Call it an anti-House Beautiful. Or the evil twin of Architectural Digest.
For the past four months Life on Capitol Hill, a small monthly neighborhood paper that covers goings-on along the funky streets south of 20th Avenue and east of Broadway, has devoted a half-page in each paper to "Eyesores of the Month," a photographic collection of what are supposed to be some of the most offensive buildings in the neighborhood.
Stuart MacPhail, Life on Capitol Hill's publisher and owner, says the feature has proven remarkably popular. Adds Brad Cameron, housing committee chairman of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, which inserts a newsletter in the privately owned newspaper: "It's a way of bringing publicity to an eyesore."
Still, try telling that to the people whose homes have appeared in the paper under the banner "Eyesores of the Month." People like Darby McNeal, for instance, whose Milwaukee Street house won December's honors.
"Did it have an effect?" she says indignantly. "Hell, no. I thought the picture of my house was very nice, frankly.
"Besides," she complains, "the paper doesn't consider whether people can afford it, whether people are too old, whether they're ill. The neighbors don't care about that, either. They just want everybody to look the same."
The paper's editor, Rory Seeber, willingly concedes that the selection method is not exactly scientific. Honorees are culled from anonymous letters or from phone calls. The paper then snaps a picture and prints it.
"It's more of a photo essay than us digging real deep," Seeber explains. That said, the paper occasionally includes excerpts from complaining letters--which have been known to be a tad snide.
"Here is a nomination for the neighborhood eyesore," begins one. "A quick drive-by will convince you. Be sure to check out the backyard, too. One note: Don't be frightened by Herman or the rest of the Munster family (not their real names). They spend most of their time inside, unless they're working in the alley on one of their five old dilapidated vehicles, which line the street."
It's unclear whether the paper's nose-thumbing is doing anything other than giving satisfaction to some of the tidier residents of Capitol Hill. Just ask James Kinch, whose Madison Street bungalow was September's Eyesore of the Month. His house, a neighbor had complained to Life on Capitol Hill, was "unsightly and unkept."
"Was I in there?" he asks after a long pause. "I was never told of it."
Even the newspaper's one possible success story, Peter's Chinese Cafe on 12th Avenue, which earned the October Eyesore award for "desperately need[ing] a paint job and some landscaping," may have been coincidental. Cameron notes that two months later the restaurant had a new coat of paint.
Peter Chan, who owns the cafe, was in Hong Kong last week. But a worker there says Chan had been considering painting the building for a while. Even editor Seeber concedes that "we can't take credit for it. For all I know they were going to paint it anyway."
While some of the eyesores admittedly could use a talented handyman, the paper--and Capitol Hill residents--at times appear to be persnickety. For instance, according to the December feature, McNeal's Milwaukee Street house was "a clear winner simply because one can't clearly see the house. The front yard...is completely overgrown with unpruned shrubs and bushes."
Exactly, responds McNeal. "What I'm doing is deliberate," she explains. "It's my personal taste. If other people don't like it, that's their taste."
Janette Bernstein, owner of two Harrison Street houses that won mention in October for "unkept and unmanicured front yards on blocks where other homeowners took the time to mow their lawns and prune the shrubs," agrees that her neighbors seem finicky. "Did you drive by my properties?" she asks. "They didn't look too bad, did they?"
She adds: "We had just spent $1,500 on the yard when it was attacked. That's a lot of money to spend on a yard. We do the best we can. Between new kitchens and new roofs it gets expensive."
That brings up another sore point from September's Eyesore winner. "I'm working on it," says Kinch, a computer consultant for small businesses. "But I've been out of work for a while. I know I've got to get it done. I own the house, so it's working against me--it's only destroying the property value of the house. I'll get it done soon. But being the Eyesore of the Month doesn't make any difference: I don't have the money."
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Class issues aside, McNeal notes that the paper's anonymous nomination process also has the potential to tempt neighborhood gamesmanship. "I have a new roof that cost me close to $8,000, and I repainted my house just two years ago," she says. Nevertheless, she adds, "I have neighbors who have made it their personal vendetta to change my vegetation.
"They have tried time and time again to do something about my vegetation. But I'm not breaking any law. My taste is different. I grew up on a farm, I lived in the wilderness. I like nature the way it is. I don't want my property to look like theirs."
In fact, she points out, "they decorate with lots of plastic and tons of artificial decoration, which I find offensive. And there's no law against that. They're trying to power-trip me."
Indeed, McNeal concludes, the whole eyesore exercise seems too much like an attempt to make her and her co-winners behave exactly like everyone else. "It's based on a middle-class concept and middle-class pressures," she complains. "And some of us don't want to be middle class.
"Talk about a nation of sheep. I mean, baaa.