Just a few months ago, Brian Bennett and Jim Soltis got a knock at the door to their Bunker Hill Street home.
In front of their home lies a once sad and lonely tree pit that over the last 15 years has become a community attraction – decorated for each seasons and the hottest spot going to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill Parade each year.
But on that day, it was a woman from the neighborhood who simply wanted to thank them for their blockbuster Christmas display, which this year because of COVID-19 extended to the foyer of their building and included trees and every sort of Christmas and winter decoration they could squeeze into the small space on the sidewalk.
“She asked if she could come into the foyer and I let her in and she handed me a ‘Thank You’ note,” said Bennett. “She said she simply wanted to stop by and thank us for the decorations. Her eyes teared up and she said it had been such an awful year for all of us. She said she had wondered if Christmas would even come. She said she just had needed to see the decorations, the trees and the lights. It had brought hope to her. We think what we’re doing is so small, but you never know what an impact you have on people’s lives. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Added Soltis, “I think we felt like everybody else. We wanted to have something that felt normal and uplifted everyone. It’s good to let people know that hope didn’t stop.”
And neither do the decorations – especially during the pandemic, when everyone seems to be taking stock in the little things like an elaborately decorated tree pit much more so than before.
Bennett and Soltis just removed their winter decorations this month, and are in the process of getting their little tree pit seasonal staple up for the spring. They decorate on a set schedule now, going from Christmas to Spring to Bunker Hill Day to July 4th to Fall to Halloween and then back to winter. In the basement, they have tubs full of different décor in their basement that rotates from year to year and season to season – providing a little patch of fun on what was once a sad spot.
They moved to Bunker Hill Street in 2005, they said, and found an area that was nowhere near as polished as it is now. Outside was the tree pit, hosting the same little tree that was nearly dead and clearly abused.
“It was desolate and there were broken bottles around it and trash and dog mess,” said Soltis.
“We had a neighbor who went out and planted some flowers around it and it didn’t look bad,” said Bennett. “We put a box around it and then some more flowers. It started with just a few flowers and then with all the kids at the development across the street, we did some Halloween stuff and the kids loved it and so we moved on to Christmas.”
In the first year, there was the usual disbelief that no one destroyed it. But aside from a few minor incidents, people in the area have adopted rather than destroyed the little landmark.
“No one believed it that people were leaving it alone and not bothering all the things we were putting up,” said Bennett. “We had a couple minor incidents and stuff, but for the most part people here have come to adopt it as their own…You’ll see people leave their own little decorations – like extra flags or snowmen or a Halloween treat. It’s become a sacred part of the community.”
Said Soltis, “This has been going on for 15 years, and so by now you have kids in this neighborhood that have grown up seeing it and appreciating it. It’s become their own thing. The pre-school down the street comes up and takes pictures in front of it with the kids. We even have tourists now because of the Monument that come by and stop to take photos. You can find it all over Facebook.”
And of course, Soltis and Bennett enjoy planning it out and putting up the décor as well. It’s a fun way to catch up with, or meet, other neighbors. Everyone takes ownership of it and it’s also a rallying point on a block that right now is a little tunnel-like.
Soltis – who owns the dog-walking service Paws & Claws of Charlestown – said he can see the idea of what they did has spread up Bunker Hill Street to other corners, as well as to other parts of the Town.
“I walk all around Town and see what people are doing and people are really taking more pride and joy in their areas,” he said. “There’s not a lot of space here, so you do what you can with every little area.”
So it is, after 15 years of brightening up a little tree pit outside their home, the effort during the pandemic didn’t let up, and in fact might have gotten bigger.