boston boundaries

Boston Percent Black
Boston Percent Black

Walking Boston yesterday, from the hotel north via Newbury Street toward Quincy Market, then through the North End, back around Beacon Hill, and back to the convention hotel area. Lots of rehabilitation of old housing going on, upscale condo developments and the associated upscale services. It is pretty, we were having fun. But I could not help but notice how few Black folks there were on the streets. I recently read David Wilson’s Cities and Race: America’s New Black Ghetto. The short version of his argument is that an important part of “revitalizing” cities involved banishing poor Blacks from the [White] affluent civic gaze which, he says, supports the interests of real estate interests who make a lot of money on the creation of value through gentrification and other processes. Part of what he talks about is intense and aggressive policing in many cities to stop and harass poor Blacks who venture into the gentrified areas. I have not studied up on the specific history of Boston, but I could not help but think about this as I was walking around. So when I got back to my hotel room, I used the Census Bureau factfinder mapping site to generate maps of the City of Boston, showing % Black by census tract. This is of course 2000 data, I don’t know what has changed, and did not plot the income distributions. I’ve put a red circle about where the convention hotel site is. As you can see, Black folks are not living all that far from the convention site, but are not very present in this area. I don’t know anything about what is going on locally. Just wondering.

I talked to my spouse between writing this post and figuring out how to post graphics. While I was off working, he took a walk into the medium green (integrated) area on the map (up Columbus Avenue, for any locals reading) and said it seems like an pleasant integrated area with a nice feel. Couples of both races sitting in outdoor cafes. He passed a Black church letting out from services.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

16 thoughts on “boston boundaries”

  1. Tonight as just five minutes from the hyatt I came accross two black teenagers surrounded by about five or six policemen. After a bit of shouting and shoving everyone went there separate ways. It did make me think about your earlier post which mentioned the routine police harrassement that blacks kids face.

  2. It’s been about 15 years since I lived in Boston, but recent trips have brought home how little those dynamics have changed, even as some of the gentrified areas have shifted. My last trip was to visit a friend in Central Square (Cambridge), which was far more gentrified than the lovely, earthy neighborhood I remember. Columbus Ave seems to be keeping it real, but there was always a tension there that I felt rivaled the cities of my native South for racial discord.

  3. I remember hearing that Boston was among the “most segregated cities” in the US a large number of years ago, but have no idea the source of that.

    More personally, I remember moving from Nashville, Tennessee, to Brookline, Mass., (a close-in suburb of Boston) in the summer between 9th and 10th grades. My subjective experience was that I found Brookline High far more segregated along race and class lines than had been my (also public, but magnet) high school in Nashville.

  4. Boston is a terribly segregated city, no doubt. But it is important to recall that the main reason you would see fewer blacks on a stroll through downtown Boston compared to other American cities is that %black in the population is much lower here than elsewhere. (25% in the city, and the city is very small relative to the metro area (about 1/5), and there are almost no burbs with a significant black%) (I couldn’t find the exact SMSA number in a quick check online).

    If I am not mistaken, the reasons have to do with the fact that New England peaked economically well before the big waves of black migration northward, especially in midcentury. So NE had little attraction. As a result, you will find relatively tiny black% in midsize eastern NE cities as well (e.g., Brockton, Worcester, Fall River, Lowell, Providence, Manchester, etc. ) Towns in western NE (closer to NY) like Springfield, Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven are exceptions to this pattern. Again, I’m no expert on this (any demographers out there?), and this is not to say that Boston does not have significant segregation and racial problems, but let’s not forget base rates (and history).

  5. ezra: Boston is about 25% Black (per census bureau, city of Boston only) and the map shows that an area that is 35-60% Black is within about 3-4 blocks of the Marriott, which is the area my spouse walked in. The edge of the really dark green (63%+ Black) is less than a mile from the convention site. My impression is that I was seeing at best 1-2% Black people. The malls connecting the hotels also provided a defensible space — the security police were highly visible.

