Burlington: 'People Are Going Places'

By Cristina Quinn

Nov. 14, 2011

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BURLINGTON — When people think of Burlington, often the first thing that comes to mind is the mall and Route 128. Not everyone knows that beyond the shopping and offices it’s a close-knit community of just under 25,000 residents. It feels plausible that everyone might know each other, whether it's through kids’ sporting events or the town Recreation Department.

But what’s unique about this former agricultural town is that on any given weekday, the population jumps to 150,000, including shoppers, medical patients and workers. Fewer than one-third of the jobs in Burlington are held by people who actually live there.

The commercial corridor

Just off routes 3 and 128 are most of the companies that have made Burlington so well known. It’s the place many Kendall Square startups move to when they are ready to grow — IT and electronics, and medical equipment manufacturers. Add in the established Lahey Clinic and the 150-store mall and it’s easy to understand why the town supports such an influx of shoppers, patients and job commuters.

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Amol Joshi is one of them. A native of western India, Joshi embodies the immigrant’s version of the American Dream. He came to the US 27 years ago to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering. He worked his way through graduate school as a teaching assistant and by mopping the floors of the school’s cafeteria. 

“Having a great work ethic is a great part of American history. I think a lot of America was built on innovation but also work ethic,” Joshi said.

Joshi is now the executive director of sales for a software company headquartered in Burlington. He said the opportunity to transition from chemical engineering to sales is uniquely American.

“I think the opportunity the US offers is really [a] luxury — in the sense that if you want to reinvent yourself, you can do that. Nobody will frown upon you. If you take up a job mopping, nobody will frown upon you. It is not something that comes easily if you are working in other parts of the world,” Joshi said.

Opportunity remains at the heart of it.

To Joshi, the “American Dream is really about having the opportunity and the freedom to do what you really want as long as a) it’s ethical, b) it’s legal, and you do it with the responsibility to your stakeholders, which is your family, and the community that you live in.”

A hometown entrepreneur

LISTEN: Paula Salvucci explains why she chose the name "True North" for her coffeehouse.

Meanwhile, away from the high-tech corridor, another kind of opportunity is brewing in Burlington. In a strip mall on 3A is the True North coffee shop. Inside, owner Paula Salvucci greets her customers by their first names, as she whips up lattes and lines the pastry case with homemade muffins and cakes.

The Burlington native opened True North two years ago — when the economy was at its worst.

“I thought that, oh, by the time I open the shop the economy is going to be better. It’ll be just at a good time. I’ll find some space and maybe it’ll be a little bit less because the economy is not good right now, and once we’re ready to open, hopefully the economy will turn around,” Salvucci said.

Even though the economy remains sluggish and she often has to work seven days a week, Paula Salvucci said she’s living the American Dream.

“Being a homeowner, having a steady job and living a comfortable life” is the American Dream to Salvucci, and like Joshi, she said there’s no shortcut.

A successful "marriage"

While many Mass. cities and towns are struggling with foreclosures and local budget cuts, Burlington just spent $2 million on a turf field for its school, and every Burlington High School student received an iPad this year.

Commercial properties in Burlington pick up 60 percent of the tax levy. Town administrator Bob Mercier said the marriage of the large commercial sector and small residential community has been a successful one.

“It’s a key element as to what makes Burlington so successful in terms of a place that people want to live, people want to work. Clearly the commercial interest here in Burlington helps us do a lot of things that many communities cannot do,” Mercier said.

The biggest gripe among residents appears to be the traffic. But Mercier had a different take.

“I like traffic. I like people stuck in traffic. You know what that means to me? That means people are going places. They’re either going to work or going to shop,” Mercier said.

LISTEN: Is the American Dream still attainable in Burlington? Salvucci weighs in.

He said Burlington’s location and accessibility were the main appeal to businesses, and he emphasized the importance of being open to other industries.

“Burlington is perceived as a technology center. That continues to evolve. You need to be able to reinvent yourself and make yourself user-friendly to that next generation of — whatever the big hit’s going to be,” Mercier said.

Opportunity, hard work and reinvention for this once rural, agricultural town.

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