Becoming Boston

A Patchwork Quilt of People

People from all around the world have arrived in Boston to find a temporary or permanent home, turning the city into a cosmopolis where many cultures combine.

Over the city’s long history, people from around the world have arrived here to become new Bostonians, sometimes by choice and other times against their will. From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, Europeans forcibly brought Africans to the city in chains. Later arrivals to Boston came seeking jobs, education, or safety for their families in the growing city. Sometimes the city welcomed new arrivals, while during other periods formal and informal barriers created invisible lines on the map that constrained who could come to Boston and where they could live. As the city’s population has changed over time, claims on space and identity have changed as well. While Boston has long been associated with the traditions of its Yankee elite, these groups already made up a minority of residents by the end of the nineteenth century. Immigrant groups often clustered in sections of the city, leading to dozens of distinct cultural geographies. From the vibrant architecture of Chinatown to the music of the Cape Verdean sections of Dorchester and the Spanish-language shopfronts of East Boston, local spaces show the imprints of global migrations. These spaces have never been static, though, as millions of daily interactions in a diverse city produce constant changes in identity and place.

View of East Boston, Mass: 1879

O. H. Bailey & Co.
Leventhal Map & Education Center

The sponsor of this bird’s-eye view—the Cunard Steamship Company—and the emphasis on the docks in the foreground of the map are both reminders of the role that immigration has played in the history of the East Boston neighborhood. At the time this map was published, the list of churches on the right side of the title hinted at the neighborhood’s diversity, with institutions like Congregational and Unitarian meeting houses sharing space with immigrants’ Methodist, Baptist, and Roman Catholic churches. Like much of Boston at this time, Irish Catholic immigrants made up the largest single group of newcomers. In 1920, the United States government would set up an immigration control station on the East Boston waterfront, at a time when racist ideas about different ethnic groups were contributing to tightened restrictions on immigration. Today, East Boston is a thriving center of the city’s Hispanic community.

Maps from the book The City Wilderness

Robert A. Woods; Members of the South End Settlement House; C. J. Peters & Son; and Houghton, Mifflin, & Co.
Boston Public Library

In response to the exploitative living and working conditions facing many immigrants, reformers in the late nineteenth century founded “settlement houses,” volunteer social service agencies with the goal of improving impoverished urban districts. Settlement workers produced some of the first detailed maps to study socioeconomic and demographic conditions—the most famous of which were the Hull House maps of Chicago. In Boston, the South End House created similar maps documenting multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhoods. These maps of the South End from the 1898 book The City Wilderness show the sorts of urban phenomena that interested the reformers. In the map of “predominant race factors,” they observed how different groups clustered together in blocks, while the map of “industrial character” examined the composition of the labor force. Other maps took stock of building types and social institutions. While the middle-class reformers had many well-intentioned plans to bring resources to these neighborhoods, their exoticizing treatment of an urban “wilderness” often jostled uncomfortably with the efforts of immigrants and laborers to form their own social movements.