Founded in 1630, Roxbury was once an independent town before it was annexed to Boston in 1898 and became a neighborhood. Roxbury was founded in 1630 by an ancestor of novelist Thomas Pynchon, who later wrote the first book banned – and even burned – in the colony. The neighborhood is one of the sites where the Revolutionary War began, when William Dawes (1745-1799) – one of the unsung heroes of the revolution – joined Paul Revere on the 'midnight ride' in April 1775 to warn about the British marching to seize the colonists' munitions.
Roxbury Heritage State Park was funded in 1984 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is headquartered at the oldest house in Roxbury, the Dillaway-Thomas House (183 Roxbury St.), built in 1750, and where the Continental Army headquartered in 1775. It is now a museum that will serve as the anchor for a larger park, over time.
Well-positioned for housing price growth. Roxbury is surrounded by neighborhoods with rising prices, including Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and the South End. However, much like Dorchester, Roxbury is a large neighborhood that was once an independent city. As a result, housing prices will likely rise unevenly across the neighborhood.
Cultural and academic anchors. The northern end of the neighborhood is close to several colleges, including the Berklee School of Music, MassArt, Northeastern, and School of the Museum of Fine Arts. And the neighborhood has a number of cultural anchors, including the Roxbury Center for the Arts, Culture, and Trade; Roxbury Historical Society, and the MainStage theater at Roxbury Community College provides workshops and a lecture series. Also, a historic residence is being converted into [G]Code House, an incubator for women of color who program, according to Curbed, Boston magazine, and Fast Company.
Substantial green space. The 527-acre Franklin Park is the largest of the Emerald Necklace of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The urban wilds which surround the William J. Devine public golf course offer residents additional green space.
Parts of the neighborhood built on reclaimed land. Sections of Roxbury have been, like many other Boston neighborhoods, built upon or expanded by reclaimed land. When Boston was established on the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630, it was only connected to the mainland of Massachusetts by a narrow stretch of land called the Roxbury Neck. The village of Roxbury was established three miles south of Boston, and all the traffic heading into Boston from southern Massachusetts had to, because of the narrow Roxbury Neck, pass through the village, making it an important location for transportation and trade. However, it is difficult to imagine this geography today, given how much of the salt marshes have been filled in and have since become the Fenway-Kenmore and South End neighborhoods.
Reclaimed land can settle over time, and in waterfront areas, can be more vulnerable to horizontal flooding from storm surges and climate change. In addition, the buildings in these areas are often constructed on a platform of wooden pilings (the TL;DR version: basically stripped trees rammed into the earth until they hit a solid, rocky bottom). When these pilings are fully submerged underwater, they are resistant to rot. But when the water table changes because of construction, drought, or climate change, the portion of the wooden piling that is exposed to air can soften, weaking the building foundation.
Roxbury puddingstone. The hilly geography and many large outcroppings of Roxbury puddingstone, a mixture of silt with give the region a distinct look. The Dorchester Reporter gives the best explanation: "The silt is a mixture of rock flour and ash from early volcanic eruptions. The rocks, or 'nuts' were rounded by the rivers, which chipped off sharp edges and wore down the rocks as they bumped along in the current. The silt hardened and gripped the rocks like stone jello holding together the pieces of a petrified fruit salad." It was named by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in his poem "The Dorchester Giant," about a giant baby flinging his pudding over the landscape. And he also wrote:
"I wonder whether the boys that live in Roxbury and Dorchester are ever moved to tears or filled with silent awe as they look upon the rocks and fragments of 'puddingstone' abounding there. A lump of puddingstone is a thing to look at, to think about, to dream upon. Look at that pebble in it. From what cliff was it broken? On what beach rolled by the waves of what ocean? How and when embedded in soft ooze, which itself became stone, and by-and-by was lifted into bald summits and steep cliffs, such as you may see on Meeting-House-Hill any day.
While named for Roxbury, it is the vast bedrock under Brookline, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Milton, Newton, and Quincy. Puddingstone was quarried for many years in Roxbury and Brighton, and used in the foundations of many houses in the area, including the Abbotsford mansion in Roxbury.
As with many former cities that are now neighborhoods of Boston, it once contained several neighborhoods of its own which are still distinct sections today. These include:
Fort Hill, also known as Roxbury Highlands, was largely developed before the Civil War. The cluster of large, architecturally-significant Greek Revival and Italianate houses is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Roxbury Highlands Historic District. This section is roughly bounded by Malcolm X Boulevard on the north, Washington Street on the southeast, and Columbus Avenue.
Within the neighborhood, Highland Park is the highest point in Roxbury, offering views of Back Bay, Jamaica Plain, and the Fenway. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and features a Victorian tower by noted architect Nathaniel Jeremiah Bradlee (1829-1888), who also designed buildings in the Back Bay, Lower Mills, and the South End. The tower was built as a water tank for the Cochichuate Water Company, and its position at the top of the hill allowed gravity to drive the system. Rather than a utilitarian tank, it was designed as an ornate tower, with iron stairs that spiral around the tank, leading to a balcony with a sweeping view of Boston. This vision – to transform a utilitarian building into a thing of beauty – is also the thinking behind the elaborate H.H. Richardson pumphouses at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir (historically known as the Nathaniel J. Bradlee Basin) and the ornate sewer headworks on Columbia Point.
