South End

Boston Landmark District

National Historic District

In the eighteenth century the South End was ocean cove and tidal flats except for a narrow natural causeway along the Neck, as the approach to Boston was called. As talk of landfill began in 1801, Charles Bulfinch drew a plan for a neighborhood of oval gardens, treed streets, and row houses. Extensive land-making did not begin for three decades, and by then the Bulfinch plan had been set aside in favor of haphazard development.

To entice reluctant buyers, the city introduced developer incentives, reviving the abandoned Bulfinch idea of garden squares but without his organizational structure. Each time lots didn’t sell on a newly plotted street, the city created an oval garden, with iron fencing, trees, shrubs, flowerbeds, a fountain, benches, paved formal walkways, and an arbor. This explains the curious randomness of the South End garden parks. Curves and jogs in long-established principal streets resulted in some irregular blocks. Since oddly shaped lots were the most difficult to sell, the city laid out rectangular lots around the perimeter of those blocks. The leftover parcels in the center became private open space, as in Montgomery Park and Carlton Park.

By the 1870s the streets of uniform row houses were occupied. The South End experienced a brief period of social prestige, especially Washington Street and Chester Square, which had the showiest houses. All the garden ovals were carefully tended. But in a few years the wealthier residents left for the newer Back Bay. The Panic of 1873 was hard on the South End, putting many speculatively built homes into foreclosure. Banks then sold them at bargain prices, further depressing real estate values.

At the same time thousands of new Irish immigrants needed housing. From the 1870s until the 1970s, the South End welcomed immigrants, factory workers, and others earning low wages. The bowfronts were converted to lodging houses and rented rooms. Basement diners served meals to residents who lacked any kitchen facilities. By the turn of the twentieth century there were not only Irish, but also Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Polish, Syrian, and Lebanese residents. Many new institutions, including synagogues, a settlement house, Boston University Medical School on East Concord, and Boston College on Harrison Avenue were incubated here during this dynamic period.

By 1900 African Americans were relocating to the South End from Beacon Hill, beginning an important new chapter in the history of labor, civil rights, and the arts. Jazz clubs abounded, and boardinghouses catered to musicians. Sleeping-car porters and domestics organized themselves, achieving landmark advancements. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived on Massachusetts Avenue while attending Boston University and led his first march to Boston Common from the South End.

Urban renewal continued its destructive wave begun elsewhere in Boston in the 1950s, designating the South End blighted in 1963. That allowed the city to demolish 25 percent of the neighborhood, leaving in its wake empty wastelands or new projects that were unrelated to the Victorian heritage. Though many blocks of row houses were left intact, the garden ovals were modernized with simple fencing, unattractive lighting, and street furniture. Insensitive as the urban renewal was, in combination with the investment in the vast Prudential Center, the South End began attracting the middle class. When gentrification arrived in force, lower-income residents were increasingly squeezed out.

Massive public investment at the end of the twentieth century respected the neighborhood’s Victorian origins. Putting the South End back together made it prestigious once more. Nowhere was the rebirth more dramatic than along Washington Street, the old cart track up the Neck.

The South End Historical Society is dedicated to historic preservation and education and promotes the unique history of the area with events including neighborhood and house tours. See http://www.southendhistoricalsociety.org