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COLUMN: Aesthetic Versus Function

Edge of Town

Metro Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 22:02

In high school, I was known to wear the same thing every day. Jeans or shorts, a t-shirt, and my black Under Armor sneakers—what I called “my uniform.” Functionality was consistently my concern. Those clothes made me comfortable, and it was just easier for me to stick to a routine.

I compromised very little for aesthetic, and ended up looking a little oafish for most of my high school career. Upon entering college, however, I recognized the need to sacrifice some comfort for appearance.

Beacon Hill, one of Boston’s most iconic neighborhoods, currently finds itself in a similar battle between functionality and aesthetic, though in the opposite direction.

In December, the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission rejected a city proposal to install 259 pedestrian ramps, which, according to The Boston Globe, would bring the city into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This demand for modern functionality, the commission argued, threatens Beacon Hill’s traditionally colonial aesthetic, and the city should consider revising the proposal so as to disturb the neighborhood’s appearance as little as possible—granite ramps instead of concrete ones, tactile strips in gray instead of the more noticeable yellow. The city responded that using granite is not economically viable.

While other historic districts in Boston, such as Bay Village, have agreed to similar proposals except with brick-red warning strips, Beacon Hill is still holding out.

It is, of course, a shame to see the beauty of a city disappear in the face of modernity. There is something especially great about seeing the Prudential Tower while walking down residential streets in the Back Bay, but there is something daunting about it as well.

The greater shame, however, is marginalizing Boston’s disabled in one of the city’s most visually spectacular neighborhoods. Why, after all, should a man who has struggled with a physical disability his entire life struggle still more when he wishes to take a stroll through Beacon Hill?

In fairness, it would be imprudent to disregard the concern of Beacon Hill’s residents entirely—the city would be remiss to alter the neighborhood cheaply if it could afford to do it in a more expensive, but less visually destructive way.

Assuming that the use of granite instead of plastic is too expensive, however, the residents of Beacon Hill ought to consider their less fortunate neighbors. Even a blind man—with no visual understanding of the neighborhood’s aesthetic—should be able to walk down a given street without fear of harming himself if the atmosphere pleases him or if the route is convenient.

Despite its unique colonial character, Boston cannot remain stuck in the past. This city has a duty to all of its citizens, and no neighborhood—regardless of how historically significant it may be—should stand in the way of progress unless tradition is too severely threatened. Surely, the residents of Beacon Hill will recognize this, especially if they are able to establish compromises similar to those obtained by other historical neighborhoods.

I am certainly not radical. Even my attempt to change my own aesthetic—from the consistent and comfortable clothes of my high school life to a more inclusive style—has been relatively conservative. While I have upped the ante a bit, many of my friends still joke that all I wear is blue.

If my metaphor has not yet been obvious enough, I say this to the residents of Beacon Hill—the clothes one wore in high school may have been comfortable and reassuring, but it is important to step outside one’s comfort.

As I made the necessary sacrifice of functionality for aesthetics, Beacon Hill should be able to sacrifice some small measure of its beauty for the sake of the disabled population’s greater comfort.

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