South End/Lower Roxbury History

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The area known today as the South End was originally a smaller neck of land along Washington Street, wideningfrom its narrowest point at today’s Berkeley Street to its widest at the Roxbury line near today’s Hammond Street. Although there were a few scattered houses and taverns in the early 1800s, most of the area was not developed until after 1840. During the next 30 years, filling the bays created most of the present land, and brick bowfront houses were built throughout the area, followed by a variety of major institutions and factories. By 1885 parts of the South End were becoming rooming house and tenement districts which filled with working class lodgers and successive waves of immigrants. Over the next century the area had a rich diversity of people and activities, but its buildings and reputation suffered an increasing decline. From the 1950s through the 1970s the community became the largest urban renewal area in the nation, with accompanying community organizing, protests, and conflict. In recent years, beginning in the late 1960s, many parts of the area experienced gentrification as rooming houses and apartments were converted to condos and major new market rate housing developments were built. This period has also been characterized by an increased emphasis on the arts, the proliferation of restaurants and cafes, the growth of Boston Medical Center and the expansion of Northeastern University into the area.

Until 1786 the only way into Boston by land was on Washington Street over the narrow neck of land in the South End. From the early years, the city had a guard post, gate, and fortifications at the narrowest point near present day Berkeley Street. When the British occupied Boston during the Revolutionary War, about 600 of their soldiers were sent over to the Neck in the fall of 1774 to cut a channel to let the water through and strengthen the old fortifications near this part of the neck. The British also built larger and stronger, advanced fortifications closer to the present Cathedral and Blackstone School. They used Deacon Brown’s house located near today’s Newton Street and Blackstone Square as a guard house. His store was also used by the British. The American troops later dug entrenchments near the Roxbury line close to the present day Ramsay Park and used the George Tavern as an advanced outpost. The advanced fortifications on each side were within musket range of each other. General George Washington wrote of the American troops at lower Roxbury, “Our people have intrenched across the outer end [of the neck] and are strongly fortified there.”1

Thus parts of present day South End and Lower Roxbury were the sites of strategic positions and numerous skirmishes between the American and British forces during 1775-1776. Although no major battle took place there, the area definitely had the atmosphere of a war zone with the British shooting cannons daily at the American lines and the houses in range in Roxbury, and both sides engaging in numerous skirmishes. On June 24 a party of American troops tried to burn Brown’s house down, but they were discovered early and two were killed. They brought a field piece up and shot a cannon ball through the house driving the British guards out, but were unsuccessful in burning the house. There was a strong skirmish with firing from both sides continuing for some time. The following day another attempt was also unsuccessful, although the British lost several men in the skirmishing that continued throughout the day. One American was wounded. On the 26th a group of British soldiers advanced at daybreak and fired at the American sentinels at George’s tavern. When more American guards showed up, a sharp exchange of musket fire took place, and the British retreated.2 A few days later flaming bombshell from the British set Mr. William’s house on fire. “But the daring activity of the troops, working in the face of constant fire from the enemy, prevented the flames from spreading.”3 On July 5 General Washington came over to Roxbury to visit and survey the situation.

At 10 o’clock at night on July 7, six American soldiers advanced secretly to positions behind Brown’s house. Meanwhile other volunteers under the leadership of Major Tupper and Captain Crane advanced quietly to positions in the marshes on either side of the Neck. “Two brass field pieces were drawn quietly across the marsh to within 300 yards of the house. On a signal from the advance party, two rounds of shot were fired into the house” at about 2 a.m.4 The British guards in Brown’s house hastily retreated to the safety of their lines. The six advance men then set fire to the house and another building. In the process, six muskets were captured.5 Scattered shots from the British outpost were heard for some time, but the attacking party was able to return without loss. On July 11 the Americans attacked again, driving the British guards back and burning Brown’s store. It had been the only house left standing on the neck beyond the British fortifications. Shortly after that about 200 men worked under fire throwing up some breastwork defenses in front of the George Tavern. “Three bombs burst near our men, without injuring any of them.”6

About 500 British troops marched out on Sunday, July 30 and built a low breastwork to protect themselves. The American troops were at high alert. Later the British sent a floating battery up the Charles River and shot at the American defenses. The Redcoats then attacked the American sentinels on the advanced lines, driving them back, and burning the George Tavern in revenge.7 However, the British did not venture further, but returned to their own lines.

These events illustrate the type of hostilities taking place in the South End and Lower Roxbury during the Revolutionary War. The American Army consisted of three divisions, with one division placed in the Roxbury highlands and Lower Roxbury. The division, which consisted of two brigades of six regiments each, was commanded by General Artemas Ward and General John Thomas.

After the Revolutionary War (1787-88) the state authorized a mint to be built in the South End to produce copper, silver, and gold coins. However, this mint only operated for a short time. After the war only a few businesses were built along the Neck, and by 1794 there were still only 18 buildings between the narrowest point of the neck and the Roxbury line.8 In 1801, Charles Bulfinch, Chairman of Boston’s Board of Selectman, presented a plan for laying out streets in the South End and a large circular park called Columbia Square (which was renamed Blackstone and Franklin Squares in 1849). The city’s involvement in developing the area in the next fifty years was an early example of urban planning. The city placed restrictions on height, width, and setback of buildings to create a uniform and harmonious blend of streets and buildings. Later the architect, Nathan J. Bradlee, gave more specific architectural unity to the streets of the South End with his building designs.

