At the beginning of the 19th century Boston began its expansion. Much of this expansion occurred by land reclamation––yes, Back Bay was once a bay––extending the shoreline into the bulb shape that we know today. (See: links to historic maps at the bottom of Part III) But, if Boston relied solely on land reclamation, Boston would be 9% of today’s footprint.
In 1804, the city acquired South Boston, which inaugurated the century of expansion. The first bout of growth culminated with the addition of East Boston (the area across the water where the airport now is) in 1836. For the next thirty years the city stayed largely focused on land reclamation as opposed to annexation, taking only a small part of Dorchester called Washington Village in 1855. (Though the name faded from the area in the 19th century, a developer building on the same land in 2015 decided to reapply the name to the new development.)
After several quite decades, the engines of municipal expansion once again swept the city during the reconstruction period. In 1868, Roxbury was acquired, touching off a five-year period of rapid growth. In 1870, Boston completed the process of annexing Dorchester––now the largest neighborhood in Boston. Finally, in 1873, the ballot box gave Boston the new neighborhoods of Charlestown, West Roxbury and Allston-Brighton, which all elected to forgo local government and join their larger neighbor.
While most municipalities succumbed to Boston during this period of expansion (1868-1873), one Greater Boston city defied its neighbor, setting a precedent that would ripple across the country.
I. The Brookline Rebuke
At its founding in the late 17th century, the area was home to a group of farmers who called the place Muddy River. Shortly thereafter, in 1705, the town became incorporated under the name Brookline, a reference to the two brooks that delineated its boarders with Brighton and West Roxbury. It remained a town of farmers for approximately the next century and a half.
In the middle of the 19th century the city of Brookline changed dramatically in character, drawing the upper crust of Bostonian society to its properties. This elite class was known as the Boston Brahmin, a reference to the top class in the Hindu caste system.
This invasion of wealthy elites raised property values far beyond what the rural community there could bear and forced them to find land further away from their markets in Boston. (This coincidentally seems similar to the plight of Cambridge today, with biotech companies moving in, raising property values, and locking out the middle- and low-income residents of the community.) Many of these elites settled in the northeast section of the city adjacent to Boston for the sake of a short commute.
(Aside: Among the elite settlers of Brookline at this time was the Cabot family, a name you might recognize. Generations later Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was the famous antagonist of Woodrow Wilson’s fight to join the League of Nations following the First World War. Lodge won, of course, rendering the League fairly ineffective without the membership of the United States, whose president dreamt it up.
Lodge had won his senate seat as a Massachusetts senator in 1916 by defeating the grandfather of John F. Kennedy––John F. Fitzgerald. The Kennedys would have the last laugh, however, when John F. Kennedy unseated Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in the 1952 senate race, and when Lodge Jr. was paired with Richard Nixon on the losing ticket in the 1960 presidential race.)
At the same time the Great Irish Potato famine of the late 1840s was driving Irishmen to the Northeast United States. Thus, between 1840 and 1850 the population of Brookline nearly doubled––partially as a result of the influx of the Boston Brahmin, partially because of the poor, Irish manual laborers crossing the Atlantic. As the 1870s got under way and several major towns gave way to Boston’s geographic growth, Brookline presented a unique community, housing these two disparate classes.
The annexation debate centered around two motives discussed in the first section: an economic motive and a political motive. As the Bostonian elite fled the city, which was being flooded with Irish immigrants, it lost much of its tax base. Boston wished to reclaim its elites.
Meanwhile, Brookline rapidly used its newfound wealth to finance top of the line public services, including streetlights, better roads, and a top-notch public school system. It failed only in the provision of water to its residents. Annexationists argued that Boston could better provide this service by extending its existing infrastructure.
Politically, the Brookline government had a structure more characteristic of a representative democracy, while Boston’s system was more centralized. Brookline elites used this fact to convince poorer Irish laborers they would have more influence in an independent Brookline, despite the fact they were still subject to the whim of the wealthy.
On October 7th 1973 the subject came to a vote. By a vote of 707-299 the city resisted Boston’s annexation, the first such suburb to accomplish these feat, both in Massachusetts and in the country.
Historian Kenneth T. Jackson, who wrote The Crabgrass Frontier, considers this an epochal moment in American history, saying it was the “first really significant defeat in the consolidation movement.” He wrote that as a result of Brookline’s rebuke “virtually every other Eastern and Middle Western city was rebuffed by wealthy and independent suburbs.”
*The story of Allston-Brighton, Boston’s acquisition of the portion of Commonwealth Avenue now home to BU, and the termination of Boston’s growth are completed in Municipal Annexation: Part III, Commonwealth Avenue and a Megacity That Never Was