Surprises in the South End

Postcard from Boston

BOSTON—The line of stenciled dragons stretched out the door and curved around the corner. Orange plastic coolers of beer were carried into the round, red brick structure that resembled a Romanesque church—right down to the cross-shaped windows. The sign over the door read “Cyclorama.”

Investigation of this apparent bicycle shop revealed an odd piece of Boston history. The Cyclorama, located on Tremont St., was originally built to house a grand circular painting depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. It has since housed a skating rink, a flower market and a factory before finally being acquired by the Boston Center for the Arts, which has made the architecturally deceptive building its home. On Friday, the historic red brick hosted a convention of tattoo artists and their patrons—a tribute to the broad vision of “art” supported by the Boston Center for the Arts. A few short blocks away nests the Boston Ballet, a company widely acclaimed by critics with a particularly prestigious summer program for young Barishnikovs-in-training.

This is Boston’s South End: an intriguing dale of pansy-overflowing window boxes and expansive homeless shelters, where Zagat’s best-rated Thai restaurant in Boston sits midway between the water-treatment facility on the riverbank and the Miller art gallery in a converted sweatshop. In contrast to its well-explored, much-touted Northern counterpart, the South End is a pristinely blank page in the mental guidebooks to Boston compiled by most students in the area.

Small touches of individuality make the South End a feast for the perpetually curious. The front steps of many charming brick townhouses have scalloped sides interspersed with pyramidal points—the effect is of waves breaking as they swirl along. Walking past a row of deteriorating former industrial buildings, one comes upon a director’s canvas chair perched on the edge of a window embrasure. It faces the mural-in-motion that is the street outside.

Neighborhoods within neighborhoods, stitched together by community newspapers and block barbeques, make the South End a city unto itself. Chestnut Hill, a four-block square area abutting Interstate 90, enjoys the atmosphere of Beacon Hill—it shares the same illustrious builders as its more prestigious sister community. The Castle Square Housing Project exemplifies new, clean, modern public housing: impatiens cluster on the grounds outside—but the stairways are glass-enclosed, for easy public viewing.

Early records describe the South End as a bloody execution site for hardened criminals of the seventeenth century. One hundred and fifty years later it had become a genteel area of rustling leaves and gracious houses, before Charles Bulfinch designed a formal layout for the area in 1801. The connecting row houses for which the Back Bay is famous were pioneered here, amid quiet fountains and charming parks.

Pianos followed. By the mid-nineteenth century, pianos outnumbered houses in the South End, as four major companies manufactured more than 10,500 pianos per year in the light industrial buildings bordering the river. In this atmosphere of musical appreciation, churches began to spring up throughout the community. Old gothic sanctuaries still hide in the leafy corners of the South End, often cozily snuggling next to the schools and playgrounds they sponsor.

Religious faith in the South End was never limited to Christianity; 1843 witnessed East Prussian Jews building the first synagogue in Boston. The religious quilt continued to expand as Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists joined Catholics in establishing worship centers. The eclecticism continues today with a center of the mystic faith of Sufism opposite a nail salon on Harrison Avenue.

Harrison Avenue typifies the delightful weirdness of much of the South End. The original home of Boston College—which moved to Chestnut Hill in 1913—it also hosted the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital, the largest of its kind in the United States.

The substantial immigrant population of the area—particularly Irish, German and Jewish—attracted the Communist Party to the South End in the late nineteenth century. Trade unions staged huge May Day rallies for the Ten Hour Work Day, but the strongest community spirit was the support of South Ender John L. Sullivan, a boxer. The local favorite had pulverized his opponent in the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship fought in the United States—though the fight lasted 75 rounds.

Architecture competes with culture as the most diverse aspect of the South End. No prosaic government buildings here—the Fire Department Headquarters was inspired by Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, and the site now houses the Pine Street Inn, which provides invaluable services to the homeless.

The South End may be the largest preserved Victorian neighborhood in the United States, but its residents exhibit no Victorian reserve whatsoever. Syrians, Italians, Portuguese, Chinese, West Indians, Native Americans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans converse in a hodgepodge of languages—at one point even considering seceding from the city of Boston to form “Mandela”—before sitting down at the neighborhood block parties or park benches to share food and argument. Wanderers are welcome, surprises guaranteed.

Julia G. Kiechel ’04, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. This summer she’s working for a political service program and searching for the cultural highlights of Medford, Massachusetts.