By Tom Acitelli of Curbed Boston
Geography, infills, independence movements—all played roles in shaping the city’s positional vocab.
Boston is named after the town of Boston in eastern England. But what about the city’s neighborhoods? A lot of them have similar roots in old Albion, while a sizable chunk are tethered etymologically to geography.
Read on for the origin stories of Boston’s 22 large neighborhoods.
This neighborhood was for years simply the stockyards and rail yards of the town of Brighton. It also had a post office and quite a bit of woodlands.
One gentlemen who liked to hike the woodlands was the painter Washington Allston, who lived across the Charles River in Cambridge.
By the time Boston annexed the area in 1874, it was known by his surname.
This photo from 1858 shows the Back Bay on the left and the Charles River on the right. Public domain.
There is a reason many people call this neighborhood the Back Bay: From 1857 to 1882, one of the largest urban infrastructure projects in U.S. history filled in about 450 acres of pestilential tidal basin known colloquially as “the Back Bay.”
A depiction from 1811 of the reduction of Beacon Hill to 80 feet from 138. Wikimedia Commons
Multiple hills—some say three, some say five—comprised what became Beacon Hill, one of the first settled areas on the Shawmut Peninsula.
One of those hills became known as Beacon Hill because of a signaling beacon on it; and the name stuck.
The smallest neighborhood that the city itself breaks out, Bay Village was born in the 1820s as the collection of homes for the workers who built the tonier nearby Beacon Hill. Therefore the architecture looks similar.
Bay Village used to go at various times by the Church Street District, South Cove, and Kerry Village. Bay Village stuck, perhaps given its immediate geographic proximity to the pre-infill Back Bay.
Brighton was its own town until Boston annexed it in 1873.
By that point, it had been independent for only about half a century; and, before that, was known, along with what became Allston, as an agricultural and cattle-rustling appendage of Cambridge that went by the diminutive nickname Little Cambridge.
It changed its name to Brighton, after a town in southern England, upon independence in 1807.
Charlestown was named for—wait for it—an English king named Charles; in this case, Charles I, the Stuart on the losing end of the English Civil War.
Europeans began settling what became Charlestown in 1629—20 years before Charles I lost his head—and it remained an independent municipality until 1874, when Boston annexed it.
This neighborhood is named after its predominant ethnic group; though rising housing costs and other reasons for emigration have reduced the number of residents of Chinese descent.
A regional map from 1858. Walling, H. F.—David Rumsey Collection
Boston’s largest neighborhood by area is named for Dorchester, a town in southern England.
Dorchester, USA, was an independent town until 1870, when Boston gobbled it. As a town, it included parts of what became known as South Boston.
The infill-spurred linkage over 150 years of five islands east of Boston formed this neighborhood. And the “east of Boston” bit gave it its name.
The neighborhood’s private developers saw to its annexation to Boston in 1836.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s plans for the Back Bay Fens, circa 1887 Public domain
Take your pick: This neighborhood’s name came either from the Back Bay Fens, a park that landscape architect extraordinaire Frederick Law Olmsted designed, or from a road that ran along it. Fens, incidentally, is a term to describe a marshy or flood-prone area, which this eventual neighborhood was.
Boston annexed Fenway and its Kenmore Square and Audubon Circle areas from Brookline in the 1870s. It’s sometimes called “the Fenway”—often an unconscious nod to the theory that the neighborhood was named for the road.
Boston’s southernmost neighborhood—and the last to be added through annexation, in 1912—is named after the park in London dating from the 1630s.
This is another tossup in terms of origin. JP was either named after the Caribbean island from which some residents drew their wealth via the slave-driven rum and sugar trades; or after the Anglicization of the name of a Native American leader.
Or! As in the case of Jamaica in Queens, New York, it comes from the name of a Native American tribe called the Jameco.
JP became part of Boston in 1874. Interestingly, it was part of the town of Roxbury and parts of Jamaica Plain became the town of West Roxbury.