To walk the South End with Byron Rushing is to retrace the long arc of a neighborhood that has been transformed again and again through two centuries -- from premiere 19th-century address to rooming-house bowery to today's glitzy urban chic.
"A lot of these changes no one could have predicted," said Rushing, a former director of the Museum of Afro-American History who is now the district's state representative. "I'm not sure what this neighborhood is going to be like 10 to 20 years from now."
Rushing moved to the South End in the 1960s, when the neighborhood was raucous and a bit run down. As an advocate for public and affordable housing, and for better public transportation for under-served minorities, Rushing has tried to manage the gentrification that has swept across this Greenwich Village-like area, bordered roughly by Albany Street, East Berkeley Street, Columbus Avenue, and Massachusetts Avenue -- although the latter two demarcations are fuzzy, meshing with the Back Bay and Roxbury respectively.
In the beginning, the South End was very wet. Like the Back Bay, the neighborhood was built almost entirely on landfill. The only original land is the "neck" that led to the Shawmut Peninsula (downtown Boston), a strip now occupied by Washington Street. As Rushing points out, you can tell the oldest red-brick buildings, like 1724 Washington St. across from the popular Mike's City Diner, because their doors are on the side.
Between 1800 and 1850, dirt was piled in on either side of Washington Street, and Boston's first planned community was born. A typical residential street is Concord Square, where Rushing lives -- it's not a square at all, but an oval park with a fountain in the middle. Like its counterparts Union Park, Worcester Square, Chester Park, and Rutland Square, the design was inspired by English cities like Bath. Developers built the single-family homes as fast as they could to lure the affluent from Beacon Hill. The result was a cozy and dense character.
Then the Back Bay was built, and after the Civil War the South End steadily evolved from its blue-blood beginnings. A remnant of a short-lived Jewish influx can be seen at the Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion church, where Rushing points to a Star of David etched in stone; it was once Temple Israel. Waves of African-American settlement followed, some coming from Beacon Hill's North Slope, others from below the Mason-Dixon line. Second-generation Irish relocated from the North End. The Victorian rowhouses were split up into apartments. By the 1920s, the South End was "multiethnic to some, though to others, it was a slum," Rushing says.
The early 20th century also saw the South End become a hotbed for jazz. Standing outside the Harriet Tubman House, Rushing pointed to one-time clubs along Massachusetts Avenue. "I came here in the '60s and saw B.B. King for the first time. They were on what they called the chitlin' circuit," gigs at smaller joints as opposed to big-time venues like Harlem's Apollo, he said. One surviving stop on the circuit is Wally's, a cramped and character-filled bar on the ground floor of a Mass. Ave. rowhouse.
By the late 1960s and '70s, the neighborhood was extremely diverse, rambunctious, and a little bit dangerous, and not helped by urban renewal "slum clearance" and public-housing projects that obliterated the human-scaled 19th-century streetscape. There were some lines drawn in the sand, notably at the Tent City housing complex, where one-time mayoral candidate Mel King and other activists camped out -- hence the name -- until the city agreed that any development be divided up into luxury, moderate- income, and low-income housing. "That was the one-third, one-third, one-third standard we thought was appropriate," said Rushing.
The first wave of gentrification had begun, with gay men and lesbians, artists, and architects leading the way. They fixed up the rowhouses off Tremont Street and occupied mothballed manufacturing buildings and old piano factories. The emerging scene was epitomized in the 1980s at gay nightspots such as the Eagle, unmarked except for a stone bird over the transom, and at one of the earliest upscale restaurants in a neighborhood now considered the city's restaurant haven: Hamersley's Bistro, still operating at the corner of Clarendon and Tremont streets.
Today, at that Gold Coast corner, the 360-degree view includes other cozy cafes, a bookstore,the Boston Center for the Arts theaters with new luxury housing above, a church that's been converted to condos, and two little eateries co-owned by No. 9 Park's Barbara Lynch across Waltham Street from each other: The Butcher Shop, a charcuterie/wine bar, and B&G Oysters. The bow-front rowhouses on Union Park, Upton, and Waltham streets have come full circle, from single-family homes with servants' quarters, to apartments and rooming houses, to condos, and finally back to single-family town houses again -- but going for well over $1 million this time around.
All the original lofts are spoken for, so developers have also built new ones on Washington Street, between the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, seat of the embattled Boston Archdiocese, and East Berkeley Street. Public housing throughout the neighborhood provides a counterweight to luxury urban chic, and while the South End is by no means economically integrated, diversity endures. "Not many people coming here for the convention will be able to say, `I have a neighborhood like this,' " he noted.
Anthony Flint can be reached at email@example.com.