The boy got the idea to build the tiny village at the abandoned lot this summer after he spotted “a bunch of invisible things” digging holes in the ground and planting seeds.
Were they fairies? Or gnomes? No, something else, he says. They were elves, he’s sure of it.
Once the magical creatures burrowed underground, they needed some help. Or maybe they wanted to make friends and knew just the way. So small signs — which, like the elves themselves, could only be seen by children — began to appear, asking their human neighbors for some assistance, he said.
“Can anyone build us some houses?” they read.
And that’s what the boy and his family did.
From the imagination of an 8-year-old boy sprung “Elfland,” a miniature makeshift village for the diminutive creatures to call their own. What began as a modest display at the corner of School and Summer streets has become a whimsical community project that’s brought a bit of childlike wonder to weary residents facing a second pandemic winter.
In August, the boy and his parents started building Elfland from the ground up, giving new life to a vacant dirt lot filled with chunks of rock and overgrown weeds. But a month later, as word of the fairytale village spread, neighbors who discovered the secret realm started quietly making additions of their own.
Now Elfland is perhaps the city’s most talked-about new neighborhood, an enchanted place its creator says is filled with “flying cookies” and “spiky green hats and green clothes,” and where the average height is 1 inch.
When you search “Elfland” on Google, it brings up a map of the neighborhood and labels the village a “tourist attraction” that’s received several five-star ratings.
So what’s it like to live in Elfland?
“They keep crickets as pets, and mainly live underground,” said the boy, whose family asked to stay anonymous to preserve the fun and fantasy of the project and because the empty lot is private property. “Each family has about 22 elves, and all of the elves don’t age.”
Before the elves carved out a corner of the lot as their own, the property was home to a gas station and repair shop, which were torn down earlier this year.
Fences line sections of the property, but an opening to the left of the lot, where residents of a building next door park their cars, makes it easily accessible.
“It’s really an eyesore and it’s been there for years,” the boy’s father said.
In a city where new apartment buildings seemingly sprout up overnight, the lot was ripe for development. The boy and his parents started out placing wooden, house-like structures at the site, which they arranged on the churned earth. They later added painted birdhouses to complement the existing infrastructure. Then came Elfland’s hospital and its tiny library.
They are perhaps proudest of “Dino Farm,” a gated collection of plastic dinosaurs.
The project became something special the family and a few close friends could share, a secret all their own.
“Just a little bit of levity and light,” the boy’s mother said.
Then came a magical twist. One day, model houses from a railroad set appeared in the village. Another time, a skating rink manifested as if from thin air, its tiny oval of “ice” surrounded by a perimeter of string.
Someone else — the family doesn’t know who — brought solar-powered lights and planted them in the dirt. When they glow at night, shining over the village, they look like miniature versions of the sidewalk lamps on Beacon Hill.
One person left a pint-sized yellow swing set, and a fenced-in “community garden” took shape. And there’s a water tower now, not far from the miniature church.
Elfland’s spell won’t last forever, with the Planning Board slated to meet about a potential development there on Dec. 16. On a chain-link fence around the lot hangs a notice about the meeting, beside handmade signs that proclaim “Defend Elfland!”
Someone even made T-shirts with the slogan, which were featured on Elfland’s Instagram account, a place where the “elves” and the family who built them homes keep more than 250 followers updated on the latest news in the town.
It seems every time the family visits Elfland there’s something new, adding to the village’s mystique.
“It’s exciting anytime someone adds something new,” the boy’s father said. “The first time was like, ‘Yes, that’s so awesome.’”
On any given day, people passing by can be seen peering through the metal fences, marveling over the expanding display and the delight it inspires.
“Elfland keeps growing ... in a torn up lot around the corner from our street ... and it both brings immense joy and a deep longing in my heart,” one person posted on Instagram last month with a picture of the village.
The family who created Elfland said they hope it inspires other kids to find their neighborhood elves and give them homes for the winter.
“Our family is always focused individually and collectively on creating community and creating relationships,” the boy’s mother said. “And this is a great way to get people involved.”
Steve Annear can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.