Thirteen neighborhoods: one city

If there’s one thing everybody knows about neighborhood boundaries in Boston, it’s that nobody knows where they are. But they’ll tell you you’re wrong if you try to draw lines. That’s fair enough, really—any line drawn will divide neighbor from neighbor. But the reality is that cities need to create discrete districts for many purposes, and this “hogmosh” seems to be controversial with some regularity.

Across the river, however, Cambridge has stable and—as far as I can tell—not so controversial neighborhood definitions. Apparently these are about sixty years old now. Thanks go to friend Katie B. for passing along this interesting 1953 report (PDF) on the establishment of Cambridge’s thirteen official neighborhoods.

The report uses as a basis the “neighborhood unit principle” proposed by Clarence A. Perry in the 1920s and 30s. Under this idea, neighborhoods are mostly organized around civic institutions, most notably an elementary school. See this comparison of the ideal neighborhood to Neighborhood 8, now called Agassiz (and note the “future subway station” on Mass Ave).

The "Neighborhood Unit" in Cambridge

Anyway, read the document if it strikes your fancy. There are some other maps besides the one shown above. Here are few points and questions that seemed interesting:

  • Most of the thirteen neighborhoods are unnamed in this report, and most of those have since been given official names. Curiously, however, two are still known by their numbers: Area 4 and Neighborhood 9. Why have these remained nameless?
  • Boundaries look unchanged, with the exception of the boundary between neighborhoods 5 (Cambridgeport) and 7 (Riverside), which has moved from Western Avenue to River Street. Is it possible this came with the conversion of those streets to one-way? I don’t know when that occurred.
  • Toward the end of there report there’s a nice list of some established place names with a bit of history behind them. It’s a little fascinating!
  • We must note that while these neighborhoods are generally accepted for administrative purposes, they don’t necessarily coincide with how most of us think about the city. Some neighborhoods are clear, like East Cambridge. But Cambridge is often thought of in terms of its squares, and you won’t find, for example, a “Central Square” neighborhood—in fact that square is at the intersection of four different neighborhoods. It’s a difference between residential organization and commercial organization, perhaps. The city does have definitions of those “square” business districts for planning purposes, but they’re not the neighborhoods you’ll see numbered on those shiny visitor parking permits!
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9 Responses to Thirteen neighborhoods: one city

  1. OMG I have always wondered what was up with Area 4. Thanks!

  2. Richard Lesses says:

    I grew up in Neighborhood Nine (my father was involved in Cambridge politics in the sixties, so I knew it by name). It’s really three neighborhoods (Harvard Square->Linnaean Street; Avon Hill; and the (now former) railroad/industrial/city dump section north of Walden Street. As for being a neighborhood, Mass Ave between Harvard and Porter had three grocery stores (A&P and two smaller stores), a couple of shoe stores, two bookstores, dry cleansers, a toy store, hobby shop, ice cream parlor, some packies, a Sears Roebuck, and several pharmacies. We didn’t need two cars growing up because my father took the T to work downtown. It was a pretty self-contained neighborhood. (I graduated high school in 1978.)

    The Cambridge Highlands area (west of the former industrial area bordering Concord Ave, across from Fresh Pond) should really be part of Belmont (where I now live). It doesn’t, though, and therefore has this peculiarly Cantabrigian tone to it. Because Cambridge is pretty imperious, it does what it will with Blanchard Road, making it a Cambridge-oriented street, and of no great use to residents of Belmont.

    • Richard, thanks for the Neighborhood Nine anecdote. I bet a lot of things have changed. And Cambridge Highlands certainly is an odd piece. That document notes that it’s too small to qualify as a real neighborhood, but there’s no choice but to make it one because it’s so far separated from the rest of town. I’m curious what exactly you mean by Blanchard Road being Cambridge-oriented; if you’re back to read this I’d be very interested to hear more!

  3. Thanks for this article and the pointer to the PDF which I’ll have to absorb in detail.

    One reason neighborhood boundaries don’t create conflict in Cambridge is that we have an “at-large” City Council, so neighborhood identification doesn’t figure into political identity. Another is that there’s a high level of transience so people don’t have time to develop a neighborhood identiy.

    But there’s also a way in which these neighborhood definitions don’t serve Cambridge well. Central Square isn’t really in any one neighborhood, it’s at the boundary of 4, owned by none and tends to be neglected, in more ways than one.

    • Thanks, Saul. Good points about the city council and transience. I assume that when these neighborhood definitions were written, there were fewer transient types than today; indeed the neighborhood criteria make more sense for people growing up or raising families than today’s large student and otherwise temporary populations.

      As for the second bit, I am perhaps too new to town to know the real effects of the official neighborhoods beyond basic bureaucracy in the city. Are there neighborhood-level organizations that draw attention and resources toward these artificial areas and away from more informally recognized places like Central Square?

      • Getting back to this a bit late…

        Yes, there’s the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association, and associations for Riverside, Area IV, and Mid-Cambridge.

        One example of the effects is “The Mayor’s Red Ribbon Commission on the Concerns and Delights of Central Square”. This was a high profile, intensive planning effort led by Councilor Ken Reeves. He focused on herding business and land owners, and felt that sufficient resident involvement would be from inviting the presidents of each neighborhood organization. Only 1 of those 4 organizations actually participated, and, IMHO, did a terrible job of representing anybody. So, you’re left with a very business-oriented plan that really doesn’t address any of the delights and concerns of the neighborhoods.

  4. ive been living in boston for 43 years and i never heard of bay village or leather district,how come when i look at the towns it doesnt say charlestown or east boston,i know those 2 are parts of boston.

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