In 1825, investors (Benjamin Copeland, Charles Hickling, David and Thomas Simmons, and delightfully-named Supply Thwing) purchased 28-acres which included the Roxbury High Fort. The goal was to create a elegant, rural enclave that also preserved the historic fort. By 1832, Highland and Centre Street crossed the hill, and some of the earliest mansions – including the Copeland House, Kittredge House (1836), and Hale House (1841) – survive. However, by the 1840s, given the growing urbanization of Roxbury, landowners began subdividing their estates and the neighborhood began to be more heavily developed in the 1850s and '60s.
Grove Hall is at the edge of Roxbury and Dorchester's Mount Bowdoin and Uphams Corner neighborhoods. The hilltop neighborhood overlooks Washington Street and Blue Hill Avenue, and was named for the estate of merchant Thomas Kilby Jones (1759-1842), built around 1800. The neighborhood is close to Franklin Park, and has an active commercial district that is guided by Greater Grove Hall Main Streets is part of Boston Main Streets, a public‑private initiative of the City of Boston and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Lower Roxbury is actually in the upper section of Roxbury (we never said Boston real estate wasn't complicated!) and is surrounded by the South End. However, the historic neighborhood – along with its parks and schools – was largely razed during misguided Urban Renewal programs. The historic street grid was de-mapped, and in place of the historic neighborhood, the city developed superblocks of affordable housing. Despite the area's central location – it is within two miles of downtown Boston, and is served by multiple subway and bus routes – there is an overwhelming sense of isolation, and Lower Roxbury feels cut off from the South End.
As a result of urban renewal, Lower Roxbury has one of the highest concentrations of Extremely Low Income (ELI) families, and the highest concentrations of subsidized housing of any community in New England, according to American City Coalition. Lower Roxbury is bounded by Massachusetts Avenue to the north, Melnea Cass Bloulevard to the south, Tremont Street to the west, and Harrison Avenue to the east.
Mission Hill is the northernmost neighborhood of Roxbury, where it is just south of the cluster of universities, museums, and parks that anchor the lower Fenway: the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, as well as Harvard Medical School, Northeastern University, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Simmons College, and Wentworth Institute. Parker Hill is the southern, and original, section of Mission Hill. Mission Hill was originally known as Parker Hill.
Several of the mansions from when Roxbury was known for its estates survive. These include:
Abbotsford (300 Walnut Ave.), constructed in 1872, is the last mansion built in Roxbury, and was part of a large estate known for its apple orchards. It was designed by architect Alden Frink for industrialist Aaron Davis Williams Jr. The structure was built of Roxbury puddingstone, the outcroppings which led the settlers to call the new town 'Rocksberry.' It now houses the National Center for Afro American Arts.
Alvah Kittredge HouseBack Bay and the South End. In the 20th century, the house was moved elsewhere on its lot, the front steps and gardens were removed, and a large wing of the house was demolished. It has since been converted to apartments.
Benjamin Copeland House (140 Highland, Fort Hill) built c.1828 as a residence for one of the initial investors in the Fort Hill neighborhood.
Dillaway-Thomas House (183 Roxbury St.) was built 1750-1752, and is one of the few remaining houses from the 1700s in Boston. It is named for two significant occupants, General John Thomas in 1776-1776 and Charles K. Dillaway, who lived here with his family 1835-1903. During the eleven month siege of Boston (1775-1776), almost 5,000 Boston soldiers camped in Roxbury, and Thomas used the house as his headquarters. He is said to have watched the Battle of Bunker Hill and the burning of Charlestown from the rear windows. Charles K. Dillaway (1804-1899) was headmaster of Boston Latin School from 1831-1835, and an author. In the 1850s, when Japan was opened to the west, Dillaway educated a group of Japanese students at this house. It is now the headquarters for Roxbury Heritage State Park.
Edward Everett Hale House (12 Morley St., Fort Hill). The Greek Revival house was built in 1841 on Highland Street, and later moved to its current location. Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), the Unitarian minister, social reformer, and author, lived here for over forty years. He was a nephew of Edward Everett, the orator and statesman, and grand-nephew of Nathan Hale (1755-1776), the Revolutionary War hero executed by the British for espionage. Hale was also related to Helen Keller (1880-1968). In addition to the classic "Man Without a Country," published by the Atlantic in 1863 and which rallied support for the abolitionist cause, he also wrote science fiction, and was one of the first to write stories of time travel.
Ionic Hall (149 Roxbury St.) is the oldest brick building in Roxbury. Built in 1800 in the Federal style, it was originally a home for a Mrs. Hammond, the daughter of Captain Stoddard of Hingham. Other residents include diplomat William Lee (1772-1840); Judge Sherman Leland; and Theodore Otis, a lawyer who served as the Mayor of Roxbury in 1859-1860. It is now used as the Episcopal Church of St. John and St. James.
Shirley Eustis House (33 Shirley St.) played a role in British colonial history and the American Revolution. It was built 1747-1750 as a residence for William Shirley (1694-1771), the British colonial governor of the Massachusetts, and is one of only four surviving colonial governors' mansions in the United States. During the Siege of Boston (1775-1776), almost 5,000 colonial troops were quartered in Roxbury, and the house served as a barracks. From 1823-1825, it was home to William Eustis (1753-1825), a physician who became the first democratic governor of Massachusetts. Eustis studied medicine under Joseph Warren (1741-1775), the doctor and patriot who sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on the storied ride to warn the residents of Lexington and Concord.
Spooner-Lambert House (64 Bartlett St.). Built in 1782, the Georgian house is the third-oldest surviving building in Roxbury. it was expanded with Federal details and has since been converted to condos which have retained many historic details. Built in 1782 for Major John Jones Spooner, first commander of the Roxbury Artillery. Boston merchant Captain William Lambert bought the house in 1788. It has since been converted to condos.
