Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Boston Neck. No Man’s Land (WTPR#4)


Above : View North on Washington Street towards Boston near Lenox Street. This was the site of the George Tavern on Boston Neck, at the fortifications. Approximately two miles from the Old State House.

“March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path.”  

Khalil Gibran

The Voice of the Master

This entry is a transfer of Entry #4  from my Walking the Post Road Project. In this walk I make my way down what is today called Washington Street from the corner of Berkeley Street to Massachusetts Avenue, through today’s South End. In colonial times, this was a tidal wasteland outside the main gate of the town of Boston. Again, like the last entry, pull down the menu in the upper left corner and click on the appropriate entry to see the route of the entry. Originally published  Tuesday, May 4, 2010. 

Eighteenth-century maps of Boston invariably portray Boston as a head, a turkey head specifically (at least that is how it looks to me: take a look at the Bonner Map in the previous entry (also a clickable page in the sidebar or the map here for an example). There is a wattle hanging down from the head and a beak sticking out to the right and a small crown of feathers on top of the head. The most turkey-like aspect of the old Boston maps is the neck, which is long and skinny and, like a turkey, is often cut off at some point along its length.  It summarizes to me what must have been the general attitude to the land outside the Gate which they called the Neck. The Neck was, in the words of William Muir Whitehill “a mangy kind of natural causeway, soggy at high tide and spray blown in a storm, that leads to a fortified gate at what is now Washington and Dover Streets. This is the only means of approaching by foot or horse. All other routes require boats. As it is made no more exhilarating by the presence of a gallows just outside the town gate, and as it leads through the least settled portion of the town, we will gain a more favorable impression by choosing to approach Boston from the sea.”(1)  Francis Drake, in his history of the town of Roxbury, states that “the Neck road was the scene of frequent robberies as it was wooded and marshy and hard to navigate. So dangerous had it become that, in 1723, it was fenced in by order of the General Court.”(2)  Samuel Sewall, in his famous diary, records in his entry for December 17, 1685, “One Trescot, an ancient woman of Dorchester, riding over the Neck, tide being high, her horse drowned and she hardly saved.”(3)  Another entry describes the discovery of the body of an “Indian squaw” outside the fortifications; she had frozen to death (4). Indeed the gallows for the town of Boston stood just outside the Gate (if one looks very carefully at the far left edge of the Bonner map, one can see the word ‘Gallows’ written just outside the ‘Fortification’).  Drake drily states that the gallows were to be found in “a peculiarly appropriate location.”(5)  Pretty grim stuff.

Indeed the fate of the Neck has been singularly unfortunate until a very recent date. As late as 1794, there were but 18 buildings in the more than one mile between the Boston Gate and what became known as the Roxbury Gate, which was located at the historic border of Boston and Roxbury (6). Of course building in this area, which was frequented by sportsmen and hunters looking for ducks in the ample marshes and fens (hence the name Fenway), was a little like the old joke about buying ‘property’ in Florida. But build they did and the area that was previously known as the Neck was rechristened the South End, which has of late become quite fashionable, not for the first time in its history.


This is the fourth entry in this series and I have covered exactly one mile. At this rate it will take one thousand entries before I arrive in New York. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have left the confines of the center of historic Boston and entered the unknown territory of the ‘wilderness’ that surrounded the urban areas of seventeenth-century colonial America. Fewer people means fewer historic structures, fewer stories, fewer points of interest in between long stretches of emptiness.

Only I am still well inside the contemporary city limits of Boston, with eight miles to go before I reach the border of the city, and most people in Boston live in these neighborhoods. It seems that the story of colonial Boston will not be the only story to tell about Boston and the Post Road.


So forlorn was the Neck that even the street leading from it into town had no official name until the eighteenth century. Bartholomew Green’s broadside of 1708 identified the highway described in 1650 as “the High wayes from Jacob Eliot’s Barne to the Fardest gate bye Roxbury Towns end” as Orange Street (7). As mentioned in a previous post, the name was changed to Washington Street in honor of the visit of the President in 1789 and has remained so down to the present day. However population pressure and speculative interest brought attention to the area shortly after the end of the American Revolution. Whitehill comments that by 1824 “Boston had already embarked upon its perennial occupation of making room for itself. Genesis i.9 would have made a good motto for the seal of the city:

‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so.’ (8)

By 1797 the wasteland known as the neck was considered to be “the very valuable property of the Town” although only twelve years earlier, in 1785, the same selectmen had voted against improving the area owing to “the Present straitened Finances of the Town.”(9)  Development was proposed and begun in 1801, and by 1811 between forty and fifty acres had been developed (see Hale map below for progress by 1814).

