clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Boston's Housing Woes Were Pretty Bad a Century Ago, Too

New, 1 comment

'Tis no secret that Boston suffers from a serious housing shortage, one helping to render huge swaths of the city uninhabitable for many without the means to pay $1,000-plus a square foot for condos or $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom with window (never mind $37,500,000 for a floor-through penthouse). The problem is obviously not new. It goes way back.

In a mesmerizing op-ed for the Globe, awesomely named doctoral student Garrett Dash Nelson reminds us of a movement a century ago to save Boston from its own popularity: "From 1860 to 1910, its population had nearly doubled, and the old-line Yankees who once constituted its governing class were being challenged by the rising power of immigrants and working families. ... [The city's] leaders were concerned about inequality, soaring housing costs, the fracturing of cities into divided communities, and the failure of the private market to produce humane landscapes."

The civic leaders, who included retailer Edward Filene, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and then-mayor (and JFK granddad) John Fitzgerald, basically proposed that all sides get together in the middle "to build a Boston in which cooperation would gradually supplant competition as the organizing principle of modern life, with the broader goal of securing the benefits of modern life for as wide a swath of the population as possible."

You know how this ends, of course. The utopian vision eventually collapsed under the weight of fretting about how much the government, both local and state, might get involved in such planning. The leaders, for one thing, wanted stricter building codes and more exacting inspections to cut down on the awfulness of the tenements lining so many Boston blocks. They also proposed a reorganization of local government for much of eastern Massachusetts to create a so-called "Real Boston" that would make neighborhoods of Cambridge, Somerville, Revere, et al. It was similar to a plan pitched a few years earlier to extend Boston's borders 10 miles; and therefore make a city bigger in area than Philly, Chicago or New York (see above courtesy of the Globe).

Political squabbling, bigotry and NIMBY-ism combined to derail this bold plan to fix Boston's development challenges before the 20th century got any older. Good thing we don't have any of that nowadays holding us back.
· How Boston Dreamed of Its Future, a Century Ago [Globe]
· Curbed Boston Awards '14: Real Estate Number of the Year [Curbed Boston]
· Megaboston! The Plan That (Almost) Ate the Suburbs [Curbed Boston]
· Curbed Boston Awards '14: the Real Estate Word of the Year [Curbed Boston]