Although it never attracted large numbers of the wealthiest Bostonians,9 the South End did attract young couples, solid businessmen, and many skilled craftsmen. The area also attracted a number of substantial institutions including Boston City Hospital, Boston College, the Boston Latin and English High School (largest public school building in the world), the St. James Hotel,10 and many major churches. The hospital opened in 1864, and Boston College was located in the South End nearby from 1863 to 1913. In its early years, the St. James Hotel10 hosted President Ulysses S. Grant. In 1882 the building was sold to the New England Conservatory of Music, which served 3,000 students annually and was called the largest and best appointed musical institute in the world. When the Boston Latin and English High School building on Warren Avenue was completed in 1880, it was the largest structure in the world used as a free public school.11 The Girls High School on West Newton Street, built in 1870, served 800 young women and trained many of Boston’s school teachers. In September 1872, Alexander Graham Bell came to live at 35 West Newton Street where he opened “an establishment for the study of vocal physiology, for the correction of defects of utterance and for practical instruction in ‘Visible Speech.’”12 In 1877 the famous Christian leader, Dwight L. Moody, held an evangelistic campaign in the South End, drawing crowds as large as 6,000-7,000 people three times a day for three months. Also drawing large crowds was the Cyclorama, built in 1884 to house the 400 foot circular mural of the Battle of Gettysburg. From the 1871 to 1914, professional baseball was also played in the South End/Lower Roxbury area at the impressive South End Grounds13 with its double decker grandstands and tall twin towers. When the baseball stadium burned on May 15, 1894, the fire spread to consume 177 other Lower Roxbury buildings. With its growing population, the neighborhood also developed other forms of entertainment, from theater to boxing and bicycle racing.

The neighborhood was initially developed hoping to attract upper class families. However, when the Back Bay neighborhood was built, it became the more popular area for the wealthy. Due to a financial depression in 1873 and other factors, the South End began to lose its attractiveness and declined somewhat. From the 1880s on, many buildings were turned into rooming houses. Areas surrounding Dover Street (now Berkeley Street) and Columbus Avenue changed more fully, while some other areas declined less.

By the turn of the century, many new immigrants had settled in the South End, and a number of settlement houses sprang up to serve their social needs. In addition to the Irish and Nova Scotians, there were Syrians, Greeks, Armenians, Lebanese, and Eastern Europeans. Some Jewish immigrants also settled in the South End. African Americans came to parts of the South End, especially from Virginia14 after the Civil War and in larger numbers in the 20th century. “By 1880 two-thirds of all southern black adults lived in the five wards of the South End.”15 Some of these migrants from the South formed Ebenezer Baptist Church under the leadership of Rev. Peter Randolph, who had led a group of freed slaves to Boston before the Civil War.

West Indian immigrants settled in Lower Roxbury and the South End in the early years of the 20th century. They founded St. Cyprian’s Church in 1913, and it soon became their cultural, social, and spiritual center. By 1922 the church was able to attract 500 people and had a strong youth group providing leadership training, and had begun building its present building in Lower Roxbury.16

The South End became a port of entry for many immigrants, who filled the rooming houses, apartments, and the tenements. “Between the demise of the South End as a middle/upper-middle class neighborhood in the 1870s and the post-war world of the 1950s, the South End was a vibrant, economically poor, but culturally rich, dynamic community.”17 In the 1940s there were “36 racial and ethnic culture groups” in the area.18 By the 1940s the South End had also become the home of many bars and rescue missions. It gained a reputation as a skid row, although that was just one dimension of a more complex reality. For example, the area around Massachusetts Avenue and Columbus Avenue became well known as a center of jazz clubs where famous jazz musicians played from the 1930s through the 1950s. Joseph L. “Wally” Walcott opened Wally’s Café in 1934, and it is still serving up jazz today. Other jazz clubs that have come and gone include the famous Hi Hat, the Savoy, Morley’s The Big M, the Pioneer Club, the Wigwam, Louie’s Lounge, and the Professional & Businessmen’s Club. Clubs like the Hi Hat attracted famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Stitt. After late night sessions, musicians would stop by Charlie’s Sandwich Shop on Columbus Avenue for something to eat. The area’s tradition of jazz continues today with the annual September Beantown Jazz Festival on Columbus Avenue, with Wally’s Café, and with the Beehive nightspot.

