The South End lies south of the Back Bay, northwest of South Boston, northeast of Roxbury, north of Dorchester, and southwest of Bay Village. Despite the name, it is not directly south of the center of downtown Boston.
The neighborhood is built upon a former tidal marsh, a part of a larger project of the filling of Boston's Back Bay (north and west of Washington Street) and South Bay (south and east of Washington Street), from the 1830s to the 1870s. Fill was brought in by trains from large trenches of gravel excavated in Needham, Massachusetts. The South End was filled and developed first, before the Back Bay which was mostly built after the American Civil War. Nineteenth century technology did not allow for driving steel piles into bedrock and instead a system of submerged timbers provided an understructure for most South End buildings. Recent decreases in underground water levels has caused damage to some wood pilings by exposing them to air. A series of monitoring wells have been drilled and the water level is now checked, and can be adjusted by the introduction of water.
The South End was once bordered to the north and west by the Boston & Providence Railroad, which terminated at the B&P RR Station bordering the Public Garden. The railroad line is now covered by the Southwest Corridor Park and terminates at Back Bay Station. Most of the cross streets in the neighborhood are named after cities and towns served by the railroad: Greenwich, Connecticut, Newton, Canton, Dedham, Brookline, Rutland, Vermont, Concord, Worcester, Springfield, Camden, Maine, Northampton, Sharon, Randolph, Plympton, Stoughton, Waltham, Dover, Chatham, Bristol, Connecticut, and Wareham.
The primary business thoroughfares of the South End are Tremont and Washington Streets, from West Newton Street to Berkeley Street. Washington Street, the original causeway that connected Roxbury to Boston, experienced considerable reinvestment in the 1990s. The street was once defined by the Washington Street Elevated, an elevated train that was moved to below Southwest Corridor Park in the 1980s. Today Washington is the route of the Silver Line, Boston's first bus rapid transit line. Columbus Avenue, the third main street of the South End, also has numerous restaurants and provides a remarkable straight-line view to the steeple of Park Street Church. Today the modern MBTA Orange Line rapid transit train runs along the partially covered Southwest Corridor, with neighborhood stops at Back Bay (also an MBTA Commuter Rail stop due to its proximity to the Copley Square employment center) and Massachusetts Avenue.
The South End is built mostly of mid-nineteenth century bowfronts — aesthetically uniform rows of five-story, predominantly red-brick structures, of mixed residential and commercial uses. The most common styles are Renaissance Revival, Italianate and French Second Empire, though there are Greek Revival, Egyptian Revival, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne style houses, among several other styles. Row houses built in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, especially along the present Southwest Corridor Park show the influence of Charles Eastlake in the incised decoration on stone trim. Despite the style, a common palette of red brick, slate, limestone or granite trim, and cast iron railings provide great visual unity. Today, the South End is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Boston Landmark District. It is North America's largest extant Victorian residential district. A citizens' group, The South End Historical Society, works with the Boston Landmarks Commission, on matters of historic preservation.
A series of eleven residential parks are located across the South End, most are elliptical in shape with passive-use green space located in the middle. These residential squares vary in size, and take inspiration from English-inspired residential squares first laid out by Charles Bulfinch downtown. Many of the parks have a central fountain and are bordered with cast iron fencing. Complimenting the nineteenth century residential parks are several newer parks, and a series of sixteen community gardens and pocket parks operated by the South End Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust.
A burgeoning middle class moved to the South End including business owners, two mayors, bankers, and industrialists. Though the neighborhood's status as a wealthy neighborhood was relatively short-lived, myths of a dramatic white flight in the 1880s are not entirely true. A series of national financial panics (see e.g., Panic of 1884, Economic history of the United States), combined with the emergence of new residential housing in Back Bay and Roxbury fed a steady decline of whites of English Protestant ancestry. Still whites remained in the neighborhood, but increasingly they were Catholic and recent immigrants.
By the close of the nineteenth century the South End was becoming a tenement district, first attracting new immigrants and, in the 1940s, single gay men. The South End also became a center of black middle class Boston life and culture. The largest concentration of Pullman Porters in the country lived in the South End, mostly between Columbus Avenue and the railroad bed. As the decades progressed, more buildings became tenements and by the 1960s absentee landlordism was rampant and the neighborhood was one of the poorest of the city.
