Stay Weird, Beacon Hill

When I walked by in July, the imperial Storm Troopers stood defiantly atop the spongy, green terrain of their window box. Each one clutched plastic white spears—little sticks topped with red, white, and blue styrofoam stars. They were those cocktail accessories, the kind you use to stake cheese cubes and strawberries. The Storm Troopers sported festive “vests” in the form of a white star surrounded by vibrant blue paint while just below was a natty cummerbund of sorts made up of thin red stripes. Star stickers decorated like the American flag arced jubilantly above the crew. Just barely visible on the tuft of grass in front of the figures was a row of small, plastic soccer balls. There was a lot going on here.

Death Star democracy!

A month later I happened upon the same window box to find the scene changed. The stoic and often embarrassingly inept (at least when it came to wasting someone with a blaster at less than three feet) minions of the Star Wars’ Evil Empire had moved on from their flirtation (or was it a bold act of resistance!) with democracy. Now they were proudly wearing Hawaiian leis and adorable, kicky grass skirts complete with tiny fabric flowers circling their waists. The window box was decked out in its own tiki-festive wear: riff-raff fringe, the kind that dangles from the rim of umbrellas at tropical resorts, hung down from the edge of the box. Brightly colored fabric flowers in each color of the rainbow were pinned to the riff-raff as if tucked into the hair of an island girl.

I stopped and snapped a few photos, smiling at the sense I couldn’t begin to make of the scene. Had PRIDE finally come to the Death Star? Maybe the Troopers had enough of the Emperor’s “dark side” nonsense and decided to Moulin Rouge their corner of that very far away galaxy. The whole Grease 2 “Rock a Hula Luau” vibe added a nice, nostalgic touch. Who are you, glorious weirdos, I thought as I stared up at the plastic brigade of, apparently, jolly bastards, putting on figurine theater here, in Beacon Hill—one of Boston’s oldest, historic, idyllic, and stuffiest neighborhoods.

If Beacon Hill were a person it would be Frasier Crane from the sitcom of the same name. Gas lights (still lit by actual gas lines) loiter up and down the gently sloped streets, looking like they were spirited out of Mary Poppins’ London. Cobblestone alleyways spider off of the streets, hiding colorful doors and walls tapestry over in vines and other creeping greenery. The neighborhoods treasure trove lies in its stately, beautiful brownstones and modest estates dating back to the 1700s that shoulder against one another like diplomats awaiting presentation to the head of state. The Hill is quaint, luxurious, and puritanical in its insistence on maintaining its look, style, and historical character.

In 2014 there was considerable hand-wringing on the part of The Beacon Hill Architectural Commission when the city proposed building accessible ramps and curb cuts to accommodate individuals with disabilities. You have not experienced the true depths of your own wrath until you’ve tried to power a wheelchair over lopsided pavement already pitched at a 35-degree angle littered with busted and missing bricks.

But…but…sputtered Frasier Crane, I sympathize (not really), I do truly. But it’s simply untenable. Unacceptable, you see. A lumpy, unslightly, plastic (wretching noise) strip affixed to a cobble stone cut out on the edge of a street? How dare you, sir or madam!  Very not at all 1780s. This conversation—which was really not a conversation at all, but a matter of stating the obvious that all people have a right to visit and live in this insanely expensive neighborhood without additional hardship or risk of bodily injury—dragged on for four years.

Finally, Boston was all: “Hey Beacon Hill, we’re gonna sue your wicked fancy ass, only not like it’s 1780, aight? But, like, it’s the twenty-first-frickin-century, which is to say expensive and painful style, aight?”

And Frasier Crane was all: “You make some valid points, old chap. Capital!” The city worked out an agreement to implement “the use of less concrete and more brick in upgraded ramps where feasible” and agreed to entertain proposals for “non-standard ramp designs” at some of the more historical locations in the neighborhood. I can only assume that Frasier and the rest of the Hill elite prefer these “non-standard ramp designs” be made with the bones and hair of their enemies.

I only saw the mask of Beacon Hill slip once. One day in the spring I happened to be in the area on a sweet, sunny Friday morning, which unbeknownst to me was also trash day in Beacon Hill. What could be less Colonial-era than those monstrous green and blue plastic collection bins? Nothing. That’s why residents are instructed to tightly bag (emphasized, underscore) their garbage and neatly (emphasized, underscore) pile it close to the curb. Walking up and down the picturesque streets crowded with stinking, leaking, dangerously bloated garbage bags—sidewalk adornments that only Oscar the Grouch could love—was one of the more unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had in the city. There was much less lingering to take pictures or read the historical plaques outside of buildings on that day. I see you Frasier Crane without your smug sweater vest. I see you in that shaggy bathrobe and shower cap.

Real people (I’m almost sure) live in Beacon Hill—families, elderly, college students, young and less-young professionals, celebrities, public figures—and they accept the conformity that accompanies the experience of living in the apartment below the one that Sylvia Path and Ted Hughes lived in in 1958. Membership has its privileges even as it has its constraints. They resign themselves to lobbying the Beacon Hill commission to approve their choice of paint sample anytime they might want something touched up. They toe the line with the tasteful, artful decore that adorns stoops and entry facades from season to season: holly wreathes and pine bows in the winter, pots of pansies in the spring, pumpkins and portly mums in the fall.

But every so often, they also rebel. They leak their politics and sense of humor. They break the fourth wall of the neighborhood’s sound stage perfection to wink at the any-old-regular person, like me, standing outside their stoop, squinting up at their curtained windows, imagining herself into a life, into a self, really, that is better and shinier than her own (and of course is not at all). Because maybe we all want to stand out as much as we want to belong. They arrange a goofy collection of pop culture action figures in a window box that quietly pulses a signal like a blinking light on a control panel consul, another kind of beacon on the hill.  

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Sheila C. Moeschen I am a writer from Boston. Visit sheilamoeschen.com for more.

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