Northeastern University’s Hidden Histories – Molly Gagnon

Emerald Necklace Transects: Northeastern University and Hidden Histories

Northeastern University’s location on the edge of the Back Bay Fens and in the Fenway/Kenmore area has implanted it in an area that is at the same time new, but still filled with history, quite literally. As time has passed and this once inexpensive land has been filled, developed and shaped into the rather lucrative real estate it is now by the people and institutions within it. One of the major institutions in this area is Northeastern University, which has grown exponentially in just over a century since its founding, critically changing the landscape with its continued success. These changes, both physical and social, may not be immediately apparent around campus, but are important to understand how the environment around you has been shaped, and to be continuously thinking about the world around you.

The Back Bay and Fenway area is relatively new to Boston. The Back Bay Landfill project, which created almost all of the land that makes up the respective neighborhood, and others, was only completed in 1900, the last few acres of the Fens being the final pieces to this puzzle. Frederick Law Olmsted’s drainage system, better known as the Back Bay Fens and Riverway, helped drain the unsanitary swamp that was plaguing the area, turning it into a pleasant and well-loved landscaped public park and garden in the early 1900’s. Northeastern University was founded in 1898, just before this landfill project was completed. Its permanent home on Huntington Avenue was built in 1911, where the Young Men’s Christian Association stands, on the edge of the landfill project. At the time, this small college was surrounded by a variety of businesses and attractions, all of which took advantage of this newer, cheaper land. The Huntington Avenue YMCA’s early neighbors included the Huntington Grounds Ball Field, the Boston-Providence Railroad Company, the Boston Opera House, the Boston Arena, the United Drug Company, the Boston Storage Warehouse, and Bicarri di Cascieri Inc., almost none of which exist today. Through numerous property acquisitions and purchases, Northeastern University has shaped the landscape of the Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood greatly, creating the environment that we all live in today.

My thematic walking tour explores different sections of campus, beginning at the Back Bay Fens. In each of these spaces, I look deeper into the history of the land, which is relatively recent compared to other spaces in Boston due to the landfill project. By starting in the Fens, I ground this walking tour, beginning with the whole reason why the land that campus resides on is how it is. The Back Bay Fens is a reminder of the swamp that the entire Back Bay neighborhood once was, and a note to how new the area and its developments are. The walking tour continues across campus, explaining some of the histories of spaces that the university owns, while also observing its status in the present. Major past institutions are further examined, such as the Boston Opera House and the Huntington Baseball Grounds, delving deeper into their founding and impact, or lack thereof, on the spaces around them in the present, as they are replaced or repurposed to fit the needs and vision of Northeastern. Some institutions such as the Boston Opera House and the sculpting studio of Bicarri di Cascieri Inc. have been almost completely erased, with only minor remnants hinting to their existence. Others have been commemorated and reshaped, such as the United Drug Company buildings and the Huntington Grounds. My walking tour ends in the newest expansion of the university, along Columbus Avenue, where Northeastern looks to the future, as it spills out into an area with an even deeper past than where the university had originally expanded into.

Knowing about these hidden histories is more than just a series of fun facts. Understanding the relationships between people and spaces in your daily life will transform how you see the world. Spaces like Kerr Hall will be more than just a freshman dormitory, they will be part of the effort towards gender equality and the advancement of women in higher education. Opera Place will be more than a street where food trucks are often parked, it will be a reminder to a grand building that once existed there, not long ago. ISEC won’t just be a new, shiny building to represent the advances and technological outlook of the university-- it will become its statement to a rapidly growing university’s arguably controversial expansion into a community and the attempts it has made to bridge the gap between students and the residents. Lightview won’t just be a pretty, expensive, new apartment building that upperclassmen students can live in, it will be a combined attempt between the city and the university to help Boston’s student-saturated housing market.

A deeper understanding of the environment immediately around you will encourage thought in regards to other issues pertaining to spaces that may not be as familiar. Attention to small details may uncover more histories in unfamiliar spaces. Knowing how a space came to be is an understanding of the people that live there, and the relative forces of power in that community. It may reveal more about your place in society, and encourage change for those not as better off. It may result in a greater appreciation of your environment, or even resentment, or the urge to provoke change.

As it’s said, knowledge is power. We study writings on space and society to better understand why things are the way they are. My walking tour is designed to encourage thoughts like these in regards to familiar spaces, in order to make you think about them in ways you might not have otherwise. With a campus that has grown increasingly rooted in the communities around it, Northeastern University provides an interesting case in regards to its expansion not only in Roxbury, but in all of Boston, and the world.


Back Bay Fens History

History of the Back Bay