Back Bay and South End: A Tale Of Two Neighborhoods

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Bostonians are known for having, and expressing, strong opinions. As someone whom Boston has adopted, I’ll give you one of my own right now: the South Ends trumps the Back Bay in nearly every category that matters, particularly from a cultural, residential and culinary perspective.

From its inception in the 1850s, Back Bay was built to be a residential neighborhood. Beacon Hill had long been Boston’s most elite zip code, but by the 1800s, the Back Bay homes were more modern, featuring the latest amenities, (specifically, we’re talking indoor plumbing and coal-burning furnaces.) As the city grew, the Back Bay remained a highly desirable neighborhood for residents. The location is ideal, many of the homes are beautiful and there is plenty in the way of shopping and dining.

While the Back Bay has been an enviable zip code for over 100 years, its abutting neighbor hasn’t always fared so well. The history of the South End is more nuanced, long being a destination for a wide variety of peoples. The South End, which spans from Columbus to Harrison Avenues on the northern and southern borders, and Massachusetts Ave and Berkeley St. on the west and east, was originally filled in in the 1840s. Its original inhabitants were the wealthy overflow from the busy Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods.

But by the turn of the 19th century, many of the mansions had been turned into tenements or lodging houses. Lower- and middle-class citizens came to the urban area to find work. During much of the 1900s, the South End was known for its crime and poverty. In fact, when I first moved to the South End, my roommate’s grandmother, a Beacon Hill native said simply, “No, you’re not.” Gentrification of the South End begin in earnest over the last 20 years, and the neighborhood has become a hip, culturally-diverse mecca for good eats and good art. Singles and families flock here, mingling in the dog parks and drinking wine on their stoops or at any of the great neighborhood spots.

Separated by merely a single street, what could possibly make these two ‘hoods so different? Having lived in both, I am shocked by the vastly different feel of the two. The South End invites camaraderie, while Back Bay seems to encourage anonymity. In the South End, it’s not uncommon to see Rebecca Roth, owner of the Gallows, chatting with her diners, or Jessie, the resident pooch outside her mom’s store, Sooki, around to greet guests. Beyond the friendly staff at Wired Puppy, there’s a lot less of this neighborly recognition happening in the Back Bay. Perhaps it’s due in part to the high volume of tourists who flock here to roam the shops and fill the mediocre restaurants at night.

Residentially, the numbers show you get a better bang for your buck in the South End when compared to the Back Bay. The average two-bedroom apartment in the Back Bay currently rents for $2,857, while $2,342 will get you the same in the South End. Factor in the broader variety in culture in the South End, from the SOWA Open Market every Sunday and First Fridays to the Pride Parade in June, not to mention the dog parks and public tennis courts, and suddenly that differential is even more valuable. To be fair, the Back Bay has its own green spaces, the Commonwealth Mall and the Esplanade as two obvious examples, but they lack the neighborhood-building ownership that a traditional park adds.

There’s a cultural diversity present in the South End that’s noticeably missing in Back Bay, though perhaps that’s just a perception of overall activity and growth in the neighborhoods. Statistics from the 2010 census reveal that the South End grew by 2,784 residents, or 12 percent, to 25,889 residents, while the Back Bay population rose by less than 1 percent in the ten-year period. Real-estate site Zillow survey data shows the two towns’ residents display relatively similar characteristics – residents of each tend to be highly mobile, urban singles.

Finally, in the culinary category, is there really any comparison to make? [Let’s have an honest disclosure here that this is based more on author’s sensibility than any factual argument.] South End diners have nearly endless culinary options and can choose between Ethiopian, Thai, American, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, African, French, Japanese, Middle Eastern and Latin American cuisines. In Back Bay, you’d be hard pressed to find that many options, let alone good ones. Surprisingly, in Boston Magazine’s Best of Boston 2012, which categorizes the best offerings across Boston every twelve months, the two neighborhoods performed relatively similarly. Boston Magazine awarded the title of ‘best’ to 7 restaurants in the South End vs. 6 in Back Bay. The honorees from the Back Bay are Avery, Bistro du Midi, Clio, Grill 23, L’Espalier, and MET Back Bay (7 if you count Pavement Café though the neighborhood location is debatable); and South End distinctions were awarded to Gaslight, Toro, Coppa, Picco, El Centro, Franklin Café, and Myers + Cheng.

Despite being separated by only a single street, the sense of ‘neighborhood’ projected from each of these two towns is widely different. The South End has worked hard for its comeback and I applaud their efforts. The neighborhood welcomes residents with (relatively) open arms and it’s certainly a place that’s easy to build yourself a proper home. The Back Bay seems to rest on its laurels, relying on tourist revenue and its prolific history to set it apart.

I think that’s exactly what turns me off about the Back Bay. It has so much potential. The city and its residents have chosen to move past it and leave it in the dust. It’s not the epicenter it once was, and the Back Bay community seems content to give up without a fight. Why not put in a killer neighborhood restaurant or bar? Why not use the green space you have, namely the Commonwealth Mall and the Esplanade, to create some neighborhood events? What’s stopping you?

If you’ve long been a Back Bay proponent, I’d challenge you to explore a bit farther. I’ll bet you find some gems in the South End that simply cannot compare to the tired favorites of Back Bay. What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m crazy? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.