When my then-husband and I lived in Beacon Hill in the early ’90s, we lived underground in an apartment I wryly referred to as the “Hobbit Hole.” In the past, I’ve described it thusly:
Our so-called “garden flat” was almost entirely underground: we had to crouch over to crawl through our own door. (Yes, the door is that short; yes, the ground is that sloped. In a sense, we lived under Beacon Hill in a humble little hobbit-hole.) The apartment was euphemistically termed a one bedroom, but really it was a studio apartment with a doorless, closet-less back room that technically couldn’t be counted as a bedroom. Our kitchen was in the front room, as was our shower: the shower was literally a closet that opened right into the living room. The only place in the apartment where you could close a door behind you was in the toilet: everything else was open.
More than a decade ago, living in a cramped, under-lit cubby-hole where “I felt perpetually crowded in an apartment that never had enough light,” I experienced Beacon Hill in particular and Boston in general as a lean and hungry place, somewhere I lived curled within myself like a seed that didn’t know which way to strive toward the light.
At yesterday’s Beacon Hill Art Walk, there was no question about light: it could be found up, up, UP in the sunny blue sky that shone through crevice-like courtyards where paintings, pottery, and other artful bits nestled in inviting nooks. I have to admit I spent as much time ogling the maze-like spaces we walked through–narrow alleys, private courtyards, and dark passages–as I did admiring art. When I lived all-but-under Beacon Hill, I fantasized about the folks who lived above ground, with access to sunlight and space: a horizontally defined Other Half who lived their lives in storied floors (first, second, third) while I existed, potato-like, underground. Yesterday, in the name of art, I got a glimpse at how that Other Half lives.
The tony townhouses of Beacon Hill are tightly crowded together, but they shelter a surprising amount of space behind and between them: a hidden maze of private alleys, secret courtyards, and cloistered gardens. Every spring, the Beacon Hill Garden Club offers a tour of the neighborhood’s hidden gardens: well-tended spots of green within brick and mortar borders. Although yesterday’s Art Walk didn’t venture into any entirely enclosed gardens, we did stroll down several alleys that are normally closed behind lock and key, accessible only to residents. For the sake of art, it seems, even the Other Half opens (some of) its doors.
If you live in a crowded urban environment, you need a quiet green space to call your own, and even our basement-level garden flat had a tiny, bricked rear patio where we could never manage to grow flowers. In retrospect, we should have abandoned our attempts to acquire a green thumb and grabbed a palette instead, painting flowers in a crowded corner where everything leafy and light-loving refused to grow. Art, I’ve learned, can bring a spot of sunshine to a corner previously crowded in shade.