A map from 1814 showing Boston as well as the planned streets for what became the South End at lower right, still referred to on the map as Boston Neck. Note the South Boston Bridge at top right. The Back Bay is still a bay, and the Roxbury Line is at the very bottom, very near  today’s Melnea Cass Boulevard.

However, although development of the streets had occurred rapidly, houses did not appear as quickly. Even in the 1820s only a few houses had been constructed, probably a result of the simultaneous development of the South Cove area in what is today Chinatown, the Mill Pond in what is now North Station, Beacon Hill, and Dorchester Flats in what is today South Boston. A bridge to the newly christened South Boston was opened in 1805 from the Neck at the Gate (present East Berkeley Street). A bridge had also been built across the Charles River over to Charlestown in 1786 and a second bridge over the river, this time to Cambridge, was constructed in 1793. Thus many previously isolated locations suddenly became accessible in a short period of time and a great deal of development took place. The South End development arrived at the latter stages of this first wave of development and so was less robust.

Finally in 1821 a road across the newly constructed Mill Dam in the Back Bay opened (present Beacon Street), and the road through Boston Neck ceased to be the sole land route to Boston for good. The Back Bay slowly began to be filled in and The Boston and Providence, and the Boston and Worcester Railroads built tracks across the mud flats, effectively separating the South End from what was to become the Back Bay neighborhood. The South End was on the proverbial ‘wrong side of the tracks.’

In the 1850s housing development increased, but just as rows of elegant brick buildings rose on the streets of the South End, large opulent mansions began to go up in the Back Bay and as the wealthier residents of downtown Boston slowly became surrounded by more and more commercial buildings, they mostly opted for the Back Bay. The burgeoning immigrant populations of Boston, specifically the Irish, began to move into the South End and the Catholic Church followed, first building the Church of the Immaculate Conception, then founding Boston College, and culminating in the construction of a new cathedral on Washington Street at Waltham Street in 1867.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Institutions serving poorer immigrants thrived in the neighborhood and contributed to the departure of wealthier Protestant families.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Institutions serving poorer immigrants thrived in the neighborhood and contributed to the departure of wealthier Protestant families.

The Panic of 1873 speeded up the process of decline of the South End, as wealthier residents fled in search of better value, real estate prices dropped as they left, and poorer immigrant families filled the Victorian buildings. J.P. Marquand, in his novel The Late George Apley (1937), famously summarized the fate of the South End with a story about Apley’s father :

Your grandfather, also, bought this house on Beacon Street when the Back Bay was filled in, and this leads me up to a single amusing instance of his unfailing business foresight.

Shortly before he purchased in Beacon Street he had been drawn, like so many others, to build one of those fine bow-front houses around one of the shady squares in the South End. When he did so nearly everyone was under the impression that this district would be one of the most solid residential sections of Boston instead of becoming, as it is today, a region of rooming houses and worse. You may have seen those houses in the South End, fine mansions with dark walnut doors and beautiful woodwork. One morning, as Tim, the coachman, came up with the carriage, to carry your aunt Amelia and me to Miss Hendrick’s Primary School, my father, who had not gone down to his office at the usual hour because he had a bad head cold, came out with us to the front steps. I could not have been more than seven at the time, but I remember the exclamation that he gave when he observed the brownstone steps of the house across the street.

 Dark clouds over nineteenth-century houses on the West Side of Blackstone Square. Note that this is the square on the left side of Washington Street on the Hale Map below. These clouds have often seemed to hover over the area once known as Boston Neck.

Dark clouds over nineteenth-century houses on West Newton Street on the south side of Blackstone Square. Note Blackstone (called Columbia) Square shown on the Hale Map above. These clouds have often seemed to hover over the area once known as Boston Neck.

