Film chronicles culture of Brattleboro parking lot

01/02/09 6:34AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) The Harmony Parking lot in Brattleboro is an accidental public meeting place.

Located behind Brattleboro's red brick downtown, the town-owned parking area is ringed with the back doors of stores and cafes.

It's full of shoppers and tourists getting in and out of their cars.

But since the 1960s it's been something of a hangout. Young people express their differences and the whole town is their audience.

Writer Theresa Maggio spent a year and a half capturing the life and culture of the Harmony Lot with her camera.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.

(Movie Voice) It's time for a Harmony Singalong, Kids)

(Keese) For her Harmony Lot movie, Maggio captured philosophical discussions, musical jams, people doing handstands on skateboards. She captured people making art on a big chalkboard attached to the backside of the old Common Ground Restaurant.

(Sound of Pillow fight!)

(Keese) She ever captured a pillow fight!

(Sound of pillow fight and music)

(Keese) To Maggio's surprise, many of the lot's regulars opened up to her.

(Bigelow) I would call this parking lot the very heart of Brattleboro.

(Keese) Ian Bigelow, a former chef, takes in broken bikes and fixes them to give away to people who need them. He sets up shop on the lot with his tools every Thursday in good weather.

(Maggio) And you don't charge anybody? (Bigelow) No, that's part of the point, because sharing and sharing knowledge and giving people good service....I do it because I believe in it, and it kind of just needs to be done.

(Keese) Grammy winning poet and musician Wyn Cooper, who lives in Halifax, even wrote a poem called Harmony Lot. And it's in the movie too.

(Cooper) And the way they stare passers by

Blends reptile with bird, spleen with wonder,

Your past with their present to you.

(Keese) At times the crowds of oddly dressed hangers-on have been off-putting to people using the lot for more mundane purposes.

While Maggio was working on the video, the lot went through a period of crisis.   

(Maggio) For a while people said that they felt unsafe in the Harmony parking lot because there had been fights there, and there were some characters that scared them.

(Keese) Citizen complaints led to the formation of a Harmony Lot Neighborhood Association. At the meeting they discussed what they liked and didn't like about the lot.  And while many complained, many said they saw the Lot as a symbol of Brattleboro's open-minded vitality.

Some adult supporters went even further.

(Maggio) And they did things like they would have sit outs on Thursday and Friday and Saturday nights in the spring and summer. They would bring chairs down or sit out on the steps and talk to each other just so people would know, this was their space, this was their back yard. Bob Vignes put together a website for the parking lot. It's probably the only parking lot in the world with it's own website, it's an interactive website so that people could talk to each other on the website.

(Keese) People started cleaning up trash. A mural project was started. An older woman whose apartment overlooks the lot started a garden.

(Maggio) A lot of them grew up hanging out in the same lot as their kids are hanging out in now.

(Keese) The generational clashes at the lot haven't gone entirely away, and maybe they never will. But Maggio says Brattleboro is a one-of-a-kind town that values free speech, and art and it's one- of-a-kind parking lot. She hopes that tradition continues.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

(Outro) "Harmony Lot," the movie, premiered this month at Brattleboro's Latchis Theater, and all four showings were sold out.

 Photo: Theresea Maggio

Related Links

Harmony Neighborhood Association Theresa Maggio Harmony Parking Lot photo gallery
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