The Roxbury Highlands Historic District is in the Fort Hill neighborhood. Within this part of the neighborhood, Highland Park is loosely bounded by Washington Street to the east, Malcolm X Boulevard to the north, Columbus Avenue to the west, and Ritchie/Marcella Street to the south.
Lower Roxbury Historic District (PDF). With only 36 buildings, the compact Lower Roxbury Historic District is notable for its intact historic fabric and its density compared to the immediate surroundings. The district is characterized by an intact collection of early 1900s brick, Revival style, residential and mixed use buildings. Largely architect-designed, the district’s buildings typically are ornamented with variations of Classical Revival detail.
Within the district is Frederick Douglass Square, a cluster of small brick rowhouses from the 1880s that were built as model workers housing.
One of the surviving pockets of historic buildings within Lower Roxbury are the six streets bounded by Windsor, Warwick, Westminster and Hammond streets. The neighborhood also contains an example of model workers' housing at Frederick Douglass Square (Greenwich, Warwick, and Sussex streets), small brick row-houses built in the 1880s. The square is bounded by Greenwich, Warwick, and Sussex streets.
Moreland Historic District . The Moreland historic district is located just beyond Dudley Square, with its bus terminal offering quick access to workplaces and universities. The Moreland area is well-known in Roxbury for its well-preserved historic residential structures framed by gracious tree-lined streets, and large, attractive central park. There is a relatively high rate of homeownership here, and it experienced very few foreclosures during the recession.
In addition to these estate houses and historic districts, there are a number of other notable houses and commercial buildings throughout Roxbury:
Alvah Kittredge Park rowhouses are a cluster of brick rowhouses facing Alvah Kittredge Park, with an expansive view of Boston's skyline.
Cedar Street Marble Rowhouses (28-40 Cedar St., Fort Hill) This marble-clad block is an example of Second Empire Style design, a French style popular at the time of Roxbury's annexation to Boston in 1868. Built by George D. Cox in 1871, the houses were an attempt to attract other developers by creating the base for an elegant urban square.
Cox Building (1 Eliot Sq.). Built in 1870 by prominent developer George D. Cox, who developed over 1,600 buildings in the area, including the Cedar Street Marble Rowhouses. The Cox Building embodies Roxbury's transition after the Civil War, from an independent rural town into an urbanizing neighborhood of Boston. It originally consisted of a central section with street-level stores and a hotel above, flanked by five attached one-family residences.
First Church of Roxbury (10 Putnam St.) Built in 1804, this is the oldest surviving wooden church in Boston. (Old North Church was built in 1722, but of brick). This is the fifth building on this site since the first church was erected in 1632. The land around the church is a fragment of the original Roxbury town commons. The most prominent pastor of this church was the Rev. John Eliot (c.1604-1690), who founded Roxbury Latin School in 1645, and wrote the first book printed in the new world, an Algonquin translation of the Bible, in 1663. Because of Eliot's missionary work, this was one of only three churches at the time to admit Native Americans as full members.
Freedom House (14 Crawford St.) has been at the center of key political movements in Boston, including the fight against urban renewal in the 1960s, the bus crisis in the 1970s, and education reform in the 1990s. It was established in 1949 by social workers Otto and Muriel Snowden (1916-1988) as a social and political gathering place for residents of Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain.
William Lloyd Garrison House (125 Highland Park) The house, also known as Rockledge or 'Freedom's Cottage', is a Greek Revival built in the 1840s that is named for its most famous occupant, the abolitionist and suffragist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). Garrison was a leader of the anti-slavery movement in Boston, and served as editor of the abolitionist journal, The Liberator, from 1831-1865. It is notable that when he championed voting rights for women, this created a split in the abolitionist movement. Rockledge is the only one of Garrison's residences which survives. The house is now owned by the St. Margaret Convent and is used as a conference center.
Hampton-Bond House (188 Lambert Ave.) was built in the 1830s by noted architect Richard Bond, and was the residence and studio of Henry Hampton (1940-1998), the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. Hampton's documentary Eyes on the Prize is credited with shifting the Civil Rights narrative from one of victimization to one of strength. It is being considered for landmark status.
Hibernian Hall (184 Dudley St.). Built in 1913, it was one of the last of Dudley Square's lively Irish social clubs and dance halls. The organization began in 1836 in New York City as a response to anti-Irish sentiment, and later shifted to charitable work and the promotion and preservation of Irish cultural heritage. Today, it houses the Roxbury Center for the Arts.
Malcolm X and Ella Little-Collins House (72 Dale St.) (PDF) The house was built in 1874, and was named for its most significant resident, activist and social reformer Malcolm X. He moved here as a teenager in 1941, to live with his half-sister, educator and activist Ella Little-Collins (1914-1996). His room was on the top floor of the house. Ella acted as a parental figure to Malcolm, encouraging him to study theology and law during his incarceration. Malcolm returned to Boston in 1953 and founded Temple Number Eleven.
Palladio Hall (60-62 Warren St.). Built in the late 1870s, Palladio Hall is a rare Boston example of an Italian Renaissance-style commercial block. It was designed and owned by Nathaniel J. Bradlee.
Mosque Number Eleven (10 Washington St., Grove Hall, Roxbury) was founded by Malcolm X around 1954, according to the City of Boston.
