Boston, Brookline, Chestnut Hill, oh my! For those of you who just rolled your eyes at that exclamation, please feel free to stop reading here. For those out-of-towners who struggle with the ever-present debate of whether to have your family address your care packages to Newton or Chestnut Hill, this post is for you. As you walk up Beacon Street, you encounter a sign before Campion Hall declaring, “Now Entering Newton.” As a freshman, this confused me. As a sophomore, I realized that Boston had different municipalities or wards or something of that sort. As a junior, I knew that Brookline was different from Newton but I was still unsure as to which area(s) Chestnut Hill actually referred. As a conservation assistant at Burns Library, my confusions were finally cleared.
The conservation assistants at the Burns Library are currently working on a project to house and preserve the pamphlets of the Bostonia collection. Just as the collection’s name indicates, these books and pamphlets all have to do with the greater metropolitan area of Boston, past and present. Recently, I came across pamphlets entitled The Opening Argument for the Town of Brookline and The Past, Present and Future of Boston. I’m not sure about you, but when I think of “past” Boston, I think of the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, and maybe about the corrupt politicians and the mob. I had never really considered how the physical territory of the city came to be. These pamphlets alerted me to the fact that the annexation of territory and organization of the city’s land was yet another struggle that this great city has faced.
In The Past, Present and Future of Boston (1873), Hon. J.S. Potter argues for immediate annexation of Boston’s surrounding areas, namely Winthrop, Revere, Chelsea, Malden, Everett, Somerville, Charlestown, West Roxbury, Brookline, Medford, Arlington, Belmont, Watertown, Brighton and Cambridge. He cites the “tendency of the people of all civilized nations to congregate in great cities” and that land needs to be acquired in preparation of this mass immigration (36). The territories existed separately “in a labyrinth of independent municipalities, all working at cross purposes, and each in its isolated character too small and weak to have any local or general celebrity… eclipsed under Boston’s shadow” (30). He argued that the prosperity of Boston would increase with more land and thus more manufacturing opportunities, and that more space would mean less densely-populated areas, meaning more parks to increase life and health and less crime (47, 72). The main argument against annexation is expressed by Alfred D. Chandler, Esq. in Opening Argument for the Town of Brookline (1880): Why rush annexation? In the late nineteenth century, he argued, Boston wasn’t thickly settled, and adding territory would cost more money to run the city government, a government he called “precarious” and whose corruption did not need to be extended (15). Brookline did not have access to the West to help the railroad expansion nor seacoast to expand Boston’s ports. Brookline’s debt alone should be a reason for Boston not to annex it, he claimed. In addition, he argued that the annexation would be detrimental to the town of Brookline: Brookline in particular had a good town government, and if it was to be incorporated in to Boston, it would sink “into a mere Ward and [lose] this character” (42). Indeed, Brookline is called “the richest town in the world, and also one of the most beautiful” and even in Rand McNally’s Boston Guide (1930) asserted that the town “prefers to retain a town form of government” (96). Proponents of annexation argued that the incorporation was “inevitable” and “cost of delay is enormous” (Potter 65). The argument for annexation was clearly a strong one, as many towns—West Roxbury, Brighton, and Charlestown of those mentioned above—were incorporated.
“Looking down upon the present we find scattered over the territory described… Boston broken into municipal fragments,–and while there is but one common interest affecting all, independent governments are maintained in conflict with one another. Under such an incongruous system there can be no harmony or method, while both are essential to public prosperity” (Potter 81). Most of this nineteenth-century statement still rings true, over a century later. One thing is different, though: the independent governments are not in conflict. There is a harmony. In the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, this became transiently apparent: we are Boston Strong. Boston, Newton, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and maybe all of New England can identify with this spirit. Those for annexation wanted to promote Boston’s spirit and those against it the individual town spirit, but it is clear that these spirits are one in Boston Strong.
Brookline remains its own town. Newton is to the west of Brighton and Brookline, known for the “beautiful rides from Lake Street… through winding way of Commonwealth Ave” (McNally 99). “Boston College (conducted by Jesuit Fathers) buildings overlook Chestnut Hill Reservoir. They are situated in Newton, just beyond the Boston line” (69). Oh, and for those of you who were wondering: Chestnut Hill actually encompasses three different municipalities; part of the town of Brookline, the city of Boston—Brighton and West Roxbury—, and the city of Newton. So, have those care packages sent where you want; all I can say is that I pity our poor mail carriers. For more information about Boston history resources available at the Burns Library, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anna Whitham, Conservation Assistant, John J. Burns Library
Marchione, William P., Dr. “Annexation Spurned: Brookline’s Rejection of Boston.” Brighton Allston Historical Society, 2001. Accessed July 16, 2014. http://www.bahistory.org/HistoryAnnexBrookline.html.