Balancing in her knee-high boots on the riverstone-studded roadway of what some say is America’s most photographed street, an elegant young woman primped her blonde hair one last time as her mother aimed her phone’s camera lens.
Aspen Talbot, 19, stumbled on the uneven road. High heels and cobblestones look great together on Instagram, but pose problems in real life. Other tourists ambled past, getting in the way as they angled for their own photos. Finally, Talbot readjusted her posture and smiled.
On Acorn Street, the struggle for the perfect Instagram shot is real. On any given day, no matter the season, dozens or even hundreds of people from all over the world flock to this Beacon Hill alley, a private drive wedged between a row of 19th-century homes and fenced-in gardens. Tourists and locals alike pose before backdrops plucked straight from Longfellow: charming front doors, vine-covered brick walls, gas street lamps, and quaint cobblestones.
But in the Instagram era, the allure of Acorn Street’s postcard perfection has become so powerful that actually living here, on the other side of the shutter, can be a lot less idyllic, owners and residents of the dozen or so multimillion-dollar homes say.
The swells of overzealous tourists, amateur models, and aspiring influencers walk away with photos. But they’ve also been known to leave behind trash. Their conversations echo up the road. They perch on strangers’ doorsteps, and peek through windows into the handful of homes that abut the narrow, brick-lined sidewalks.
“Just think if you lived here,” said one fed-up resident, who refused to give his name.
As he stood at the top of the road, mere steps from a dozen people and a cacophony of camera shutters, he surveyed the scene.
“It’s not even that interesting a street,” he grumbled. “It’s an alleyway.”
Acorn Street, which was laid out in 1823, has long been a must-see spot for tourists from as far away as China and as close by as Cambridge. It’s featured on JetBlue’s website, and a picture of it greets travelers arriving at Logan Airport. Tour companies promote it to customers as a place to check out while in town.
But in recent years what had been a steady trickle of visitors has grown into something like a flood — a surge residents say seems largely fueled by social media.
When Nonnie Burnes moved to the neighborhood, Instagram was still almost a decade away. Now, Burnes is a spokeswoman for a group of residents called the Acorn Street Association – “And it is dramatically different.”
The group first formed in the 1980s to prevent the city from paving over the riverstones, she said. But decades later, the stones are a big part of what draws so many — too many — to Acorn Street.
“Little did we know what we were bringing down upon us,” Burnes said. At times, she said with a laugh, she’s fantasized about paving the street.
The influx recently prompted the association to explore new ways to help control the number of visitors. And while the association’s website points out that “tourists are welcome to click a quick picture at the top or bottom of the Street,” many stage long impromptu photo sessions all along the private way, too.
People have tossed rubbish on the ground (“The rats love the tourists,” one resident said) and woken up homeowners in the middle of the night. At least once, someone held a wedding celebration right in the middle of the street.
Perhaps the worst offense, Burnes said, was the time a resident was greeted by a smartphone on a selfie stick that was aimed directly into the dining room window.
A quick scan through Instagram shows couples kissing in the road, barefoot dancers hanging from the lamp posts, and strangers sprawled out on doorsteps and smiling between decorative gourds.
Almost every image seems to channel something rustic and undiscovered and quintessential New England. But zoom out, and the street looks less like a colonial village and more like a carnival attraction.
On a warm Sunday afternoon in October, the single-block street was so crowded that people joked about waiting in line.
A man wearing a black top hat, peacoat, and scarf leaned against a lamp post (it was 62 degrees). A woman tossed the frills of her pink tulle skirt in the sun. A tiny dog wearing a plaid sweater posed for photos until a resident chased dog and owner from the stoop.
Laura Talbot, who had been taking photos of her daughter, Aspen, sympathized with the residents. But still, the charm of the street, which has its own TripAdvisor page, was just too powerful.
“If I lived here, I’d have a big problem with it,” she admitted. “And here we are, contributing to it.”
Because Acorn Street is a private way, it’s not managed by the city. Maintenance, upkeep, and liability falls on the shoulders of residents, who own the property in front of their house up to the middle of the road, Burnes said.
It also means that it’s within the rights of residents, whose homes’ assessed values range from about $1 million to upwards of $6 million, to choose when and how to allow the general public access to the street — if at all, city officials say.
“We could keep people out if we wanted to,” Burnes said. “But nobody has wanted to do that yet.”
Instead, they’ve resorted to calming measures, none of which have worked too well. Prominent, mostly ignored blue signs warn against trespassing and urge professional photographers to reach out to the association for a permit to shoot there.
Versions of the “no trespassing” signs have been used for years, but the signs about securing a permit for professional photography and videography are newer, Burnes said.
Prices to use the street for such purposes range from $375 per hour to $3,000 per day, according to the association’s website, which boasts that the road is one of the “most photographed streets in Boston” and a “major tourist attraction.”
Some photographers have learned it’s better to just steer clear of the area. But others, who constantly field requests from clients to take photos there, have developed stealth methods to skirt the costs while also avoiding being yelled at by residents.
“I tell [clients] what we’re going to do before [we get there],’ ” said photographer Lena Mirisola, who was on Acorn Street two weeks ago. “We’re literally there for 45 seconds and we whisper.”
Kate Lemmon, owner of Kate L. Photography, said a resident has threatened to call the police on her before. For that reason, she similarly tells clients to keep a low profile.
“I completely understand where the residents are coming from,” Lemmon said. “But that being said, I think it’s important to realize that they are on a really historically significant spot in Boston and the photos bring a lot of joy to people.”
But the vast majority of visitors to Acorn Street aren’t being paid for their pictures — they’ve just been posting them, again and again, until the unofficial title of “most photographed street in America” took hold. And for now, residents are weighing their options about what, if anything, to do about it.
“We would like there to be fewer people,” Burnes said. “We think it would be nicer, actually, for the visitors if there were fewer people, and we’re trying a bunch of things to see whether we can lessen the traffic.”
While some residents have resorted to swearing at tourists and shooing them away, according to TripAdvisor reviews, at least one homeowner enjoys the deluge of Instagrammers.
On a recent overcast Tuesday, Charles C. Dumbaugh sat on the angled granite steps of his home and watched as tourists passed like schools of salmon.
Dumbaugh’s multistory rowhouse is adorned with a weathered replica of a Civil War-era battle flag that has shown up in several dozen Instagram photos just since Saturday.
“Hello!” he called out to one group after another. “And where are you from?”
Jacksonville, Fla.; Seattle, Wash.; Nashville — they’d all read about Acorn Street on Pinterest, or Instagram, or TripAdvisor.
After the introductions, he launched into a short history of the quaint street and its uniquely rocky surface.
As he talked, a couple several feet away hoisted a selfie stick into the air, looked up at the camera, and smiled.