World Facts Index > United States > Boston

Boston, one of the oldest cities in America, evokes a distinct European feel, still evident in the city's culture. Serving as the gateway to New England, its history is steeped in the American Revolution, and it claims the title "cradle of liberty." Once considered ultra-conservative, Boston has developed a progressive culture and attitude, but it has kept close ties to heritage and tradition presented in a new world charm. It has become one of the most exciting places in the New England, from excellent culinary hotspots to an abundnace of attractions and sights. Historical buildings, parks and cemeteries are national landmarks, and the city boasts the birthplaces of many famous patriots, presidents and politicians. The city's architectural treasures include lovely brownstones and cobblestone streets, and authentic gaslights light the way in many neighborhoods.

Getting Around Boston

The streets Bostonians use are not easy to navigate. They are believed to follow cow paths trodden in the 17th century, which gives some reason to the labyrinth of confusing one-way streets and rotaries. For those who don't mind their own two feet, Boston is considered the "walking city" of America. Driving in the city can be a torturous experience for visitors, and is not highly recommended. Even a map of Boston can be chaos for a newcomer. Making matters even worse is the Big Dig, a massive renovation of the city's roadways that is now the biggest public-works project in the United States. Fortunately, neighborhoods and districts are easily accessible by America's first underground transit system, started in the early 1800s. It's called the MBTA but Bostonians refer to it simply as the T.

Who's Who in Boston

The city and environs draw some 200,000 students to more than two-dozen universities, including some of the world's most famous institutions, such as Harvard and MIT. This regular influx of younger generations, including students from all over the world, has played a major role in the entrepreneurial and international spirit of the metropolis. Walk down Newbury Street or to a nightclub on Lansdowne Street and you'll hear a medley of foreign languages.

One cannot forget the slew of famous writers, artisans, politicians and industry leaders who have called "Beantown" their home and have paved the way for this eclectic and innovative city. Boston's best known residents have included everyone from Paul Revere and Cotton Mather to literary wunderkinds Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, TS Eliot and Edgar Allen Poe. Add to that list comedian Dennis Leary, actor Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and the rock band Aerosmith and the diverse array of celebrities widens even more. And finally there is the Kennedy family, in the spotlight now for generations, are also from Boston.

City Living

For those who want to experience city living without being overwhelmed, Boston is an excellent choice. The MBTA or the "T", makes owning a car non-essential. You can take the "T" to concerts, nightclubs, sporting events, and to fine shops and restaurants. Boston is also a Mecca for continuing education and an up-and-coming hotbed of technology and financial institutions.

Boston has many neighborhoods and districts, each with unique characteristics and reasons to be explored. You can get a little bit of everything in this bayside landmark. There is Beacon Hill, or "the flat on the hill," where Boston's Brahmins once lived. With its impressive row houses and gaslit cobblestone streets it's still one of the more expensive neighborhoods in town. Walk down Charles Street and poke around the dozens of antique shops.

Popular Newbury Street is a swanky, upscale stretch filled with shops, restaurants and cafes. You can people watch in the middle of the Boston Common and "Make way for ducklings" on the Swan Boats. Catch a Broadway play in the Theatre District and finish the night with dim sum in nearby Chinatown.

The South End is home to the city's gay-friendly community and is filled with quaint art galleries and excellent bistros. The Back Bay is where you'll find in opulent brownstones; stroll down the grassy mall on Commonwealth Avenue between Massachusetts Avenue and the Public Gardens to get a feel for the 17th century way of Bostonian living.

Right around the corner is the Charles River and the parkland along its banks, Boston's biggest playground, where you can roller blade, bike or run to your heart's content.

Down near the waterfront is Faneuil Hall Marketplace. It's not only a good place to begin the Freedom Trail, but a great venue for souvenir shopping and photo opportunities. Shop where locals shop in Downtown Crossing, an ecclectic array of department stores, jewelers and tiny shops.

The North End offers a dizzying array of authentic Italian eateries and is home to a carnival dedicated to Italian culture. Or experience the Seaport District and all the harborside activities that are popular during the summer months.

Local events always draw repeat crowds in this small city, be sure to watch for big events like the Boston Marathon and the Head of the Charles Regatta.

For a suburban neighborhood that is still within city limits, Jamaica Plain has a wealth of activites to see and do. Have a picnic at Jamaica Pond, wander through botanical gardens at the Arnold Aboretum or have a lobster roll at theJP Seafood Cafe.

These are just a handful of the many ways to discover New England's metropolis and experience the remarkable culture and tradition that Boston has to offer.

History of Boston

Native Americans had been living on the Boston peninsula for more than 2,000 years when Captain John Smith, famous for helping lead the settlement of Virginia to the south, sailed into the harbor in 1614. Smith mapped the area between Cape Ann to the north and Cape Cod to the south and called it New England. He named the largest river in the area, the Charles, after his Prince. In 1620, the Puritans, chased out of England for their religious beliefs, landed their ship, the Mayflower, in nearby Plymouth, and founded the first permanent European settlement in the Boston area.