Warren Street was renamed in 1825 in honor of doctor Joseph Warren (1741-1775), a resident of Roxbury who died in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. He is the one who urged Paul Revere and William Dawes to begin their midnight ride to warn the colonists of the British raids of Lexington and Concord. And Warren both attended and later taught at Roxbury Latin School. Before this, the street was known as the “Way to Braintree” or the “Upper Road to Dorchester.”
The main commercial areas of Roxbury include Dudley Square, Crosstown, and Grove Hall. In addition, Egleston Square is claimed by both Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.
Blue Hill Avenue is Roxbury's main commercial thoroughfare.
Dudley Square is the primary retail and transit hub serving Roxbury, but as of 2012 the surrounding neighborhood lacked even a sit-down restaurant and a hardware store, according to the American City Council. Dudley Square Main Streets and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative support local business owners. In addition, air quality around Dudley Square can be poor because of the considerable bus traffic at the transit hub, according to the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development.
Egleston Square is claimed by both Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, according to Historic Boston. It is a commercial and former brewery district anchored by a mix of apartment buildings and one-story commercial buildings. It is adjacent to Hyde and Jackson squares in Jamaica Plain, as well as the Forest Hills neighborhood.
However, it is not perceived as a destination district, but rather as an place for basic needs, food, and services. According to Historic Boston, "The linear nature of the commercial district, coupled with the lack
of a distinct “center” contribute to this perception, as does the absence of a strong anchor
business or type of service. Further, Washington Street and Columbus Avenue are major vehicle
thoroughfares, and for most drivers, Egleston is a place to get through, not stop. "
The west and eastern edges of Roxbury are well-served by subways, but the center of the neighborhood is not.
On the west side, the Orange Line has three stops in or next to the neighborhood (Jackson Square, Roxbury Crossing, and Ruggles). On the east side, there are Commuter Rail stops at Uphams Corner and Newmarket.
Roxbury is a large neighborhood just south of the Shawmut peninsula of Boston. To the north are the South End and the Fenway/Kenmore neighborhoods; to the west are Jamaica Plain and Brookline; to the south are Roslindale and Mattapan; and to the east are several neighborhoods of Dorchester.
Before 1630, the area was inhabited by the Wampanoag tribe. The first Puritan settlers arrived in 1630, led by William Pynchon (1589-1661), an ancestor of the distinguished author Thomas Pynchon (b.1937). He established the towns of Roxbury and Springfield, and became one of the wealthiest men in the colony, but was forced to return to England after writing a book which criticized the Puritans. That said, he became the first author banned in the New World, and the first to have his book burned on Boston Common.
When Boston was established on the Shawmut Peninsula, it was only connected to the mainland of Massachusetts by a narrow stretch of land called the Roxbury Neck. It was a strategic location for a settlement, as it guaranteed a lot of foot traffic coming from Boston to the mainland. However, early settlements also needed to be suitable for farming, and the rocky outcroppings – what would become known as Roxbury puddingstone – made this difficult. Indeed, the town's name of Roxbury was a corruption of Rocksberry, perhaps an expression of frustration with the soil quality here.
William Pynchon (1590-1662) – a distinguished ancestor of the contemporary novelist Thomas Pynchon – was one of New England's first and most business-minded settlers. When he founded Roxbury in 1630, he saw how its location was strategic for trade. It was near a narrow isthmus which connected to the port of Boston - so all of the Massachusetts mainland trade would need to pass through his town. Roxbury in the 1600s also held many of the resources English colonists prized: potentially arable land, timber, and a brook—a source of both water and water power—and stone for building. Among the early settlers are Richard Dummer (1589-1679), whose son Jeremiah (1643-1718) helped found Yale University, and whose grandson William Dummer served as governor of the colony, and for whom Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., is named.
By 1649, Pynchon was one of Massachusetts' wealthiest and most important men, and when he wrote a critique of puritanical Calvinism, the dominant religion of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it caused an uproar that caused him to return to England for the rest of his life. Published in 1650, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, became the first book banned in the new world, was burned on Boston Common – only four copies survive to this day – and the colonial legislature accused Pynchon of heresy. Coincidentally, Pynchon's court date took place on the same day and at the same place that the New World's first witch trial — that of Hugh and Mary Parsons of Springfield. Pynchon transferred his land holdings to his son, and returned to England in 1652, never to return to the colony.
Roxbury played a significant role in the American Revolution. On April 18, 1775, William Dawes started his 'midnight ride' at the First Church of Roxbury, to warn the colonists of the British raids on Lexington and Concord.
During the Siege of Boston (1775-1776), almost 5,000 Continental soldiers were quartered in Roxbury, and the Dillaway-Thomas House served as headquarters for General Thomas. It is said that he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill and the burning of Charlestown from the rear windows of the house.
From a colonial town to a Boston neighborhood.
Roxbury was one of the first towns founded in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. It became a city in 1846 – which prompted the more rural West Roxbury (which then included part of Jamaica Plain) to secede and become an independent town – and finally became a neighborhood of Boston when it was annexed to the city in 1868.
The colonial town of Roxbury, which at one point included Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, and Roslindale. The borders got even more complicated when the Back Bay was filled to create new land, much of which was still claimed by Roxbury until the late 1840s. The settlement with Boston dictated that the land southeast of where Massachusetts Avenue meets the Charles River would remain part of the town of Roxbury. Today, this is the Mission Hill section of the neighborhood which contains much of the Fenway, the Museum of Fine Arts, and Northeastern University.
