Place Names, Boundaries, and Real-World Impacts: The Story of Upper Roxbury

Held on Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Watch a full recording of the event, or scroll down to read a recap and watch event highlights.

Recap by Amelia Murray-Cooper

The Boston University Initiative on Cities and the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library co-hosted a panel discussion, “Place Names, Boundaries, and Real-World Impacts: The Story of Upper Roxbury.” The event explored why place names and geographical boundaries have changed over time, and how they have resulted in significant real-world changes in communities of color.

The panelists included Madeline Webster, PhD Candidate in American and New England Studies at Boston University, Yawu Miller, Senior Editor at Bay State Banner, and Byron Rushing, Former MA State Representative and President of the Roxbury Historical Society. The discussion was moderated by Garrett Dash Nelson, President and Head Curator at the Norman. B Leventhal Map & Education Center.

Nelson opened the discussion by explaining that the geographical boundaries of Roxbury — and every place — were created through a series of social and political processes and are continually undergoing negotiation. There are various conflicting methods for how boundaries are applied today, including legal definitions, cultural ties, media reporting, and more.

“Floating around this are our conventional perceptions. When we think about a place like Roxbury, what place are we thinking about? And how does that immediately connect with the way that place has been tied to the social context of the people living in it?” asked Nelson.

Historical Boundaries

Miller explained that Boston has several annexed neighborhoods that used to be independent cities, as well as sub-neighborhoods nested within them. Some of these areas have legal definitions, while others are acknowledged informally by residents. For example, the differentiation between Upper and Lower Roxbury was determined by hills and flat areas instead of cardinal direction. The elevated areas were informally called the highlands, which led to the distinction of Highland Park.

Rushing explained that Roxbury has objective boundaries because it was politically independent from Boston before it was annexed in 1868. There were also class distinctions between families that lived “on the hill” versus less affluent apartment-dwellers “in town,” according to Rushing. Divisions between the upper and lower hill were used to signal socioeconomic status at the time. The nickname Sugar Hill was also used to describe an area where wealthier Black families lived.

Religion also tied into the historical development of Roxbury. Rushing explained that there is a direct correlation between Black people moving into Roxbury and white Protestants using the name Mission Hill. This was a nickname Roman Catholics gave to Parker Hill after they built a famous church there. Today, public housing in Mission Hill is associated with whiteness, whereas the Mission Hill Extension Project across the street is associated with blackness.

Media Reporting Inconsistencies

Despite historical divisions, Rushing explained that it’s important to question why people disagree on borders in Roxbury today and what these disputes mean for communities of color. Rushing cited an example where the Boston Globe reported on a church celebrating its 80th anniversary in Dorchester on Humboldt Avenue, but when a shooting happened on the same street, journalists labeled it “around the corner from Roxbury.”

“What does this mean for people in Roxbury, people on Humboldt Avenue, and people outside who read these stories?” Rushing asked.

Miller explained that Dorchester was previously considered a white neighborhood, but today it is considered a racially heterogeneous neighborhood with many Black people. This has caused white news media organizations to use neighborhood designations as racial indicators. Miller cited a recent example of a shooting in the South Shore where the suspect was from Maynard, but the article headline stated that the suspect was “apprehended in Dorchester.”

“For decades now, not just the Globe, but all white news media has used neighborhood designations as racial designations because they don’t want to say ‘a Black man did such and such,’” said Miller. “The news media can’t escape using neighborhoods as a proxy for race.”

News outlets also commonly publish articles about Northeastern University encroaching on Roxbury, but Miller explained that this is misleading because the school is almost entirely located in Roxbury. Harvard Medical School, Fenway Park, and the Museum of Fine Arts are also within the legal boundaries of Roxbury, but that is rarely acknowledged.

Real-World Applications

Beyond the historical and cultural definitions of Roxbury, there are also several practical applications of neighborhood borders. Miller grew up in Roxbury, and he still considers his current address to be in Roxbury, despite the postal code designating it as Dorchester. He explained that postal codes can be arbitrarily determined, particularly when people vote, pay taxes, and attend school in areas different from their postal code.

For example, Miller explained that if a person lists their address as Boston instead of Dorchester on their insurance documents, they may be accused of insurance fraud because different areas are charged varying rates. Even though Dorchester is legally a neighborhood within Boston, insurance companies do not treat them equally.

These boundaries also impact the real estate market. Realtors began policing boundaries more strictly when racial and class divides arose between neighborhoods, according to Miller. Jamaica Plain used to be a working-class neighborhood with a similar status to Roxbury. However, as Jamaica Plain became more gentrified and whiter, real estate and rental listings began claiming Roxbury properties were in Jamaica Plain to make them more desirable. Fort Hill is also a sub-neighborhood within Roxbury that has become more attractive for real estate, so realtors often falsely list properties under that name.

“I predict that because the real estate market is so heated in Roxbury, to the point where rentals and home prices are higher than in West Roxbury, I think that a lot of the stigma around the Roxbury name is changing,” said Miller. “It’ll be interesting to see whether and how the borders of Roxbury shift.”

Boundaries also apply to voter registration and district courts. Rushing explained that when Roxbury and West Roxbury became divided, there was confusion about which jurisdiction Jamaica Plain fell under, but the district courts set legal boundaries that settle this confusion.

“I tell people they have an easy way that they can find out which part of Jamaica Plain they’re in: get arrested. If you get arrested in the northern part, you’ll go to the Roxbury court, and if you get arrested in the southern part, you’ll go to the West Roxbury court. There’s no Jamaica Plain court,” said Rushing.

Climate Resilience Planning

Roxbury residents already experience higher temperatures than other parts of Boston, partially because proposed highways and urban renewal projects destroyed trees in the area. Rushing explained that as climate change intensifies, Boston will likely experience rising sea levels as well. This may further complicate the housing dynamics throughout the city, especially if Back Bay residents are displaced from their homes due to flooding.

“It is not too soon for people in Roxbury to understand that in twenty years, their land is going to become more valuable because there is going to be no Back Bay,” said Rushing. “When there is no Back Bay, where do those people go? They’re not going to go live in a village of boats. They’re going to come to high, solid ground. People in Roxbury need to prepare about that in terms of where their children will be living twenty years from now.”

Webster explained that moving forward, there must be solutions to create sustainable housing for displaced residents. Property owners in Roxbury have already begun combating these structural forces by adapting their single-family houses into multi-family residences, which allows them to produce rent that helps offset their mortgage costs, taxes, and maintenance costs.

“The reason why this is important is because we’ll have to keep reusing things and not just build more housing. A way to be sustainable is to take what we already have and reuse it,” said Webster.

Miller explained that climate change may impact all areas of the city by causing widespread disruptions in transportation and electrical infrastructure, natural gas delivery, the sewage system at Deer Island, and more.

“I would hope that everybody in the city would take a systems approach to looking at climate change. Certainly, the loss of trees in what we call Lower Roxbury is definitely contributing to higher temperatures there. It’s something that people fought when they tried to take down the trees on Melnea Cass Boulevard,” said Miller. “However, I think we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same boat.”

This event was part of a series on Race, Place, and Space, co-hosted by the IOC, the BU Arts Initiative, and BU Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). The series explores the ways in which racial and ethnic groups access, inhabit, occupy, shape, and are memorialized in urban contexts—as well as the ways their contemporary and historical contributions have been made invisible, disregarded, or denigrated.