A Short History of Boston's South End

by Arlene Vadum

Photo of the South End Boston by ivan_herman on flickr

The South End is next to Boston’s Back Bay district, and close to Beacon Hill and downtown Boston. It extends from Massachusetts Avenue on the west to Berkeley Avenue on the east, and north to south, from Columbus Avenue to Harrison Avenue. From its earliest years, the main commercial streets of the South End have been Washington Street, Tremont Street, and Columbus Avenue.

It’s hard to imagine that Boston’s trendy South End, with its brick and brownstone townhouses, tree-lined streets, brick sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, and community gardens, was originally a narrow strip of land, the Boston Neck, connecting Boston to Roxbury and surrounded by a tidal marsh. Prior to the 1840s, the area included only a few mansions, set in open fields. In the 1840s, however, because Beacon Hill and the downtown area were overcrowded, the city added land to the Neck by filling in the marshy areas with earth imported from Needham, Massachusetts, to form the area now called the South End.

In the 1850s, Charles Bulfinch, a renowned architect, created a plan for the newly enlarged region. The plan included building connected brick bow-front (bay window) townhouses, with iron railings and tiny gardens surrounded by iron fences, and scattering small green parks, often with a fountain in the middle, throughout the area. For the next fifteen years, the new South End became the fashionable place for well-to-do young families to build their homes. The houses they constructed reflect a variety of different architectural styles, which, along with many beautiful churches, add to the visual interest of the area.

In the 1870s, the exodus of these families from the South End began, prompted by a national financial crisis. Locally, less elegant houses that had been built on Columbus Avenue were repossessed by the banks and sold off at low prices, reducing property values throughout the South End. As a result, many of the well-to-do residents of the South End moved to the Back Bay, which had been filled in recently, or to the suburbs.

By the turn of the century, most of the original residents had moved out of the area and the private homes, where they had lived, were replaced by tenements and lodging-houses. Lodgers were attracted to the region from the countryside by the excitement of city life and by the availability of work. The South End also had a growing number of African-American residents whose music helped to make the area famous for its jazz clubs. During the 1940s, gays were drawn to the South End by the possibility of living discreetly in the many single-sex lodging-houses. Waves of different immigrant groups moved into the area as well. Those who stayed contributed to the diversity that still characterizes the South End today.

Photo of South End Boston by bradsearles on flickr By the 1960s, however, crime and poverty had overtaken the area, and its buildings and gardens were neglected and in physical decline. Nevertheless, considerable numbers of middle-class families and professionals, attracted by its urban location, began to move into the South End, restoring its Victorian townhouses. The South End Historical Society formed at this time to preserve the architecture and culture of this historic district. Because of the work of this organization, in 1973 the South End was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “the largest urban Victorian neighborhood in the country” and named a Boston Landmark District in 1983.

When rent control ended in Boston in the 1990s, rising rents and increasing property taxes forced less affluent residents to leave the area. As a result, the neighborhood is increasingly evolving into an upper-middle-class community, with high rents and property values and a variety of commercial enterprises catering to this developing market. Nevertheless, the South End still retains some of its economic diversity because the region includes some housing for low-income residents. To this day, the South End is a place where people of differing financial circumstances, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual preference live as neighbors.

The South End’s ethnic diversity is reflected in the astounding choice of cuisines in its many fine restaurants, bars, and cafes – Indian, Ethiopian, French, Italian, Venezuelan, Thai, to name a few. The area now includes numerous trendy shops catering to the personal needs of people (clothing, home furnishings, specialty foods, salons, spas, even psychics) and their pets (a dog bakery). The SoWa district, on Harrison Avenue, is filled with art galleries and artists’ studios. The South End Open Market, also on Harrison Street, is where local artists and small businesses sell their wares on Sundays, from spring until fall. The South End is home to the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) and the school for the Boston Ballet.

Visitors find it exhilarating to explore the main streets and back streets of this vibrant community. Here you will see people in the latest fashion trends, artists, gay and lesbian couples, parents pushing carriages or strollers, and everywhere people walking dogs. The brick sidewalks, the rows of brownstone and brick townhouses with their tiny gardens, the parks, the playgrounds, and the community gardens are a visual treat. The South End’s social and cultural life stimulate the intellect and nourish the spirit.