I try not to dig up old debates, but the comments to a Universal Hub post from December about whether a shooting occurred in Roxbury or the South End are worth looking at again. What I found striking was this comment: "Clarification is sought over something [the Roxbury/South End boundary] which doesn't matter while the more important issue gets glossed over."
First and foremost, the murder in question is the most important issue. But I disagree that clarification of the Roxbury/South End boundary "doesn't matter". As I tried to show in my post comparing the historic and modern maps of Roxbury, the area roughly between Mass Ave, Melnea Cass, and Tremont Street suffers from a lack of definition. It is an interstitial area with some housing, some industrial, and some commerical uses but it doesn't have a strong defining presence like an important public institution, historic site, or other landmark. It falls between what most people think of as the South End, which has a strong architectural definition and boundary with Mass Ave, and Dudley Square, which has its own presence as a historic commercial area.
Why is lack of definition a problem? Undefined areas fall out of the collective eye. I firmly believe that the absence of definition for the Roxbury/South End boundary translates into official confusion about responsibility. Official definitions only occasionally fit neatly into our mental maps of where we live: zip codes, census tracts, City Council districts, police areas, historic districts, empowerment zones, etc. are cross-cutting cleavages which assign and recombine neighborhoods in ways that might be unfamiliar to the people who live there. Jones Hill in Dorchester, for example, is clearly defined (hills tend to be well defined) yet it is divided into two districts for representation in the Massachusetts House. When neighborhoods are split, who takes responsibility for the disparate parts?
We all carve up cities into mentally manageable pieces. The unclaimed area between the South End and Dudley Square represents terra incognita for too many Bostonians. Defining the area is the first step to reintegrating this fuzzy area into the consciousness of Boston.
I apologize for the hurried nature
of this post. This is an issue that deserves more exploration and
I promise to get back to it in future posts.
For those interested in questions of urban form, definition, and how people experience cities, I direct you to Kevin Lynch's excellent 1960 book, The Image of City. I consider this book essential for understanding Boston.
The 1788 law describing the Boston/Roxbury boundary can be found here.