During this population boom, city planners set aside land for Franklin Park—with 527 acres it is the largest park Boston. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park is the final jewel of the Emerald Necklace, the seven mile stretch of public parkland that begins at Boston Common.
From an Irish neighborhood to a center of African-American life.
Following a massive migration from the South to northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s, Roxbury became the center of the African-American community in Boston. The center of African American residential and social activities in Boston had formerly been on the north slope of Beacon Hill and the South End. In particular, a riot in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in stores on Blue Hill Avenue being looted and eventually burned down, leaving a desolate and abandoned landscape which discouraged commerce and business development. Rampant arson in the 1970s along the Dudley Street corridor also added to the neighborhood's decline, leaving a landscape of vacant, trash filled lots and burned out buildings.
A movement known as the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project, led by Roxbury residents Andrew Jones and Curtis Davis, sought to form an independent municipality out of the Roxbury and the Mattapan area. The project was part of a larger goal to increase the amount of services available to residents, but in 1986 Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn rejected the idea. The area was to be named "Mandela" (after South African activist Nelson Mandela).
Around 1965, one side of Ruggles Street was small shops and the other side was decorated with tenement style and single family housing. At the corner of Douglas Square and Tremont Street was one notable shop called People's Market; the first supermarket in Boston located in a black area. In 1986, the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project sought to create a 12.5 square-mile city that included the entirety of Roxbury and Mattapan as well as portions of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Fenway, Columbia Point and the South End that was to be called "Mandela" after Nelson Mandela. In 1988, a referendum was defeated that would have examined the feasibility of reincorporation because the organizers of the movement believed that the area would flourish if they could create their own government that would not discriminate against minorities.
Grove Hall History
The name “Grove Hall” comes from the name of the mansion of the wealthy merchant, Thomas Kilby Jones, built about 1800 on a knoll overlooking the intersection of what is now Blue Hill Avenue and Washington Street. This area remained largely rural in character during the first half of the 1800s. However, after Roxbury was annexed to Boston in 1868, it developed more rapidly. From 1906 until the 1950s, Grove Hall and surrounding areas were important centers of Jewish life and religion. By the 1930s some African Americans had moved to upper Roxbury, and by 1950 the numbers had grown in the areas around St. Mark’s Congregational Church and Charles Street AME Church. The Grove Hall area experienced a major racial transition in the 1950s and 1960s with the Jewish population moving out to the suburbs. Those years and some of the following period were turbulent times. In the last 15 years the areas along Blue Hill Avenue and the heart of Grove Hall have seen considerable investment and renaissance with a new shopping center, renovations, and new buildings.
One of the early landholders in the area was Edward Payson who owned more than a thousand acres in the 1600s. He came to Roxbury in 1634 and moved to Dorchester near the Roxbury line in 1658.1 When he died in 1689, he left property to his sons and sons-in-law.2 His son Samuel received the western part of his lands near the Grove Hall area, including the homestead where he farmed all his life. He was a constable, selectman, and one of the leading citizens.3 This homestead or its site was then owned by John Goddard, and in 1747 he began operating a tavern there.4 Between 1754 and 1756, Stephen Kent moved from Chelsea to Roxbury, and in 1763 he received approval to operate the tavern at this site. “He hath lately hired a house in Roxbury which hath for many years been occupied as a tavern and was not long since improved as such by one Goddard.”5 Stephen died in 1767, and his wife took over as innkeeper for about the next 30 years.6 In 1796 it ceased operations as a public house. Not many years after that, Grove Hall was built on this site (what is now the South East corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Washington Street).
In the 1700s, Governor Increase Sumner (Jr.) also owned land in the Grove Hall area.7 The governor’s grandfather, Edward Sumner, owned several lots in Roxbury and Dorchester, and his father, Increase (Sr.) was an industrious farmer with legendary strength who developed what was called the Morgan Farm. When his father died in 1774, Increase, Jr. inherited the farmland, although he made his home on what is now Bartlett Street in town. He was for many years a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Court before becoming governor in 1797. He was also a talented farmer and taught his son the art of grafting fruit trees. His son, General William Hyslop Sumner, who inherited the estate in 1799, was a founder of the Massachusetts Horticultual Society and the developer of East Boston. In 1832 Marshall P. Wilder purchased the Sumner estate, and for the next half century used the land to experiment with many varieties of fruit trees, plants and flowers. The property included most of the land between Washington Street, Columbia Road and Normandy Street. At one time his pear orchard included 2,500 trees of 800 varieties.8 He introduced several new pears including the Anjou pear. He also grew America’s finest collection of Camelias (300 varieties) and was the first in the US to grow and display a number of other flowers like orchids and Japanese lilies.9 In general, Grove Hall in the first half of the nineteenth century was sparsely settled and mostly characterized by country estates, farms, and orchards.
Roads, street railways, and railroads have influenced the development of the Grove Hall neighborhood over the years. In 1663 a road was laid out along the lines of the present Warren Street and Washington Street (Dorchester) and was known as the “Way to Braintree” or the “Upper Road to Dorchester.”10 It was later known as “The Great Plymouth Road,” and the Roxbury segment was renamed “Warren Street” in 1825.11 In 1735 Paul Dudley set out the “Four Mile Stone” on this road near Bugbee’s Tavern opposite what is now 473 Warren St.12 In March 1805 the Brush Hill Turnpike Corporation was formed with the intent of laying out a new road from the west side of the Blue Hill in Milton to the “Four Mile Stone in Roxbury.” By 1809 this Brush Hill Turnpike had been built as a toll road, but it stopped at Grove Hall a half mile short. This enterprise was not very successful, and in 1856 the company gave it over to the county. It was renamed Grove Hall Avenue and in 1870 became Blue Hill Avenue.13 The part between Grove Hall and Dudley Street was also called East Street at one time. The road called “Long Crouch” was later named Seaver Street after Ebenezer Seaver whose house, built in 1721, was located near the intersection of Cheney Street and the present Blue Hill Avenue.14 Grove Hall was therefore a crossroads for travel to and from the south and southeast into Roxbury and Boston.