A few years later, a lone scholar and clergyman from the Plymouth settlement named William Blackstone set out for solitude and found himself, his bull, and several hundred books at the foot of what is known today in Boston as Beacon Hill. In 1630, Blackstone lured other Puritans with promises of of ample supplies of fresh water. He soon found himself smack in the middle of a bustling community, including among his new neighbors the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop.

The site was dubbed Boston'the Indians had called it Shawmut--after the town of the same name in England, which in turn had been named after St. Botolph, the patron saint of fishing. As the town began to grow, so too did industry and trade fixated upon the Atlantic lifeline; during the next 40 years, Bostonians would build more than 730 ships to fuel its ocean economy. At the same time, explorers ventured north for timber, west to expand the city limits, and south to chart the unknown.

Purchasing Blackstone's original field in 1634, Boston now had a large tract of "common" ground, atop which was situated a powder house and other means of defense. This tract would later evolve into present day Boston Common, and later expand to include the Public Gardens.

The Boston Latin School, the nation's oldest, was founded in 1636. Its alumnae include such key figures in American history as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and Cotton Mather. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, Harvard University, the oldest college in North America, was founded the same year.

By 1680, the once-independent Massachusetts Bay Colony had been brought firmly under British control. Boston had evolved into a seaport equal to many of the world's largest, with over 6,000 residents and 800 houses located near its shores. Bustling trade and commerce kept artisans and craftsmen busy building and refining the existing town while its borders gradually began expanding. Now claiming a name for itself as a center of publishing, education, and commercialism, the strict moral teachings of the Puritans had begun to clash with the more material zeal of Boston's emerging merchant class.

By the end of the 17th century, Bostonians had expanded the town in two directions. This split also created two classes of society, those who wanted an urban, fast-paced atmosphere and those who desired peace and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle.

The North End was the merchant center of town, as well as the most active and exciting neighborhood. For the up and coming citizens of the town, who would later include such people as Ben Franklin and Paul Revere, the North End was the place to taste the briny excitement of Boston's link to the outside world.

The South End was more spread out and slower paced. It was the preferred neighborhood of Puritan moralists, who disdained the North End's earthy zest for life.

Following the city's eighth great fire in 60 years in 1711, Bostonians used the charred remains of houses and stores to complete Long Wharf, which jutted two thousand feet out into the Bay. The wharf increased trade and commerce even more.

Flames of colonial resentment toward British rule were fanned in 1734 by Gov. Joseph Dudley's infamous "Molasses Act," which heavily taxed key imports. Trade declined, nearly plunging Boston into a depression. In 1742, Peter Faneuil erected his two-story Faneuil Hall Marketplace with its open-style arcade. The marketplace's numerous shops added even more flavor to the bustling seaport. Architectural elegance began to emerge as more Bostonians began building with red brick, which was deemed safer than wood against fire. In 1749, King's Chapel on Tremont Street, with its soaring, vaulted ceilings, blossomed under the guidance of Peter Harrison, who is credited by some as being America's first true architect.

Despite the bustle, Boston was not without trouble. As Paul Revere's famous engraving of 1768 shows, British war ships conveyed masses of troops to the city in response to protests over the Stamp Act of 1765, which required tax stamps to be placed on any published materials with all proceeds benefitting the royal crown. The act was later rescinded after protests by "The Sons of Liberty," who included Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and John Adams. But the British issued various other mandates including the Declaratory Acts and Townsend Acts, which imposed additional taxes on the colony. By 1770, to stem protests, there was one British soldier in town for every four colonists.

March 5, 1770 saw the Boston Massacre. The site where British troops fired into a crowd of colonists, killing five people, is marked today by a ring of cobblestones at Congress and State Streets. On December 16, 1773, 5,000 angry colonists met at the Old South Meeting House to protest a tax on tea. Samuel Adams delivered a heated speech, then led a fierce mob to Boston Harbor. A portion of the mob boarded the brig Beaver and two other vessels moored nearby, dumping their cargos of tea overboard in what has been dubbed "The Boston Tea Party". The British parliament responded by closing down the town and sending even more troops to close off Dorchester Neck, the only land entrance to Boston. The "shot heard 'round the world" was fired in Lexington on April 18, 1775, when a group of colonial militiamen engaged in battle with British regulars. Losing that fight, the militiamen retreated to Concord Bridge, where they defeated a company of British troops. The American Revolution had begun.

The war's first full-scale battle took place at Bunker Hill, plunging Boston headlong into the Revolution. The city suffered huge losses. Charlestown was burned to the ground during the Bunker Hill assault, while landmarks like John Winthrop's house and the North Square church went to fuel British fires. George Washington took command of the Continental Army at a ceremony on the Cambridge Common on July 2nd, 1775. His first major victory came on March 16, 1776. Using the cover of night, the army moved much of their artillery to the top of Dorchester Heights. British troops awoke the next morning to find enough cannon staring down at them to destroy their fleet anchored in Boston Harbor. On March 17th, they evacuated the city.