The Cabots lived next to the Lodges but the neither one lived next to the Salvation Army.

The Cabots lived next to the Lodges but the neither one lived next to the Salvation Army.

Thunderation,” Father said, “there is a man in his shirt sleeves on those steps.” The next day he sold his house for what he had paid for it and we moved to Beacon Street. Your grandfather had sensed the approach of change; a man in his shirt sleeves had told him that the days of the South End were numbered. (10)

William Dean Howell, in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), similarly portrays the South End as an iffy proposition from a real estate investment perspective when the eponymous protagonist, in 1863, ten years earlier than George Apley’s grandfather, “bought very cheap of a terrified gentleman of good extraction who had discovered too late that the South End was not the thing, and who in the eagerness of flight to the Back Bay threw in his carpets and his shades for almost nothing.”(11)  Similarly two down at the heels characters in Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886) live in a rooming house in the South End. By 1898, the head of the South End House, Robert Wood, entitled his study of settlement houses The City Wilderness. We seem to have come full circle.

The Porter House, 1806-7. The oldest remaining building in the South End at 1724 Washington Street. Restored in 1997, the previously decrepit structure barely survived. A two bedroom condo in the building is currently available for $849,000 (13).

The Porter House, 1806-7. The oldest remaining building in the South End at 1724 Washington Street. Restored in 1997, the previously decrepit structure barely survived. A two bedroom condo in the building is currently available for $849,000 (15). Note: This caption was from 2010. The 5 units in the building as of April 2015 have sold for a collective $5.8 million.

Subsequent generations of immigrants found their way to the South End, including one of the largest Syrian communities in the United States, one of whose members was the poet, writer, and artist Khalil Gibran. A vibrant community of African-Americans also thrived in the South End in the twentieth century, many of whom worked as porters owing to the proximity of the railroad to the neighborhood. In the middle of the twentieth century the area began to attract large numbers of gay men and to this day is the thriving center of the gay community in Boston. Today the South End is a diverse community that is rapidly gentrifying. According to the 2000 census, the area of the South End that once comprised the Neck has a resident population of 14,000: 44% of this population is white, non-Hispanic, 21% is black, non-Hispanic, 21% is Hispanic, 11% is Asian, and 3% are multiracial, or others not so easy to “categorize”. The 2010 census will probably show a dramatic shift in these numbers. Stay tuned.

(Note: Although I will pursue this issue in greater detail in a  future entry, I will add here that the White population did indeed grow 44% to 48% according to the 2010 census. More strikingly, the entire population of the area under discussion grew from 13,729 inhabitants to 16,306 people, an almost 20% increase in population in the 10 year period 2000-2010. Of these 2,577 new residents, 1,706 are classified as White, Non-Hispanic, fully 2/3 of the total increase.


The population of the South End today, or at least the bits that comprised the Neck in colonial Boston, is about 14,000 in contrast to being almost uninhabited into the nineteenth century. The landfill craze that resulted in the creation of the South End also encompassed the Back Bay, the Fens, and many other formerly aquatic areas surrounding the old Shawmut peninsula. I used the 2000 census figures along with the official City of Boston map of wards and precincts to generate a few interesting numbers (12). The population of the areas which today make up what most people think of as Boston proper (i.e. Downtown, the North End, Beacon Hill, the West End, Chinatown, the Back Bay, the South End and the Fenway) is about 106,000 or roughly one sixth of the entire population of today’s City of Boston. Of this the areas that in the seventeenth century were underwater has a population of about 69,000 roughly two thirds of the total. That leaves the remaining population which covers the area that originally made up the town of Boston, the ‘original’ land (Old Boston in the map above). The contemporary population of this area is approximately 23,000. Here are some early census figures for Boston: 1790-18,320; 1800-24,937; 1810-33,787; 1820-43,298; 1825-58,277. It is apparent from a cursory comparison of the data that the population of ‘Old Boston’ in 1800 exceeded that of contemporary Boston. Further, it is apparent that the population of the once forlorn and fetid areas to the south and west of ‘Old Boston’ far exceed the population of the original city and further that the remaining areas of contemporary Boston; Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Charlestown, etc., make up the overwhelming majority of the population of the city. The neighborhoods have for a very long time run the city, and that is no surprise given the numerical superiority of their numbers. Boston is now a city of neighborhoods and future entries will visit some of these neighborhoods and tell their stories.


