Quite so…you see, but do not observe.
—Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia
The horror…the horror…here, that is satellite TV dishes on triple deckers. Four years ago, Boston Councilor Michael Flaherty led a failed attempt to regulate them out of sight. This year, Councilor Sal LaMattina is picking it up.
The former was an at-large Councilor, who lived in South Boston, and the latter is District 1 Councilor, from East Boston. Why the neighborhood citation one might ask? It because the tony areas, like Back Bay and Beacon Hill, have historic and architectural public committees with the power of law in practical effect to regulate the appearance of buildings.
In blue-collar areas such as Eastie and Southie, people can pretty much act like they own their homes or rent them. They can paint the shutters, if they have them, any color, not a provable previous shade. They can, ahem, let those dish companies, such as DirectTV and DishNetwork, hang the gray parabolas on the sides of the buildings. That just wouldn’t do in Louisburg Square.
(The image here I took in Hyde Park is fairly typical of low-density dish placement. Look through the wires to find the dish. More on the wires follows. )
There are several bits of unintentional humor here. These include:
- Classism: Poorer folk tend to go more commonly for dishes, as they are cheaper to have installed and to rent than cable or DSL.
- Irresponsibility: Painted by some as bad renters who leave an apartment without paying for the company to remove the dish, thus accruing a veritable totem of dishes on the side of a triple decker. Another way to look at this is that the installing company owns the dish and should have to remove any orphans.
- Aesthetics: The little gray cones are much less ugly than the myriad of phone, cable and electrical lines on poles nearly everywhere in Boston. They are also very much less jarring and anti-good-architecture than the rooftop TV antennae that dominated American from the 1950s until a few years ago.
The arguments in Council run along the lines of these dishes are a blight, an eyesore. LaMattina chairs the Council’s task force on these. He told the Herald, “We’ve been waiting for this plan for too long. We want answers. We want solutions. The people of Boston deserve better. All the people of Boston.”
In a town where neighborhood pride and competitiveness abound, we see where this came from and where it can go.
These dishes are not a problem for rich folk. In a poor, high-rental area though, a duplex triple decker might be, well, decked out. Six units may each have a dish, likely on the same side of the building for best line-of-sight to the satellites. If more than one vendor is there and people leave without arranging for dish removal (and the vendors are not required to clear them), a building might have 8, 10 or more dishes eventually.
As the Council found four years ago, there is that little problem of the federal government. Municipalities can’t simply prohibit one type of telecommunications supplier without a compelling justification, particularly if an restriction interferes with reception. “Ewww. I don’t like how it looks!” doesn’t seem to fit that requirement.
Short-term, we can see if LaMatinna’s version of the task force is cleverer than the previous one. To me, it makes sense to mandate that the installer have an obligation to record its dishes and remove those no longer under contract. That would at least keep the number down.
However, there is what he calls the Satellite Trade Association. Precisely, that is the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association, with headquarters in D.C. Our local guy says he is demanding an action plan from them for dealing with the clutter. How exercised they get from 400 miles away remains to be seen. I have to wonder whether the traditional Boston persuasion of speaking directly to the few vendors here and convincing them they’re better off accommodating City Hall might be the quick and lasting fix.
Meanwhile though, when you are about next look up. It works best if you’re not driving. Look at the poles and the huge, very ugly knots of cables and wires. Now look around to find the satellite dishes. Head to head, which sucks more?
Of course, we splendid great apes of the huge brains can do wonderful things with our perception. As Holmes said in fiction, seeing but not observing. Or as Harry Nilsson wrote in his The Point album, “Well, that’s it. You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear.”
Much as we used to elide visually over rooftop antennae, we ignore the dreadful visual pollution of poles and cables. We just don’t see them right in front of, above and around us. Strategies to get them underground and the hard sell by power, cable and phone companies to convince us that is prohibitively expensive and impractical are another post entirely.
I intend to do that post soon.
If the Council wants to tart up Boston, it should start working on how to clear out the overhead lines. That will mean working with the commonwealth’s legislative and executive branches. Long-term though, going for that will do a hell of a lot more for everyone in Boston than reducing the number of dishes on triple-deckers, dishes that in all honestly are hard to see for all the wire and cable clutter from the ubiquitous poles.