The Grove Hall estate and mansion stood at this crossroads for nearly a century from 1800 to 1898, although it served many different purposes over the years. The original owner, Thomas Kilby Jones, was “a prominent merchant and auctioneer of Boston and a gentleman of liberal hospitality.”15 He joined the First Church of Roxbury in 1804 and was a trustee of the Roxbury Latin School.16 In 1832 the original Grove Hall mansion was enlarged and became a hotel and summer boarding house resort. By 1837 it was owned by Edward D. Clarke and managed by C. A. Flagg. Bowen’s 1838 travel guide describes it as “a delightful resort for private parties, having every accommodation for their recreation and amusement.”17 The estate was converted into the American Orthopedic Institute in the 1840s by Dr. Alanson Abbe. The institute treated various medical conditions (curvature of the spine, paralysis of the limbs, club feet, etc.) and offered several regular school courses so young people could continue their studies.18
In 1871, Dr. Charles Cullis remodeled the facilities, converting the estate into the Cullis Consumptives’ Home. When it was founded in 1864 on Vernon Street, this was only the third free hospital in America for the treatment of consumption (tuberculosis).19 At Grove Hall it was able to care for 80 male and female patients in the last stages of pulmonary tuberculosis.20 This was a faith-based organization with a sign over the door, “Faith in God.” “The earnest and kind workers rely upon no endowment, but believe their aid comes in answer to prayer; and upon that they depend for daily expenses.”21 In 1897 a new, attractive building was erected facing Franklin Park opposite Seaver Street. The abandoned old building was considered an eyesore. Therefore, when neighborhood boys set fire to the historic structure in July 1898, the fire department let it burn. Near the new Consumptive Home, also under the same management, were two other homes: the Spinal Home and a Children’s Home for children of patients at the Consumptives’ Home. The facility always served those without funds and family to take care of them. It was still in operation in the early 20th century.
However, from 1885 to 1895 there was a building boom, especially west of Blue Hill Avenue. In 1886 Franklin Park was established south of Seaver Street. Also, Oakland Garden, an outdoor summer amusement park, was operating during this period. This so called “Summer Garden” was located between Erie Street and Columbia Road. It offered nightly theatrical presentations, regular band concerts, occasional outdoor sports, and an opportunity to see animals in a caged zoo.
Until the coming of the street railways and their five-cent fares into town, it was simply impractical for most people to live in the Grove Hall area and commute into Boston. The street railways often expanded to areas before they were developed and therefore stimulated development and an increase in property values.
In October 1926 St. Mark’s Congregational Church became the first African American church to move to upper Roxbury, purchasing the former Quaker Meeting House at Townsend Street and Humboldt Ave. Under Rev. Samuel Leroy Laviscount’s leadership, the church experienced considerable growth even though the neighborhood was not predominantly black. The church soon founded the St. Mark’s Social Center that for many years played animportant role in service to the community, especially with programs for children and youth. Charles Street AME Church became the second African American church to move to Upper Roxbury when it bought the St. Ansgarius Swedish Episcopal Church building in 1939. The African American community grew around these two churches, especially around Humboldt Avenue and northwest of St. Marks.35
Theodore White and Nat Hentoff reveal in their tales of growing up in the area that there was a long-standing hostility between the Irish youth of nearby areas and the Jewish youth in the neighborhood.36 In the second half of 1943 violent attacks on Jewish youth increased from two or three reported incidents per month to eight in July, 11 in September, and many incidents in October.37 Wallace Stegner commented in the Atlantic Monthly, “Sometimes, fairly clearly, the violence was the ‘kid stuff’ that the Boston mayor and the police commissioner called it, and sometimes it was semi-organized warfare between neighborhood gangs. But very often it was a planned assault, preceded by the question, ‘Are you a Jew?”38 After the anti-Semitic violence in the fall of 1943, Protestant clergy organized an inter-faith committee in the area for the purpose of promoting good will between all religious and racial groups and equal police protection for all groups.
In 1950 there were about 70,000 Jews in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. This was still the largest Jewish community in New England even though some families had moved to Brookline and Newton over the two previous decades. During the next seventeen years, almost every Jewish institution in Roxbury and Dorchester either closed or moved. The initial post-war exodus to the suburbs of synagogue members and a significant proportion of key leaders led the Jewish schools and synagogues to consider moving. For example, “by the early 1950s half of the approximately 800 families [of Mishkan Tefila] lived in the suburbs and commuted back to Roxbury for religious services and Hebrew school.”39 Also 28 out of 30 executive committee members lived in the suburbs or downtown.40 As key institutions such as the Hebrew Teachers College and four schools, along with several synagogues moved or closed in the 1950s, this triggered an even larger movement to the suburbs. In 1958, the move of Mishkan Tefila, which had been one of New England’s leading synagogues, to Newton, was especially significant.