By the 1960s the city was thinking of major urban renewal efforts for the South End. A few housing projects, like Cathedral Housing Project, and Lenox/Camden Housing had already been built. Edward Logue and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) were considering thousands of housing units of new construction. By the time they came to the South End they knew they would need to de-emphasize demolition and spend more time listening to community groups before finalizing plans. Local neighborhood activism resulted in a citizen review process and ended most mass clearance of older buildings. The South End was indeed vocal and well organized, especially the Hispanic community in Parcel 19. By 1966 the urban renewal plan had been approved in a neighborhood meeting and by the city council. With the renovation of 3,000 buildings and the construction of more than 3,000 new rental units, this was the largest urban renewal project in the nation. With the help of leaders from Emmanuel Gospel Center and St. Stephens Church, Hispanics successfully organized to force the BRA to accept an alternate plan for Parcel 19. This community organizing effort became the IBA/ETC (Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion/Emergency Tenants Council) community development organization. The resulting Villa Victoria community became a national model. Other coalitions and organizations involved in housing and urban renewal issues included CAUSE (Community Assembly for a United South End), SETC (South End Tenants Council), and SEPAC (South End Project Area Committee). A parcel of land at the corner of Dartmouth Street and Columbus Avenue became the site of a series of protests beginning in April 25, 1968. “For the next three days, between 100 and 400 people lived on the lot. They built tents and wooden shanties and put up a large sign welcoming the media and visitors to “Tent City.” Thousands of people came. The music of guitars, bongo drums, and saxophones filled the South End.”19 These community efforts eventually led to the construction of the Tent City Housing development. As the Boston Redevelopment Authority continued to complete the urban renewal process, a group called the Committee for a Balanced South End opposed further construction of subsidized housing, while others in the community pressured potential developers to guarantee certain percentages of affordable units in their plans. Because of a series of community efforts, much of the old housing stock was preserved, and many new buildings were required to set aside low and moderate income units.

Beginning in the 1960s, the South End began to experience the ever-growing momentum of gentrification. The construction of the Prudential Center and Copley Place along with considerable public and private investment, made the South End an attractive area to young professionals. Many of the low rent apartments and rooms in rooming houses were converted to condos, displacing many lower income residents. Between 1980 and 1985 nearly 13,000 private market apartments were converted to condos in Boston.20 The number of lodging house rooms in Boston dropped from 25,000 in 1950 to 3,000 in 1985.21 The South End was one of the major areas where this rooming house to condo housing change took place.

The South End has remained quite diverse racially and ethnically in spite of the economic pressures of gentrification. Nevertheless, the demographic diversity does not often lead to cross-cultural social networks, as the subcultures often remain relatively isolated. In recent years the neighborhoods have seen changes from the expansion of Boston Medical Center and Northeastern University in the community. There has been a growth in the arts with annual open studios, the construction of new theaters and gallery space. The South End has also seen the proliferation of restaurants and cafes. The Washington Street “Main Streets” program has been a catalyst for major residential and business development along the original central artery of the area. Other major changes have included renovations of many housing developments like the Hope VI redevelopment of Orchard Park into Orchard Gardens and major renovations in the Roxse Housing and the Camden Street housing. At the same time, 1100 or more new housing units have been built for market rate buyers, especially in the Harrison Avenue and Washington Street areas. Although large areas of the neighborhood have most of the same buildings that were present 130 years ago, there are few urban neighborhoods which have experienced as many major changes as the South End/Lower Roxbury. Understanding this complex history and interweaving of diverse people is important.


1. William Wheildon, Siege and Evacuation of Boston and Charlestown (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1876), 11.

2. Richard Frothingham, A History of the Siege of Boston, 6th edition (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1903), 213.

3. Ibid., 216.

4. Ibid., 224.

5. Wheildon, 18.

6. Frothingham, 224.

7. The George Tavern near the Roxbury line on Washington Street dated back to 1707 at least.

8. Boston Landmarks Commission, The South End: District Study Committee Report (Boston: Boston Lanmarks Commission, 1983), 7.

9. Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History, 2nd edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1968), 135-136.

10. In recent years the building has served as housing for the elderly and as the supposed St. Eligius Hospital on the T.V. series, St. Elsewhere.

11. Moses King, editor, King’s Handbook of Boston, 7th edition. (Cambridge, Mass.: Moses King Publisher, 1885), 152.

12. From the original advertising card, Oct. 1, 1872.

13. Located between the present Ruggles train station and Carter Park. It was home to the Boston Bean Eaters, the Boston Braves, etc. and went by several names.

14. Elizabeth H. Pleck, Black Migration and Poverty: Boston 1865-1900 (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 45.

15. Elizabeth H. Pleck, Black Migration and Poverty: Boston 1865-1900 (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 77.

16. Robert C. Hayden, Faith, Culture and Leadership: A History of the Black Church in Boston (Boston: Boston Branch NAACP, 1983), 51.

17. Boston Landmarks Commission, The South End District Study Committee Report (Boston: Boston Landmarks Commission, 1983), 11.

18. Mel King, Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 1981.

19. “Activists Erect ‘Tent City’ in Boston,” Mass Moments, http://massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=126 (accessed 12 May 2009).

20. Rolf Goetze, “Boston’s Changing Housing Patterns, 1970-1985” (Boston: Boston Redevelopment Authority, Research Dept., 1986), part 1, p. 2.

21. City of Boston, Commission on Affairs of the Elderly. “Rooms for Rent: A Study of Lodging Houses in Boston” (Boston: City of Boston, 1986), 4.

     
   
     
 
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