I lived for eight years in the South End, the neighborhood through which I now meander on my sojourn along the Post Road. The South End neighborhood, which starts at Berkeley Street and continues to about Massachusetts Avenue (or Northampton Street, or Lenox, or beyond, as we shall see), and from Columbus Avenue to the Southeast Expressway, has historically suffered more than most neighborhoods from the caprices of historical contingency. When my wife and I moved back to Boston after a spell abroad, we wanted to live in Boston but did not have much money. We decided to try two neighborhoods that had different appeal but both contained moderately priced apartments for rent: Inman Square in Cambridge/Somerville, and the South End. My father-in-law had worked in the South End delivering flowers and had seen it at its worst. He was uncomfortable with our choice of neighborhood to say the least. My father worked at the Ritz Carlton and parked his crappy Fiat on Tremont Street in the South End and walked to work from there because the street did not have parking meters (an indication of its lack of appeal). Our decision only confirmed his opinion that I was ‘eccentric.’

We looked at apartments in both neighborhoods and decided that the architecture, the proximity to downtown, and the diversity of the South End were too appealing to pass up, even though the rents were cheaper and the quality of the apartments higher in Inman Square. Things were in such a state of flux then that we literally wandered around looking for “For Rent” signs in the windows of apartment buildings and found our apartment on the first morning we began our search. The landlady was probably overjoyed to see a “nice young couple” moving into the neighborhood. We have never regretted our choice, despite the fact that homeless drunks would hang out all night across the street on the steps of the burned-out building, despite the fact that at our door a couple of weeks after we moved in a man was mugged (to my great delight, he apparently had some fighting skills, because he ended up beating his mugger up and chasing after him as he ran away), and despite the fact that the traffic was incessant and the noise raucous after the clubs let out in the Theater District and everybody was heading home.

The “St. Elsewhere” Building, named for ‘patron saint’ of Boston Neck.

The “St. Elsewhere” Building, named for ‘patron saint’ of Boston Neck.

Indeed, every week we lived there it seemed to get better. A bakery opened up, new restaurants sprang up like tulips in the spring, recycling arrived in the city, the sidewalks were improved, a bookstore opened around the corner, and many of the old restaurants from the Syrian community still existed as did restaurants like Bob the Chef’s, a soul food restaurant, as well as a number of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants. The rents were cheap and ethnic restaurants thrived as a result. Everything seemed nicely balanced between old and new.

Then the neighborhood hit what can only be called a ‘tipping point.’  I can’t say exactly when, but I am pretty sure I know it happened sometime in early 1993. My father came to visit and parked in his usual spot, except a valet came out of the newly expanded Hamersley’s Bistro that had moved from its small location across the street to a new, larger incarnation in the Boston Center for the Arts and told him he could not park there as it was reserved for valet parking for customers at the restaurant. My dad exploded into an undecipherable quasi-English, mostly Italian rant and continued fuming for the next half hour. I should have known then that the neighborhood was about to become ‘cool.’ Next all the Syrian restaurants started closing on Shawmut Avenue, replaced by places with one word names like ‘Dish.’  The most telltale sign, however, were the signs of ‘breeders’ with their Hummer baby carriages. Bob the Chefs was bought and transformed into a ‘Jazz Restaurant’ with higher prices, worse food, and a far less welcoming attitude. In fact ‘attitude’ was the key change in the South End. Let’s call it the Starbucks attitude. The Starbucks duly arrived, and we were duly priced out of the South End, swept away by the gentrification that spread over the South End like some kind of Janus virus. Alternatively, as Evelyn Waugh so eloquently put it in his uniquely mocking way “…the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse – that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.” (13)  Maybe it all seemed great because we were young and living in a new place and we got older and more critical. Certainly we were part of the change, for better or for worse.


