Aristocrats, immigrants, reformers, prostitutes, jazz legends, activists, yuppies, artists – at some point, each of these groups has found a home in Boston’s South End. But in 1820 it was still largely under water. At that time, Boston’s population was rapidly expanding and a massive landfill project was underway to dramatically alter the geography of the city. Boston’s own Charles Bulfinch, architect of the United States Capitol and the Massachusetts State House, was asked to lay out a neighborhood worthy of the urban elite on the new plot of land. It was not long before the marshes of Back Bay and South Bay were transformed into stately avenues, manicured squares and rows of bow front houses. Today the South End is the largest neighborhood of Victorian homes to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thanks to the stringent architectural protections, walking down the pristine, tree-lined streets can feel like stepping back in time. But don’t let this fool you. The South End has always been a neighborhood in flux.
Our tour will begin in Back Bay Station, at the statue of African American labor leader, A. Philip Randolph. From this bustling transit hub, we will set out to appreciate the distinctive architectural features that make this neighborhood famous. Built mostly from 1840-1870, the South End’s brick and brownstone homes were designed in the London rowhouse style to accommodate the tastes of 19th century politicians, bankers, industrialists and academics. Some prominent early residents included Louisa May Alcott (author and reformer), Edward Everett Hale (minister and orator), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor, advocate for the deaf), Nathaniel J. Bradlee (Boston architect), Patrick Gilmore (bandleader and Civil War lyricist), Harriet Boyd Hawes (archeologist) and Alexander Hamilton Rice (Boston mayor, Massachusetts governor and United States congressman). We will stop by the old Cyclorama, which was built in 1884 to house a 400 by 50 foot painting of the Battle of Gettysburg. Today it is part of a larger complex that includes the Boston Center for the Arts. Next, we will stroll down peaceful Union Park Street to admire the fountain before moving on to Blackstone and Franklin Squares.
The South End’s original Brahmin inhabitants did not stay long, thanks to a series of economic depressions and the allure of the newly constructed mansions in Back Bay during the late 1800s. Therefore we will shift our focus by visiting the South End Burial Ground. This is where over 11,000 poor Bostonians found their final resting place. Although burials ended here in 1860, it was not long before an influx of immigrants changed the nature of the neighborhood around it. At the turn of the century, many five story mansions were converted into tenements, brothels, or rooming houses, despite city ordinances against it. Not surprisingly, the South End was home to Boston’s pioneering settlement house movement. As in other cities, young Progressive Era reformers sought to improve the lot of underprivileged families by opening schools and group homes, some of which still exist. Our tour will continue at the United South End Settlements. Founded in the 1890s, this organization still provides services to those struggling in the community.
By the 1920’s, Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants were joined by a growing African American population in the South End. Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. both briefly resided here among the many rooming houses rented to Pullman Sleeping Car Porters. In fact, the Pullman Porters had their headquarters in the upstairs of our next stop, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe. This restaurant, frequented by Duke Ellington, Sammie Davis Jr. and even President Obama, was a late night hang out for jazz musicians from the 1920s to 1950s. The South End became known as a jazz mecca during this time and it is still a destination for America’s homegrown music. We will walk to nearby Wally’s Cafe, where Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Art Blakey once played. You can still see live performances there 365 days a year.
By the 1960s, urban renewal plans threatened to divide the South End. But the community united to successfully protect it. To understand their efforts, we will visit the former Tent City, where South End residents literally camped out to protest the potential loss of affordable housing due to new development. We will also look at Methunion Manor and Villa Victoria, two unique public housing communities that prevented the displacement of African American and Puerto Rican immigrant populations. We will then walk down the Southwest Corridor Park, created when a proposed highway extension was blocked and transformed into 90 acres of public parkland. From here we can see the Prudential Center and Copley Place. This complex of high end shopping, restaurants and offices became a catalyst for gentrification in the South End.
The last leg of our tour will examine how the South End has come full circle to once again be one of Boston’s most desirable neighborhoods. From The Beehive jazz club, to the Boston Ballet and a slew of award-winning restaurants on Tremont Street, we will walk to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Completed in 1875 to serve the Irish immigrant population and once the largest church in New England, this magnificent Gothic Revival structure is now the home of Boston’s Catholic Archdiocese. Just a few blocks south is the SOWA (South of Washington Street) arts district. Converted factories and warehouses are now home to artist colonies, galleries and shops that highlight Boston’s burgeoning creative scene. Six months out of the year, Harrison Avenue hosts a weekly outdoor market and fair that attracts visitors from around the region with food trucks, art and performances. We will stroll through Peter’s Park, past the playground and dog park where South End locals from all walks of life congregate on warm afternoons. As we look in at the community garden on East Berkeley Street, one of the neighborhood’s many green spaces, it won’t be hard to understand why real estate in this area has sky-rocketed in recent decades. Now, as in the past, the South End is ever evolving to meet the needs of Boston’s diverse people.