “Every week, I will see customers who have been coming in for decades who say, ‘Say hi to your mom and dad for me,’ even though my folks have been retired for close to twenty years.” When asked about the community she grew up in, Swiatek reflects, “Winooski itself is a treasure chest of gems, and its gems are people. We are small enough to recognize and appreciate each other. It feels like an extended home on every block.”