Gentrification is a double-edged sword. On the one hand buildings that had lain dormant or left for dead were renovated and restored, often quite lovingly. Neighborhoods were cleaned up, crime went down, parks were spruced up, lots of healthy people with dogs began congregating in parks that previously were known mostly for broken bottles, needles, used condoms, and some fairly unsavory characters. We referred to Shawmut Avenue for a while as Mali because the city had torn up the street, and it took them forever to repair it, so it was like walking on a dusty village road in the Sahara. But finally the street was repaired, new trees were planted and the cool people piled in, symbolized by the replacement of my favorite store, Tony the Greek grocer who sold fruits and vegetables out of crates straight from the Chelsea market in an old storefront with a dim lightbulb and a broken picture window, with a branch of the high-end Cambridge purveyors of cheesy comestibles Formaggio. Also pushed out was an older man we would see walking up the street with an oxygen tank who was forced to move as his apartment was being turned into condos. Gone was the Lebanese club with the old men in old men teeshirts playing cards. Today, one sole remnant of the once thriving Syrian community remains on Shawmut Avenue.

The way the South End used to be in the not too recent past. The Hotel Alexandra (1875) sits at the Northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street. Widely regarded as the end of the South End for reasons that will become clear in the next entry, this building stands at the frontier of gentrification.

The way the South End used to be in the not too recent past. The Hotel Alexandra (1875) sits at the Northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street. Widely regarded as the end of the South End for reasons that will become clear in the next entry, this building stands at the frontier of gentrification.

The bookstore closed, the bakery became a fancy restaurant with sidewalk tables, and the price of real estate skyrocketed. Worst of all, national chains started showing up like the aforementioned Starbucks and CVS. The South End was fast becoming a nondescript chic neighborhood that, save for the architecture, could be found in any major American city, and through which transient cool people passed on their journey from struggling artist in Boston to successful San Francisco gallery owner or from paralegal to Law School to practicing lawyer to Suburbia.


Perhaps symbolic of the complex nature of gentrification is a place on Washington Street just down from the site of Boston Gate about where the gallows were located,

The Red Fez. Also pretty beat up in the 1990s. Now the ‘stressed’ look is clearly in vogue.

The Red Fez. Also pretty beat up in the 1990s. Now the ‘stressed’ look is clearly in vogue.

called the ‘Red Fez,’  a restaurant on Washington Street that had been shuttered and left for dead during the time we lived there, but has reopened serving multihued and multiflavored Martinis along with ‘Mediterranean cuisine’ which we had eaten formerly at half the price in any number of places on Shawmut Avenue when it was called Arabic food.

The transformation of the South End. Stella’s Restaurant on Washington Street at Blackstone Square.

The transformation of the South End. Stella’s Restaurant on Washington Street at Blackstone Square.

One reviewer said of the ‘Red Fez’ “Not so ultra hip that you feel out of place but not shabby or dingy either.” (14) I have to admit that I like the fact that the ‘Red Fez’ exists, and it is pleasant today to walk around this area of the old road on the Neck unlike the feeling of discomfort I felt in years past anytime I set foot on Washington Street, anywhere from Chinatown all the way through the city until it reached Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain (to be discussed in a future entry). I know we were part of the gentrification process, and selfishly I wanted it to stay the way it was when we lived there, but things change and some things improve and other things get worse. I probably won’t be ordering the raspberry margaritas and the Seared Scallops Basil and Red Pepper Concasse, but at least the gallows are gone.

1  Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History, 26.

2  Francis S. Drake, The Town of Roxbury ( Boston, 1878. Reprinted by Municipal Printing of Boston, 1905), 66.

3  Mel Yazawa, ed. The Diary and Life of Samuel Sewall (Boston: Bedford Books,1998), Dec 17 1685.

4 Ibid., Sewall Diary, Feb 13, 1686;  Yazawa also discusses it on page 90.

5 Drake, 68.

6 Drake, 67.

7 Whitehill, 22.

8 Whitehill, 74.

9 Whitehill, note 4 on page 258.

10 John Philip Marquand, The Late George Apley, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1937), 25-26.

11 William Dean Howell, The Rise of Silas Lapham, ( Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1885), 31.

12 , publication #548a, #6a Boston Population by Ward and Precinct.

13. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1945), 79.



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