Beacon Hill, one of the most beautiful, quaint, and upscale neighborhoods in Boston used to be a hot mess. First settled in 1630, the area was more like English countryside—pastures, orchards, and a scattering of estates—than than the cobble-stoned neighborhood of boutique shops, upscale bistros, and lavish brownstones and mansions it is now. In 1795 Boston purchased a chunk of the land from John Singleton Copley, a talented painter who had made mad bank for that time painting portraits of notable colonists, and built the statehouse, which formed a cornerstone of three distinct parts of the Beacon Hill district: the South Slope that connected with a cow path leading up from Boston Common and also owned by Copley who actively raised cows on that part of his property (subtext: MANURE. Sub-subtext: not a great place to be in August); the North Slope, which was built on marshy landfill, and the Flat of the Hill, a section where tradesmen like shoemakers and tailors set up shop. From its earliest growing pains, Beacon Hill was largely about the 17th and 18th century one-percenters.
The South Slope became home to what was known as the Boston Brahmins. These were super richie-rich types who built elegant, free-standing mansions bucking the architectural of having adjoining, brick row houses. These new, one-off type mansions gave people the chance to really flaunt their wealth and tart them up with elements and touches borrowed from the popular Greek revivalism trend. Regal columns, tall, stately windows, balconies, fences, and gates with ornate scrollwork built into the design, and lush courtyard gardens tucked away inside properties were all markers of this emerging class of wealth, power, and lineage. Fancy.
Take a stroll a few blocks away on a lovely spring day in 1800 and the vibe was markedly different. Had the phrase “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” been available at the time, it would have passed through the lips of many Bostonians upon stepping into the area known as the North Slope. Here houses were small, cramped and built from simple wood or brick. Streets and alleyways meandered, seeming incomprehensible compared to the neat, gridded layout of the South Slope just yonder. Adding to this disjunction was the make-up of the North Slope: African-Americans, sailors, and Eastern and Southern European immigrants, basically the hard-working, often “have nots” responsible for running the engines that benefitted affluent and middle-class white citizens. It didn’t help that the North Slope had already earned a notorious reputation in the 1700s from containing places of ill-repute where “fringe activities” took place (subtext: naughty business) that lead British soldiers to nick-name the area “Mount Whoredom.” (subtext: no subtext needed).
None of this is palpable today, centuries later, when you step foot onto the narrow, brick sidewalks that jog along trendy boutiques and upscale eateries. You would never know it passing by the skinny lamp posts, reminiscent of the gas lamps that lit the area decades prior, some of them tilted a little from the lift of frost heaves in the pavement as if in a genteel bow. There’s nothing to suggest the hill wasn’t always this idyllic enclave carved out from the city as you take in the beautiful dwellings with their small doors and intricately carved knockers, set back into neatly arched frames, doors like the kind found on a Hobbit’s house—portals to the past, architectural breadcrumbs leading back to another version of the city.
Beacon Hill is, by all accounts, achingly picturesque and the city is proud of this neighborhood. Well-groomed courtyards are still only glimpsed through tall, iron gates. Tasteful wreathes with red bows, the shade of a classic Camaro, hang on doors and sprays of evergreens spill over window boxes during the holidays. Tiny white lights climb through trees. In the spring, cheerful pansies replace the evergreens in the window boxes; in the fall, portly mums squat on stoops next to bright, orange pumpkins right on schedule. There is a quiet, soothing order that sings here that is like a siren call, lulling us into forgetting what the gifts of contradictions, struggle, and messy politics yield.
Outside many of the residences, small iron devices resembling tiny goal posts are bolted onto stone steps or brick sidewalks. People used these to scrape the mud, dirt, and horse muck from their boots before entering the buildings. It’s easy to think of a sophisticated, white man vigorously sloughing the grime from his newly shined boots before entering his home or the home of one of his friends. It’s less easy to imagine a former slave doing the same as she gets ready to go into a Bible study or abolitionist meeting. But these two stories are written on the same place. Which do we more readily tell? Which do we allow to leech through?
The willfulness to whitewash history always startles me no matter how many times I encounter it, which is often. So much of what we call history, the facts and events we all learn as “true,” is built on a shaky foundation threatened by the erosive forces of pain, shame, ethical and more ambiguity. Beacon Hill is not much different. It smothers its history of racism and activism and class division in massive ivy-covered gates and rows of rows of silent, locked entryways. The real stories that chart our histories are the ones sticking out of the rubble that we’re eager to tidy up, to sweep away, to build over the way this neighborhood was eventually redeveloped to edge out those marginal communities that once were the source of its true wealth.
What we miss, what we never know, what we never allow ourselves to know comes at a higher price than we realize. We carry the habit of ignorance into our individual lives—Instagramming our “wins,” curating every aspect of our lives, rehearsing the “right” story to tell, to let loose in the world. In this respect, we are, each and every one of us, a Brahmin mansion—a rosy glow reflected in our windows that sighs happiness and perfection blotting out the shadows that share the walls within.