The following are my thoughts from a recent site visit to Beacon Hill for an assignment for the course “Digital Space and Place”.
As a commuter, I am not familiar with Boston aside from a few spots on Huntington or Massachusetts Ave. I know how to get to and from Northeastern. Otherwise, I surrender to the goliath that is Apple Maps. But on January 30, I ventured into the unknown (to me) neighborhood of Beacon Hill to complete a site visit. In order to immerse myself into the neighborhood, I first had to get there.
The transit system can be a bit daunting as I am bound to having my car in the city with me so I can make my way back to Connecticut by the end of each day. Therefore, I chose to look for street parking. Before I left my office, I printed a physical map of Beacon Hill from Google Maps (whilst having flashbacks to the early 2000s) and typed an address on Charles Street into my GPS. The street appeared busy and I assumed there would be some parking spots there.
After arriving at Beacon Hill, I realized that Charles Street had no spots available. After a few circles around the neighborhood, I was able to skillfully squeeze in between two cars near Hancock and Cambridge Street. I had spotted a “2 Hour Parking” sign just prior to the open spot and I somehow managed to parallel park better than I ever had before. But upon exiting my car, I saw just above was a sign that read “Resident Parking Only”. Defeated, I sat in my car for a few minutes defying the restriction to get my first glimpse of Beacon Hill. On first look, I assumed that the area was an expensive place to live. I had squeezed my Toyota between two luxury cars to park in the open spot. The parallel apartment buildings were brick, four stories high. The one-way street was relatively quiet, and the clean sidewalks were decorated with trimmed ferns on each side. As a woman pushed a stroller past my car, I could not hide my parking infraction any longer. I started my car and slyly left the resident-only spot. I left with the feeling of defeat forever attached to “Hancock Street”.
After a few more circles around the neighborhood, I finally spotted an open meter. I was able to park opposite a park (what I now realize was Boston Public Garden) on Beacon Street. A woman walked her dog into the park as a grandmother walked her granddaughter out. Originally, I had put the Charles Street Starbucks into my GPS. I had hoped this central location would act as a way to familiarize myself with the area. Being standardized, Starbucks would make Beacon Hill a little less foreign. I headed in that general direction, taking a left onto River Street (see image 1). The street was empty except for two small birds that flew by me and chirped. As I walked down the alley, I reminisced about living abroad during college. Similarly, while living in Florence for half a year, I would often find myself on unfamiliar roads made of brick or stone, hoping that my navigation skills would prove successful. As I continued past the brick apartment buildings, I felt as if this area of town was quite like Quebec City. There, old mixes with new. The old buildings, brick roads, and new shops blend together.
While alone on this street, I reflected on my drive to my parking spot. The neighborhood is very disorienting. The infinite one-way streets and small alleyways make driving in Beacon Hill a dangerous game for newcomers. The roads were covered in delivery trucks parked in the lane of traffic, making you weave through the roads, hoping that a pedestrian doesn’t pop into the many crosswalks when you can’t see. River Street was small and made me feel secure in its solitude. But I turned onto Mt. Vernon Street and immediately stepped onto Charles.
Charles Street, a one-way with three lanes, is quite busy. Small shops line the street, many being yoga studios, jewelry stores (the most common), and specialty shops. The road has a very “old” feel to it. Small terraces sit under apartment windows. On the few streets that I had been on, I passed many people enjoying the sunny, crisp day. Three women chatted outside of a store; several people were running in the nice weather; and the most common sight happened to be mothers pushing strollers. As I was walking onto Charles, I passed a metal sign that read “Charles Street Meeting House” (see image 2). With some quick research, I found that this was the site of a nineteenth century church (National Park Service). Again, mixing the old with the new. I spotted a unique Starbucks sign and entered.
I grabbed a window seat in the smallest Starbucks that I have ever been in. It appeared as though it was attempting to appear like a local coffee shop rather than the chain that it was a part of. While I sat and watched the passersby, I examined the opposite shops. Conversations began to form within the shop and I sketched what I saw across the street (see image 3). Two baristas began questioning the origins of two customers. The two men, one from London and the other from Ireland, discussed their careers as flight attendants and their two-day layover in Boston. They exchanged accent impressions with each other as a group of young students passed by. All of the exchanges and activity acted as reminders that this place, and particularly this neighborhood, is an integral part of a variety of people’s everyday lives. I had almost forgotten that I was in a busy city, as the quiet street remained calm in the midday sun.
I left Starbucks after about half an hour of people-watching. I turned onto Mt. Vernon Street and walked up toward the residential area (see image 4 and 5). As I walked up the hill, I passed ornate cast-iron fences (see image 6) and decorated front doors. I made the observation that there was an excessive amount of Christmas decorations on this street, well over a month after the holiday (see image 7, 8, and 9). The buildings act as a maze of brick, tall enough to make you feel trapped in the neighborhood. The uneven brick and stone on the sidewalks and cars lining each side of the street add to the experience. It was in this moment, after taking several photos of the exterior features, that my phone died, and I was left to rely on my printed map. But the quietness allowed me to truly take in the neighborhood and to orient myself based on the places that I had experienced over the afternoon. I made my way down Joy Street to connect back with Beacon. I passed some interesting landmarks: the American Meteorological Society with its bright blue door, Boston Common, and more. I made it back to my car, with time still left on my meter.
Driving home that day, I had one word on my mind: gentrification. The current housing and businesses located in Beacon Hill appear to target white, middle-class residents. While I am unfamiliar with the recent history of Beacon Hill, its history as a nineteenth century neighborhood for working class African Americans and Irish immigrants lays in the background of an expensive area to reside. The current image, including the aesthetic of the local coffee shops and the detailed facades, appeals to those who can afford luxury apartments and cars.
The built environment around me contained features that triggered memories from my past experience in various cities. Although I was not an insider in this neighborhood, familiar images allowed me to immerse myself in Beacon Hill. While the meaning I placed on the neighborhood was initially based on my memories and past sensory experiences, the interactions that I had and emotions that I felt allowed me to create my own meanings and “sense of place” (Hayden, 16). Below is the physical map I carried throughout Beacon Hill to document where I stopped and traversed during my visit.
Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995.
National Park Service. “Charles Street Meeting House”. Boston’s African American National Historic Site Massachusetts. Last updated: February 26, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/boaf/learn/historyculture/charles-street-meeting-house.htm.