  6. OW: Sure, there is geographic distance and social distance, and as in the typical American city, this means that while the ghetto might be more proximate to the CBD than the white burbs, there are disproportionately many more whites around in the CBD (esp during the day). So yes, Boston is segregated and has many of the social ills associated with that (see e.g., Chris Winship’s work).

    My point though is that using subjective experience to infer that Boston is *exceptionally* segregated can be misleading because the base-rate is relatively low. And yes, 25% might not seem so low. But the rate for the metro area is very low compared to major northeastern and midwestern cities.

    FYI, one reason Boston is so small relative (and has a weird shape, especially in the northwest) to the metro area was that one of its suburbs– the one I live in and AP mentioned: Brookline– was the first suburb nationally to successfully block annexation by the central city (in the 1870s), a move that obviously gained a lot of traction and contributed to some of the social ills associated with segregation too. In that case, there was no racial component in the decision, but it certainly had far-reaching unintended consequences for race in America. My memory is that Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier discusses this incident and its implications in some detail.

  7. Just to clarify, I wasn’t asserting that Boston was worse than other northern cities (it was AP who made comparative statements), more reflecting that it seemed similar to the patterns described in Wilson’s book, which is about cities generally. Regarding the implication that commuters make the difference etc., the point was to reflect on arguments about how space is being policed in cities and to note the almost complete absence of visibly poor people and Black youths (remember it is summer) as well as the very low density of visibly Black people of any class. This was also true at night. This is very different from the cities of the 1970s where the poor and the affluent mixed on the streets and the affluent were afraid of the cities. I was reflecting on how very comfortable I (as a White affluent person) felt walking around there and then reflecting on how the space had been reconfigured to make me feel so comfortable. Wilson’s argument is that policing the boundaries and making Blacks feel uncomfortable going into some areas is part of the process of reconfiguring space for gentrification.

  8. Thanks for the clarification. No doubt that the secrurity at the Copley/Prudential malls is on alert for black youths and takes measures to keep them away. And I’m sure that is true in upscale malls throughout the U.S.

    I would note also though that there isn’t much retail at Copley/Prudential to attract that market segment. Also, while it’s quite likely that the kind of policing support for white gentrification that Wilson describes goes on in gentrifying parts of Boston (e.g., South End), this probably has nothing to do with Copley/Prudential, which predates such gentrification and isn’t really close to it in a neighborhood sense (e.g., Grannis on people-traffic). Put differently, Copley/Prudential didn’t make the CBD inhabitable by white folk any more than the Water Tower helped to get rid of Cabrini Green– the Gold Coast and the Slum coexisted side-by-side for a long time.

  9. ezra: I was trying to figure out what was old and what was new in the space. I-90 did not used to be in a tunnel, and it runs — so far as I can tell — right under Copley Plaza. If you can point me to a link or something that explains this, I would be grateful, although this is purely curiosity. Also, my comment was about the streets too, not just the malls. And of course upscale areas everywhere police their spaces, that was exactly my point, not a particular slam on Boston, but a slam on the practice of policing upscale areas, and also a reflection on the practices that create the boundaries in the neighborhood sense that you are talking about.

  10. OW: The Prudential Center though dates to the mid-1960s (, though Copley is from the 80s boom ( I don’t think either had anything to do with blocking, say, the South End and other southern black neighborhoods from northern white neighborhoods because they replaced big rail yards. But as I said, it certainly wouldn’t be shocking if that played some kind of role. Boston has nothing to brag about on those dimensions.

    A final note (time to finally get back to work after the ASA!!): The Mass Pike (I-90) has gone under that area for quite a while. Actually– and I really want to thank you here because I didn’t know the details– the history is interesting. Check out this fascinating/hilarious (check out the bit with the pocket knife) 1961 article by Anthony Lewis: FYI, Callahan is memorialized in the name for the older tunnel to Logan.

    Happy rest of August!


    P.S. It sucks to have to rely on Santa Claus for history, but it’s amazing that it’s now at our fingertips.

  11. OW and others: I just posted a reply but I think it was blocked becaues it had links (to NYT articles) in it. Jeremy once solved this for me, so perhaps someone can release it from the queue.

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