Post-Revolutionary Boston began with a population less than a third of what it had been just prior to the war. Charles Bulfinch, Boston's master architect, would begin his career by rebuilding his friends' war damaged houses. He would go on to design the Massachusetts State House.

The year of 1786 saw the opening of the Charles River Bridge, then the nation's longest at more than 1,500 feet. It spanned the Charles River and was funded by John Hancock and friends under the name of "Quixote Enterprise." With the start of the 19th century came 10,000 new residents every 10 years. There were increasing numbers of businesses, mills, tanneries and factories. The overall din of the city reached such a pitch that even Benjamin Franklin moved to the suburbs. And if these moves helped such folk rediscover some degree of solitude, they helped increase Boston's borders even more. Eventually added to the city were such fast-growing towns on its outskirts as Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Dorchester. From these same outskirts emerged Boston's new aristocracy: the Cabots and Lowells, the Grays and Gerrys, who would help steer Boston into a new age.

Boston was a city riddled with intruding waterways and ponds, and landfill was another way to meet the ever increasing demands for more space. Mill Pond in the North End was filled in with chunks taken from Copp's Hill and Beacon Hill. Mount Vernon gave up tons of dirt and gravel to form Charles Street at the base of Beacon Hill. The Back Bay, once a soggy bank along the Charles River, would be built on top of landfill. Nearby Kenmore Square still floods as testament to its watery history.

Bulfinch's India Wharf, completed in 1807, led to a fresh burst in sea trade, that now extended all the way to India and other parts of Asia. In 1822, to little fanfare, John Phillips was installed as the first mayor. Boston was now officially a city.

Not all were happy with the way Boston was progressing. Henry David Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond for a year. Nathaniel Hawthorne, feminist Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott, father of famous American writer Louisa May Alcott, supported Thoreau's campaign for more parkland in the city. In 1825, Mayor Josiah Quincy ordered architect Alexander Parris to build a bold new urban development of three massive buildings near Faneuil Hall. Quincy Market in the center, with North and South markets bordering it, was constructed from massive granite blocks that make up so much of the Boston landscape.

During the 1830s, Boston citizens once again showed their disdain for the status quo, as they had done in the years leading up to the Revolution. William Lloyd Garrison, the conscience of the anti-slavery abolitionists, joined forces with writers and reformers to condemn social injustice. Education reformer Horace Mann took on Boston's schools. Samuel Gridley Howe established the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Ralph Waldo Emerson began expounding the theories of his transcendental philosophy, while Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gained international fame for his poetry during his tenure at Harvard University. The Irish opened Boston to immigration with their arrival in 1846, fleeing the potato famine in their native land. The enclaves they carved out for themselves still endure in Dorchester, South Boston, and parts of Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury. The Irish eventually became a major force in Boston. Hug O'Brien, elected mayor in 1885, was the first in a series of influential Irish politicians, including John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald and one of Boston's most famous mayors and politicians, James Michael Curley.

Beacon Hill resident Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin further fueled the anti-slavery movement in the United States, and helped buttress William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the nation's foremost landscape architects, designed the "Emerald Necklace," a series of green spaces that connected the Boston Common, Public Gardens and Commonwealth Avenue Mall to parks of his own design like the Arnold Aboretum, Franklin Park and the Back Bay Fens.

By 1860, a caste system was in place. Bordering wealthy mansions were cramped slums, packed with newly arrived immigrants. Prejudice abounded. The end of the Civil War signaled an end to Boston's booming economy. Newly christened rail lines crippled Boston's sea front. New factories around the country produced goods more cheaply than in Boston. The shoe and textile industries had largely vanished by the 1920s. With the arrival of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Boston's economic base seemed doomed to further damage. World War II provided some measure of relief to the shipping industry, but the real renovation of Boston's economy came at the hands of Mayor John Collins, who undertook a massive restructuring of the city in the 1950s. Many old landmarks were destroyed, but he also created many jobs and helped pump dollars into the slowly reawakening economy. Racial tensions, simmering for decades during the bad economic times, began heating up to a boiling point. By the end of the 1960s, Boston was one of the most segregated cities in America. It was a hard and fast rule that Charlestown was almost entirely white, while Roxbury was almost entirely African American. The city's solution to segregation was court-enforced busing of students, but white parents responded with violent protests and by boycotting the public school system in droves. Eventually, city officials were forced to scrap the program.

The John Hancock Tower, designed by famed architect I.M Pei, soared skyward in 1975 as Boston's tallest building. In 1978, renovated Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall provided catalysts for a new period of growth. By the 1980s, under Mayor Ray Flynn, Boston was once again enjoying economic prosperity. The 1990s saw the beginning of the giant urban renovation program known as the "Big Dig," designed to put Interstate 93, which cuts right through the city, underground. The project has so far accumulated costs in excess of $1 billion per mile. Nevertheless, Boston remains at the forefront of the economic resurgence sweeping the rest of the United States and stands poised to head into the next millennium with all the energy, perseverance and heady spirit that have always been the city's trademarks.

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