Gerald Gamm argues in his book, Urban Exodus, that racial change took place more rapidly in Jewish neighborhoods like Grove Hall than in Catholic neighborhoods because the synagogues were not deeply rooted in a geographic area like Catholic parishes, the members were not required to live within the local neighborhood, and the synagogue congregations could make autonomous decisions to change or leave.42 These factors probably predisposed Jewish residents to move when faced with some other issues like real-estate agents encouraging panic selling and blockbusting, discriminatory lending and insurance practices, increased crime and arson, and racial change in adjacent areas.43 Blacks and other urban residents for many years faced discriminatory policies of the FHA and financial institutions which “redlined” some urban areas, refusing to give mortgage and home improvement loans.
In the summer of 1968, the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG) was established to make available home mortgage funds to low-income black families within a designated area including Roxbury, South End, parts of Dorchester and Jamaica Plain, and the northern part of Mattapan. The BBURG program had some negative unintended consequences such as reckless speculation, a more rapid and tense process of racial change, and a later increase in foreclosures. However, as Gamm argues, it was not the primary cause of most of the Jewish exodus from the city.44 By 1970 that exodus was almost complete, even though some community members like Otto and Muriel Snowden had hoped for and worked to promote an integrated neighborhood.
One important community organization that has a long history of working to improve the neighborhood is Freedom House, founded in 1949 by Otto and Muriel Snowden. Otto had been directing the St. Mark Social Center, and Muriel was a graduate of Radcliffe and the New York School of Social Work. In 1952 they were able to raise funds to buy the Hebrew Teachers College building on Crawford Street. They set out with the mission “to conserve and improve the Upper Roxbury neighborhood and to provide opportunities for greater interracial contact and understanding both within the community itself and between its residents and those of Greater Boston.” The Snowdens planned programs and events to bring together Jewish and Black youth. They sought to promote an integrated community living in peace and understanding. In those years their “efforts included the establishment of block organizations to deal with neighborhood services including public safety, recreation, trash removal, and street cleaning.”45 As most of the Jewish residents moved out of Roxbury, Freedom House began to work more on the Washington Park Urban Renewal project. In the 1960s, Freedom House’s Work and Study Project sought to improve the neighborhood by involving high school and college youth in painting houses and tutoring school children. Over the years Freedom House worked on many issues such as affirmative action, innovative educational programs, school integration, urban renewal, and sponsored many programs to provide opportunities for urban youth. The organization became a nationally renowned civic center, and Muriel Snowden received a MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1988.
The most explosive events in Grove Hall’s history were the 1967 riots that took place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 2-4. About a year before this, Doris Bland had organized a group called the Mothers for Adequate Welfare (M.A.W.), and they had held several marches during the year to seek improvements in the welfare system. On Thursday afternoon, June 1, about 30 M.A.W. members started a silent vigil in the Grove Hall welfare office at 515 Blue Hill Ave. A small group of protesters also marched outside, and the vigil became an overnight sit-in. The mothers were upset with their welfare checks being cut off without warning; and hostile treatment by social workers, supervisors, and police in the Blue Hill welfare office, in addition to several other grievances.46
On Friday afternoon about 50 men and women, including some children were still holding the sit-in when the welfare workers attempted to close the office for the weekend. The protesters chained the doors shut and requested to speak to the city Welfare Director, Daniel J. Cronin. When he came, they asked to speak with him in the presence of the crowd outside rather than let him come in. About this time a welfare worker inside was reported to have had a heart attack. Police then sought to assist the worker and get the other welfare workers out, but bystanders attempted to block their entry. The police eventually made their entry through a window and cutting the chains. A woman inside yelled that the police were beating people, a door window smashed, and things became chaotic as police tried to remove the workers and the women involved in the sit-in. Black leaders believed the excessive force used by police started and furthered the riot.47 A large crowd had gathered, and several times it surged across the street at the line of police. Rocks, bottles, and bricks flew through the air, battering civilian and police cars, and injuring people. Cars were overturned. The crowd grew to 1,000, and an equal number of police were called in. The police fired 60 rounds over the heads of the rioters. Through the night many store windows were broken and the stores looted and set on fire up and down Blue Hill Avenue. This resulted in 15 blocks of debris-scattered sidewalks and streets, with 45 persons injured and 44 arrested, including Civil Rights leader, Thomas Atkins and Byron Rushing. There were accusations of police brutality during and after the arrests.48
On Saturday night, June 3, the violence continued with a fireman being shot in the wrist, and dozens of gangs of roving youth engaging in spontaneous violence. They went around smashing windows, looting stores, and sounding false alarms, while police tried to control the area. Even with the presence of 1,900 policemen, rioting continued on Sunday night. Although there was still tension in the air, the situation had quieted down by Monday evening. Over the three nights of rioting 75 people were injured and 60-70 were arrested.49 In addition to the millions of dollars of property damage, the rioting had an impact on the social and business life of Blue Hill Avenue that lasted for many years. Twenty years later in 1987, a new 28,000 square foot welfare office was opened nearby on Washington Street offering assistance with employment and training, housing, and health care enrollment.
