January 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 1

to print a pagePrint This Page

08meetingLooking Forward to the
2008 ASA Annual Meeting in Boston

The Social History of Boston’s Back Bay, Site of the 2008 ASA Conference

by Wilfred Holton, Northeastern University

ASA Annual Meeting attendees last convened in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood in 1979, and in August 2008 when we meet there for ASA’s 103rd conference, participants will again be able to enjoy the restaurants, shops, galleries, and tree-lined Commonwealth Avenue.

But it will be hard for visiting sociologists to imagine the pollution that defined this tidal marsh area in the late 1970s. The area has since been transformed into an upscale neighborhood of elegant homes and key institutions whose origins date to the late 19th century. Over 400 acres of new land were filled with massive amounts of sand and gravel imported by train from outlying areas. The fascinating story of social class motivations, comprehensive urban planning, innovative technologies, and entrepreneurial contractors has been told recently in Boston’s Back Bay: The Story of America’s Greatest 19th Century Landfill Project (by William Newman and Wilfred Holton, 2006). During the ASA conference, Holton will lead a tour of the Back Bay for participants.

There is one sociological aspect of the Back Bay story that was not recognized until the primary historical sources were examined in a new light. For many years, the motivations for filling the former tidal marsh were thought to have been only the extreme crowding in the city and the severe pollution after it was cut off from the Charles River in 1821 by a long dam designed to tap tidal power. Social class motivations, however, added to the sense of urgency and accounted for how the Back Bay was developed as an exclusive enclave for wealthy Protestant families.

Social Class Motivations for Planning

Understanding social class motivations in planning for the Back Bay project requires looking at the demographic and social changes of the 1850 U.S. Census and examining the reactions of community leaders to that Census. The City of Boston was sufficiently concerned to commission a special report by a Dr.

Chickering on “some facts and considerations relating to the foreign population [his italics] among us, and especially in the City of Boston. The increase of foreigners among us of late has rendered this object of inquiry one of importance to the interest of the City” (Boston City Document 42, 1850). Although filling the Back Bay is not mentioned in Chickering’s report, he clearly indicates the need to keep native-born residents in Boston so that the “foreign class” will not completely dominate the City.

While large numbers of poor Irish immigrants came to Boston, in 1855 an estimated 40,000 business and professional men were commuting daily by train from the growing suburbs. Boston’s population was 53% foreign- born people and their children (Boston City Document 69, 1855). The Protestant leaders of Boston and Massachusetts feared that the city might soon be taken over by Catholic immigrants. This anti-immigrant element was related to the dominance of the American Party (the “Know-Nothings”) in Massachusetts when the Back Bay plans were finalized. The American Party governor from 1854-57, Henry J. Gardner, warned of dangers from the “horde of foreign-born” (John Mulkern. 1990. The Know- Nothing Party in Massachusetts).

After a struggle with the City of Boston for control over the project, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts appointed three commissioners in 1852 to plan and carry out the filling of the Back Bay. Boston lost its right to develop any of the area, but the boundary line with Roxbury was moved westward to put most of the new neighborhood in Boston. The commissioners rejected two imaginative plans for the Back Bay that called for retaining bodies of water. In 1856, the commissioners divided the landfill project and determined that the 100 most valuable acres would be filled by the Commonwealth.

Social Class Motivations for Development

Social class motivations are clear in the commissioners’ description of how they developed the final plan: “We listened with attention to the suggestions of several gentlemen of taste and judgment who appeared before us. Some of these gentlemen were among those who design purchasing lots in the territory when it is filled” (Massachusetts Senate Document 17, 1857). As a result of this process, Commonwealth Avenue was made more than 50% wider than originally planned.

The Commission set aside about onethird of the area for public purposes and clearly stated the social motive of attracting appropriate residents: “It is obviously a matter of the utmost moment that a good system of streets, avenues, and public squares shall be adopted, in order to make the territory as attractive as possible, and induce people about to build houses to select lots in this locality” (ibid). Evidence of social class motivations in the planning process is also seen in the selection of appropriate churches and other institutions for the Back Bay and the reservation of key pieces of land for them. For example, no Catholic church was allowed in the Back Bay proper, but one was built west of today’s Sheraton Hotel, close enough for house servants to attend Mass nearby.

The Commission took care throughout the project to bring only the highest quality buyers and residents into the new Back Bay development. When and how house lots were sold was carefully calculated to restrict the district to wealthy Protestant families. At first, the commissioners paid the contractors with land and sold the remaining lots at auction or in regular land sales. This kept the prices high enough to attract only wealthy buyers. In the first three years of the project, the commissioners sold 340,643 square feet, but then the market softened and no land was sold in 1861. After the State portion was filled, the large amount of unsold land was held off the market from 1874 through 1878 (Massachusetts Public Document 11, 1884). It is important to note that the landfill process continued unabated through the Civil War.

The commissioners also used tight zoning regulations and strict enforcement to ensure that the Back Bay would be a wealthy neighborhood. Commercial establishments were only allowed on two streets, industries and commercial stables were prohibited, and houses had to be built of brick or stone and of consistent heights on streets. Zoning enforcement required the owners of two buildings to remove bay windows too close to sidewalks and alleys.

Efforts = High-Status Population

The Commission succeeded at attracting the wealthiest Protestant families. Zoning and sales practices resulted in a uniformly high-status population, and a prime area was set aside and donated for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Museum of Natural History. Copley Square, the most important public space after the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, was planned to establish its importance with the Museum of Fine Arts and two high-status Protestant churches; the massive Boston Public Library was built facing Copley Square in the early 1890s. Other churches and institutions linked with wealthy Protestant society built new facilities in the Back Bay, firmly establishing its place in “Proper Boston.”

When you walk the Back Bay’s leafy streets and window-shop on Newbury Street, remember that this neighborhood did not “just happen.” Social class tensions and anti-immigrant politics shaped the plans more than 150 years ago. Steam power transformed hundreds of acres of polluted former tidal marsh. A Parisinspired grand avenue and French architectural styles of the day set the elegant tone that survives in 2008. Enjoy the Back Bay with a richer understanding of its social history.

GO RED SOX!! small_green

Back to Front Page of Footnotes