It’s hard to imagine that one of Boston’s most iconic neighborhoods used to be a swamp. But before 1820, Back Bay was basically an expansive tidal marsh. By the mid-19th century, the city was in dire need for more space, in part because of the extreme overcrowding of the poor. The rapid influx of immigrants, namely from Ireland, was concerning to moneyed Protestant families, so they resolved to create their own neighborhood. Some 450 acres of swampy marshland was filled in with sand and gravel, and the Back Bay neighborhood was born.
By the latter half of the 19th century, Back Bay emerged as Boston’s most elite neighborhood—and stayed that way. With its physical isolation from the rest of the city thanks to the Public Garden and the Charles River, Back Bay thrived as an exclusive enclave for the rich. One only needs to take a glance at the level of historical architectural grandeur that exists up and down Comm. Ave. to this day to understand it. In 1894, it was estimated that about 45 percent of Boston’s upper-class families lived in Back Bay. The neighborhood was immortalized (and not to the liking of everyone) in Henry James’s The Bostonians, which provided a satirical depiction of 19th-century Back Bay and its well-to-do residents.
While many of Boston’s wealthiest have since decamped for the suburbs, an element of those Brahmin years does still exist. Among residents, you’ll find everyone from students and young professionals to wealthy families and well-heeled empty nesters moving in from towns like Wellesley and Weston. Young children frolic through the Clarendon Street Playground, treating the Comm. Ave. Mall, Public Garden, and the Esplanade as their own backyard. Though Back Bay is one of the epicenters of Boston tourism, with (duck)boat loads of visitors rolling through the neighborhood’s busiest thoroughfares, residents say you can walk a few streets over to Marlborough and Beacon to find peaceful, tree-lined streets where the crowds feel miles away.
Despite what looks like an endless amount of vacant retail spaces on Newbury these days, the street still manages to hold center court as the city’s most coveted shopping destination, alongside the Prudential Center and the recently revamped Copley Place. Aside from its upscale new American fare, Back Bay does have some quiet haunts that are frequented by residents, like Corner Tavern and Cornish Pastry Co. Let it be known that some fraternities in the neighborhood can get quite rowdy, and streets become congested on days when the Sox play. And if diversity among residents is something you’re looking for, well, you’re better off house-hunting somewhere else.