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Fear of immigrants helped thwart Boston’s expansion a century ago

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City would now dwarf NYC

Robbie Shade/Flickr

In early 1912, a state legislator from Brookline named Daniel Kiley introduced a bill that would have consolidated every city and town within 10 miles of the Massachusetts State House into a city called Greater Boston.

The absorption of the 32 municipalities would have created a city of 327 square miles—bigger than New York City’s 321 and much bigger than Chicago’s 234 or Philadelphia’s 142, for that matter.

Moreover, the new Greater Boston would today have a population of roughly 2 million, making it the nation’s fifth most-populous city, ahead of Philly and just behind Houston.

The idea wasn’t so far-fetched. In 1898, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island had consolidated to form the New York City we know today. Boston itself annexed the Town of Hyde Park in January 1912; and the city had, of course, been gorging on surrounding communities for some 250 years (the neighborhoods of Brighton, Dorchester, and Charlestown were also once their own municipalities).

Greater Boston didn’t happen, of course, at least not in the formal sense.

Part of that was that there were other movements afoot a century ago to do in effect what Kiley’s plan would do more explicitly: namely, unite the Boston region for such efforts as mass transit, parks, sewage, and long-term planning. There was, for instance, a push for regional entities to handle such things, and it’s that approach that lives on (for better or worse) in state-run agencies such as the MBTA.

Another reason that Kiley’s idea never took was far different than a preference for regionalism.

In short, some in Boston’s suburbs then wanted nothing to do with the city’s growing population of Irish immigrants and their immediate descendants. “Keep yourself separate from Boston, keep yourself separate from the Irish” was the thinking, according to historian Michael Rawson (quoted in this 2012 Globe op-ed).

Interestingly enough, similar thinking would hinder that regional planning approach that won out. In the 1980s, there was federal money available (thanks to Speaker Tip O’Neill of Cambridge and Sen. Ted Kennedy) to extend the Red Line to Route 128 or nearby.

But opposition arose in Arlington to “certain urban elements” that some residents were certain the subway would bring to their town... and so now the Red Line’s northern branch stops at Alewife in Cambridge. And Cambridge itself is a city separate from Boston.