A Tale of Two Cities: Brookline & Boston

An Analysis of Brookline, Longwood, Mission Hill, and the Muddy River

Ben Harding


By 1881, the Muddy River had been ruined by runoff from the urban areas.  It took a concerted effort to revitalize the environment and reform it into the Riverway.  The Riverway, one of the last parts of the Emerald Necklace to be completed, now connects the Back Bay Fens to Olmsted Park.  It is a beautiful series of paths that run along the corridor between Brookline and Longwood. 

Had it not been for the residents of Brookline, the Riverway would not exist.  They raised concerns about the pollution of the Muddy River, prompting a cleanup and a new park.  Today, the west banks of the Riverway and Olmsted Park are maintained by Brookline Parks & Open Space.











Brookline was able to have such an effect on the park system, frankly because it is a white, middle-class community.  Today, the City of Brookline is home to roughly 60 thousand people; 71 percent of which are white. There are only 3.5 thousand Hispanics or Latinos, 1.8 thousand blacks, and no foreign languages.

This lack of diversity is easily noticeable.  If you were to find yourself in Coolidge Corner, Brookline’s historical downtown, you would most likely be surrounded by bustling families shopping at local businesses.  You would be on Beacon Street: A tree lined boulevard with a tram down its middle and storefronts lining each side. It sounds enjoyable except for the fact that all of those families are exactly the same.  They are all young, white, middle-class families from Brookline’s suburban homes.  

Those homes are quite impressive.  Well maintained brick properties are nestled amid old oak trees and hedgerows.  These homes carry an incredible amount of equity, allowing for property values in Brookline to be almost 4 times the national average.

Such large, stable home values and average incomes allows for the residents of Brookline to afford good public schools, as well as police and fire departments.  This is also in part because Brookline is a separate jurisdiction than Boston; Brookline residents are funding Brookline municipalities. The police department receives close to $17 million per year.  The police presence is very noticeable and reassuring. They can be seen patrolling throughout the neighborhood. The firemen are, thankfully, not as noticeable, but are still well prepared for any emergencies.  They have an annual budget of over $15 million.

Both the fire department and police department share a headquarters on Washington Street in the Brookline Public Safety Building.  It is within the same block as Brookline’s public library, town hall, public schools, and other government agencies. Clearly, the residents of Brookline care a great deal about contributing to their local community.  All of these institutions appear well funded and regularly used.

Also within that same block sits the Civil War Soldier’s Monument, Veterans Post, and the Newsboys Memorial.  The Newsboys Memorial is in honor of Albert E. Scott or “Scotty”: The youngest soldier to be killed in combat and Medal of Honor recipient.  Brookline is very proud of its local legend as well as its veterans. There is a strong patriotic presence in Brookline. Its residents are proud to belong to a traditional American small town instead of Boston.










Mission Hill is bounded by Huntington Ave to the North, the Muddy River to the West, Heath Street to the South, and the Southwest Corridor to the East.  One of the older neighborhoods in Boston, Mission Hill is historically very segregated. According to Rothstein’s The Color of Law, “In 1962, 1,024 families, not one of them African American, lived in Mission Hill.  At the Mission Hill Extension, 500 of 580 families were African American.” As of 2013, Mission Hill as a whole is less than 50 percent white.  It is 17 percent Hispanic or Latino and 18 percent black.

This demographic difference, when compared to Brookline, can largely be explained by the neighborhood’s history.  Mission Hill was originally Parker Hill and it was built around the Stony Brook which is now in a culvert under the Southwest Corridor.  As populations grew, it became a suburb of Roxbury, shifting from established country homes to multifamily townhouses. These three-story Queen Anne style homes can still be seen in the Mission Hill Triangle Architectural Conservation District.  By the 1870s, Irish and German immigrants had established a strong Roman Catholic presence. The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was built from 1876 to 1878. Over time, those Catholic families were forced out by less affluent families from Roxbury, then again by college students.  Together, these three groups have created a culture that is unique to Mission Hill.

Around that same time, the city of Boston annexed Roxbury and with it, Mission Hill.  Roxbury has had a complicated history with Boston and Massachusetts as a whole. The entire region was redlined, never allowing it to develop at the same rate as Boston.  By the 1970s, Mission Hill had become associated with gang violence.

Starting in the 1990s, however, local colleges began to gentrify the neighborhood.  Harvard, Northeastern, and Wentworth have begun buying property, and their students are renting to row houses.  As a result, there are few families living in Mission Hill. 57.3 percent of residents live in non-family households meaning they students or young professionals that commute to the surrounding areas.  In addition, 90 percent of those houses are rented, preventing any long term equity to build.  

The Longwood Medical Area is located adjacent to Mission Hill and it draws approximately 112,000 patients, employees, and students every day.  Yet while Longwood does act as a strong economic incentive for Mission Hill, it also has a dissociating effect.  This effect is twofold. Firstly, it widens the physical barrier imposed by the Riverway and the cultural gap between Brookline and Mission Hill because Longwood has no culture of its own  Secondly, it has created a sort of cultural and economic vacuum in Mission Hill. Because the neighborhood is so dependent on Longwood and the colleges in the Fenway area, it has been unable to develop its own economic center;  All of Mission Hill’s residents commute to work.

While the college students and Longwood employees may sound like they are a drain on the community’s resources,  they are actually giving a lot back to the community. The Longwood Medical Area support community health programs, local colleges have a tradition of community service, and the students living in Mission Hill are giving back in their own ways.  Members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity from Northeastern University have been volunteering to coach little league. Community service has become an integral part of life in Mission Hill and can be seen through the Tobin School and Tobin Community Center as well.  The school acts as a daycare for economically disadvantaged children, which add up to about a quarter of the school’s population.

But still, these new students threaten existing aspects of life in Mission Hill.  The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has struggled to draw younger residents into its congregation.  It remains to be seen whether or not Mission Hill will retain its unique culture or whether it will be absorbed into Boston’s.






Walking along the Riverway, I observed many runners, bikers, and families in the park, but I didn’t observe any actual pedestrians.  No one was crossing the park to reach offices or restaurants like they would in the Fens. Instead, I noticed the residents of Brookline and Fenway using the park as their own backyard.  This should not come as much of a surprise, the park only exists because of Brookline residents and it is located much closer to them than residents in Mission Hill. In fact, Mission Hill has very limited access to parks.  Only the Kevin W. Fitzgerald Park and the McLaughlin Playground lie within the neighborhood itself and neither are used heavily.  

Brookline’s access to the Riverway has allowed the city to connect to the rest of the Emerald Necklace without having to have much interaction with the less affluent communities across the river.  Without access to these parks, those communities instead have to rely on community service and outreach projects from the Boston government and from private institutions. Mission Hill as one of these neighborhoods is growing in value alongside these private institutions, but its culture and representation are not guaranteed in the growing city of Boston.  Mission Hill will never receive the same autonomy and protection of its cultural heritage that characterize Brookline. For better or worse, Brookline has been able to grow into the stereotypical American suburban city because it has shielded itself from Greater Boston with a network of parks.