South End and Fenway Gentrification
When looking throughout the transect of the South End and Fenway with the fens in between, it’s easy to see similar stories that are occurring on different time scales. There’s gentrification on both sides of the Fens and Northeastern University, and one side seems to give a warning to the other. Moving further into the South End, away from the downtown and academic districts, it becomes more desolate, emptier, and populated by more people of color. The services are not as well maintained, and the further away a site is from the city center, the worse its condition gets in the neighborhood.
What can be seen in the South End and Fenway neighborhoods is not unique. On one hand, there is a bustling, wealthy area of Boston in Fenway that is full of high rises, bars, restaurants, and other amenities that are meant to service the rich and/or tourists. Most people in Boston could not afford to live in this area. Meanwhile, the South End is different in that it is more of a gradient; further North by Northeastern University and the Back Bay fens, the transect point on the map, the housing is a bit more expensive and has less minorities living in the units, due in large part to students. Meanwhile, as one goes South, the area becomes less rich and more like what you’d expect to see from an area that has been historically oppressed and left behind in the U.S.
The walking tour starts in the South End near the very furthest South point, which is merely an intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue. This point was chosen to be included in the tour because it displays something that is taken for granted by many white people and suburban residents, but minorities and city-dwellers know all too well: Highways. Of course, neither of the streets at this intersection are actually highways themselves. However, they both have to be accessible to the nearby interstate with large lanes and high speed limits, and it makes it nearly impossible for pedestrians to walk through this intersection easily, bouncing between sidewalks and islands in the intersection. It’s easy to see that this was a place designed for the car, inherently hurting poor Americans who cannot afford one. This issue is not just present in Boston; a parallel can be drawn to many places in the U.S. where the exact same thing occurred. Moving North on the tour is Boston Medical Center, which is the hospital that services most racial minorities in Boston. It is crowd is far less white than those you would find at Dana Farber or Massachusetts General, and it is ranked far lower. This could possibly relate to some parts of Ibram Kendi’s Book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, as he mentions how black people in America typically have far lower lifespans and tend to not be nearly as healthy in later life stages as white people. Moving further North, there is a house that I saw was up for an Airbnb listing, along with a cathedral a bit further to the East. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross is in the tour to show how minority groups in Boston over time have used the area. About a century ago when the Irish were still oppressed as an ethnic group in the U.S., having a parish like this serves as an important symbol of both hope and what the community could do. Moving back west to the Airbnb, there is an apartment that was listed for a night a few weeks into the future in December at the rate of $163 per night. This cost is astronomical compared to the housing units it is around. People often talk about gentrification and give off a generally bad connotation, but there is oftentimes not a characterization of what the looks like; a rent of over $4,000/month in a residential neighborhood can do that.
In the middle of the South End and Fenway is the part where the Emerald Necklace connects the two. In this area, they are also connected by Northeastern University. I chose Carter Field as an example on this tour of the development that Northeastern has put into the neighborhood that has had mixed reactions in how it will be used. I also decided to use the Massachusetts Avenue Orange line stop as a site, as it is a perfect point to mention the history behind what is there now and what could have been, as there was a previous proposal for a highway (talked about in Jim Vrabel’s A People’s History of the New Boston). Between Northeastern and the South End is the Back Bay fens, which, although in the middle, tends to give off a more affluent vibe than the South End. It is right next to the Museum of Fine Arts and near many Fenway brownstones, so it can be hard to feel like it is a true connector point to the neighborhoods south of it. If anything, it can feel like a barrier.
In the Fenway neighborhood, there is more of a wealthier vibe, and it can be seen in the buildings and residents. For example, Boylston Street has many expensive shops and restaurants, and everything in the area is marked up. Fenway has been going through gentrification for quite some time, but many would argue it is already gentrified. There is a community center, but not many children to use it since not many parents want to or can afford to raise their kids in the area anymore. Also included in the tour are Fenway Park itself (which spurs much of the cost of living) and the Fenway T stop, which is one of many Green Line stops that makes the area very accessible via public transportation. It seems as if all of the cards are stacked in Fenway’s favor, but it is fascinating to see how they change over time. As more people move into the South End for added convenience, the culture dies down a little bit, and the harm to poor people and people of color only increases; it seems as if it is on the same path that Fenway already took
The Athletic Fields in the Back Bay Fens. [ca. 1960-1979]. Northeastern University Special Collections: Freedom house.
“History of the Cathedral.” 2019. Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Last Modified 2019. Accessed December 1.
Kahn, Ric. 1993. “Neighbors beat decay, take back their turf Blackstone-Franklin Sq. goes from guns to green.” Boston Globe (City Edition), October 3, 1993.
Rothstein, Richard. 2017. The color of law : a forgotten history of how our government segregated America. First edition. ed. New York ; London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.
Sasani, Ava. 2018. “The Roxbury Diaspora: How Northeastern University is Displacing Long-Time Residents.” The Scope, 2018.
Vrabel, Jim. 2014. A people’s history of the new Boston. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.