The first settlement houses in Boston were in the South End: the South End House, Haley House, Lincoln House, the Harriet Miller House, and the Children's Art Centre. In 1960 these settlement houses merged to form United South End Settlements.
The racial makeup of the South End in 2000 was 45% non-Hispanic white, 23% black or African-American, 17% Hispanic or Latino, 12% Asian-American, and 2% multi-racial.
From 1915 to 1970 the American Federation of Musicians Local 535 was the top black musicians' union in the country, with local and national musicians such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Lunceford. Its offices were originally above Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe (whose walls are lined with photographs of the jazz stars who ate there), but moved to 409 Massachusetts Avenue around 1930. In 1970 it and the white union (Local 9) were ordered to merge by the courts (Boston Musicians Association Local 9-535) and most of the black musicians left.
The South End is host to numerous community organizations including South End Baseball, Youth Enrichment Services, the South End Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust, Mytown (an organization training youth to lead walking tours on neighborhood and Boston history), and the South End Historical Society.
The Animal Rescue League of Boston, founded in 1899 by Anna Harris Smith is located in the South End at 10 Chandler Street. The Animal Rescue League of Boston features an animal shelter, an animal cruelty investigation and prosecution law enforcement department, a rescue department, an animal behavior department and an outpatient veterinary facility, the Community Veterinary Health Center.
Beginning in the 1940s, particularly after the end of WWII the South End's rooming houses became home to growing numbers of homosexuals, mostly men, but lesbians too. The environment of single sex rooming houses provided home, and social cover for unmarried homosexuals. In the late 1940s a growing population of Hispanic people began settlement. At first much of this settlement was centered around the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Today the neighborhood remains diverse, integrating people of nearly every race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Income levels are anecdotally reported as stratified: a concentration of the wealthy and the poor. However, neither the U.S. Census or City of Boston reports on income of this specific neighborhood. Though gentrification is sometimes cited as a reason for flight of poorer and non-white residents, the neighborhood has maintained racial and income diversity due to a large number of subsidized, publicly owned, or otherwise low-income housing units and a homeless shelter. Subsidized below market rate housing developments such as Methunion Manor, Cathedral Housing (public housing project), Villa Victoria, and Tent City vary considerably and represent evolving attitudes in public housing design and governance.
Although all neighborhoods in Boston suffer from crime, the city has a comparatively low incidence of street crime. The South End is large enough that some parts can be known for street crime while others are family friendly. The South End has more public playgrounds per square foot than other Boston neighborhoods. The South End is known as an increasingly upper middle class neighborhood. Some long-time residents are being pushed out by rising rents and property taxes. Because of a strong low-income agenda from the city, its recent (until the 1970s) history of impoverishment, and the presence of several low income housing projects, the South End will likely remain economically and racially diverse.
The South End is also known as a gay, artistic, and cultural neighborhood, although rising costs in the neighborhood threaten this character. Unlike cities such as New York, there are no city policies to help artists keep their long-term studios. Art galleries, however, are flourishing. One Yahoo! Group for South End parents (Garden Moms) boasts over 1,300 members, showing that families are a growing facet of this community.
Though housing in the South End is very expensive by U.S. and Greater Boston standards — it is rare to find a one bedroom condo for less than $400,000 — the South End remains less expensive than the wealthiest central Boston neighborhoods (Beacon Hill and the Back Bay).
The South End has a growing retail presence, much of it aimed primarily at upper-middle class shoppers. New retail shops offer a range of home furnishings, men's and women's clothing, stationery, specialty foods, spa services, and a rapidly growing number of manicure and pedicure shops. Several new stores cater to wealthy dog owners.
As recently as 1985 there were no bank offices in the neighborhood. As of autumn 2006 there are seven full service branch offices, an additional four partial-service branches offering home loans and ATMs but without full cashier service, more than forty local bank-linked ATM locations, and additional ATMs operated by retailers with service fees nearly double those in banks.
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