The following April there were more riots in the Grove Hall area (and other neighborhoods) after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Some looting and arson took place, as well as stoning of cars and buses. A group of black volunteers with white armbands went around the community seeking to cool things down. On Friday, April 5, a group of 400 protesters went to the Jeremiah Burke High School and vandalized some furniture and displays. One teacher was injured and a couple of others were pulled from their cars. With the help of black leaders, things were quiet by Saturday morning. Although 30 were arrested and 13 injured, these riots were far less extensive than in other cities at the time.50
In 1977 Mayor Kevin White set forth an ambitious plan to revitalize Blue Hill Avenue and Grove Hall, but four years later very little had been accomplished.51 This seemed to be typical of the 25 years following the Blue Hill Avenue riots. Various politicians promised plans to revive the Grove Hall community, but actual progress was quite limited. In April 1983 Governor Dukakis spoke to 400 people in Grove Hall about economic development in the neighborhood comparable to Lowell’s revival, cautioning that it would not happen overnight.52 Indeed, it would not happen any time soon. In the 1987 Boston Globe article, “A Street Forgotten,” Mike Barnicle commented, “In the short stretch between Grove Hall and Dudley Street, Blue Hill Avenue gives every outward appearance of being ready for the grave... In this one-and-a-half mile strip of asphalt, there are 58 boarded-up apartment houses and storefronts. There are 24 vacant lots, some of them as big as prairies.”53 According to a 1987 city report, in the general area between Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue, there were 360 empty lots and 117 vacant buildings (nine percent).54 In the 1980s the new state welfare office opened, a Burger King restaurant started up, and the Franklin Park Zoo reopened, but overall trends in the community were not positive. This was a time of increased drug-related crime, shootings, murders, and gang activity. This caused an increased level of fear and slowed redevelopment of the business district.
In 1988 Mayor Ray Flynn tried to reassure community leaders that the city was committed to redeveloping their neighborhood. Later that year the city’s Public Facilities Department and community leaders initiated a $7.8 million effort “to attract new businesses, create jobs, develop housing, and improve the infrastructure.”55 This involved the city selling five vacant buildings and making money available from Community Development Action Grants to develop other privately owned properties. Neighborhood leaders considered this a step in the right direction, but not a comprehensive enough plan.
During this period one central building block in this effort has been the $13 million Mecca Mall in the heart of Grove Hall that opened in 2000-2001. The Neighborhood Development Corporation of Grove Hall was a key organization in developing the property. The Mall provided the retail anchor for the business district and also created many job opportunities. This has also encouraged additional business and housing development in the years since it opened. In 2007 the historic Silva Building (formerly called Regents Hall) was restored and reopened at the corner of Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue, providing space for several businesses including OneUnited Bank and the Long Bay Management real estate firm (the owner and developer).58 Also in the area, Charles Street AME Church is redeveloping the former Skycap Plaza building into the Roxbury Renaissance Center, Habitat for Humanity is building 24 residential units adjacent to Blue Hill Avenue, and Nuestra Communidad Development Corporation is building 48 affordable apartments near the area at the former Kasanof Bakery site.59 These are just a few of the many recent redevelopment efforts in the community. In recent years Project RIGHT60 has provided a collaborative approach to improving other aspects of the community by supporting neighborhood associations, coordinating electoral advocacy efforts, and guiding community development.
Dudley Square is the oldest area of Roxbury, and is named for _____ Dudley.
Warren Street which did not receive its current name until 1825, when the town of Roxbury implemented a plan to name “all of the existing roads, to the number of forty.”¹ Previously referred to as the “Way to Braintree” or the “Upper Road to Dorchester,” Warren Street took the name of one of Roxbury’s most illustrious citizens, Dr. Joseph Warren, a casualty of the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, and the most important figure from the American Revolution you have never heard of. The school at which he both attended and taught, Roxbury Latin, which long ago decamped to greener pastures in West Roxbury along with a statue of Joseph Warren which once stood prominently in a triangle that has since been removed at the intersection of Warren and Regent Streets (more on this topic another day), was located from 1853 until 1927 just off of Warren Street on the left hand side as we cross Dudley Street.
Not coincidentally, the land on the left side of Warren Street was originally the Warren estate of about seven acres which extended from about Warren Place to Moreland Street as we head uphill out of ‘downtown’ Roxbury. Maps of Roxbury from the 1930s show a house built by John Collins Warren, a prominent surgeon, the nephew of Joseph Warren, and the son of John Warren, a founder of Harvard Medical. I had not expected to find the house, as much of the area has undergone ‘urban renewal’, but it is still there, although currently empty and advertising for tenants to use the building as office space. A gentleman doing some repairs kindly gave me free rein to wander and I was amazed at how much of the original detail remains, including a large fireplace and a beautiful staircase. Outside on the front walls are engraved granite markers embedded in the stone Ruskinian Gothic Mansion which give us facts about Joseph Warren and explain that “the original house being in ruins, this house was built by Dr. John C. Warren in 1846.” In addition to building this house, Dr. John C. Warren served as the first Dean of Harvard Medical School, was a founder of the New England Journal of Medicine, was a founding member of the Massachusetts General Hospital, and in the same year he had this house built, 1846, performed the famous first surgery using ether as an anesthetic at the aforementioned Hospital in the surgical amphitheater now referred to as the Ether Dome. He also left his astonishing anatomical collection to Harvard which became the foundation for the fascinating Warren Anatomical Museum. Those old Boston Brahmins sure kept busy.
As a main artery out of Roxbury, Warren Street has undergone many changes; the street was widened in 1798 and again in 1872. However, the 1960s marked a new level of “street improvement,” the results of which can be seen today. The prominent feature of this stretch of road is not what is present but what is absent. A map of the area from 1931 shows not only a large number of residential buildings, but also the ‘New Jerusalem’ church and the Hotel Warren. Many of these buildings were demolished in the 1960s. I will discuss this at a later date but I will say here that, in my opinion, German or Japanese bombers could not have done as much damage to the city as did the “Urban Renewal Experts” of the period following World War II.