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Welcome to Megaboston

How a small city almost became gigantic

JAVIER ZARRACINA/GLOBE STAFF

Could Boston have become one of the world’s megacities? For Bostonians who treasure their dense, walkable urban space, it may seem like a shocking idea. But that was the ambition of a Brookline lawyer named Daniel J. Kiley, who 100 years ago this month submitted a bill to the Massachusetts Legislature that would have totally transformed the city, swallowing every municipality within 10 miles of the State House to create a unified “Greater Boston.”

Kiley’s bill proposed bringing 32 cities and towns — from industrial centers like Malden, Waltham, and Cambridge to leafy burgs like Wellesley, Lexington, and Nahant — within Boston’s borders. At some 327 square miles and with a population of 1.4 million, the huge new megalopolis would have been larger in area than New York City, Chicago, or Philadelphia.

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Strange as it sounds now, the proposal was by no means absurd at the time. Boston’s borders had been growing for almost three centuries — who knew when it would stop? Then as now, greater Boston operated in many ways as one big metropolis. Why should this single economic engine be divided up into dozens of separate municipalities? Kiley’s proposal was part of a wave of expansionist thinking that spanned more than 30 years. Though its most radical ideas failed, it was deeply influential in how the region is structured today.

As farming villages became bedroom communities, the new class of commuters came to expect services like street lights, running water, sewers, streetcars, and paved roads. But it made no economic sense for each of them to sort out these public utilities independently. Starting around the turn of the century, politicians and economic leaders offered a succession of ideas for unifying the region. In 1896, the state Legislature considered a highly detailed proposal to create a new county, to be called the County of Boston. It would include the city and its suburbs and, it was hoped, allow centralized planning without sacrificing too much of towns’ and cities’ independence.

In 1910, the high-profile “Real Boston” campaign, led by Filene’s co-owner Edward Filene, pushed a similar scheme — but instead of a county, that campaign’s leaders envisioned an advisory board that could bring the region’s development agenda under one roof. As late as 1919, a Boston mayor, Andrew Peters, was calling for annexation. He dreamed of a continuous belt of coastal factories stretching from Lynn to Quincy, connected by a single city street network. Only “cumbrous and complicated” small-town red tape stood in the way of his vision. “We can hardly fling a bridge across one of our three rivers without framing legislation,” he wrote.

In the end, none of the ideas survived collision with the state’s political realities. Suburbs feared big-city corruption, rising tax bills, and encroaching urbanization, says Brooklyn College historian Michael Rawson, author of 2010’s “Eden on the Charles,” an account of Boston’s development. Boston’s exploding immigrant Irish population was a factor, too. “Some communities surrounding Boston thought that by avoiding annexation they could avoid an influx of immigrants — keep yourself separate from Boston, keep yourself separate from the Irish” was the mentality, he says.

In 1895 the regionwide Metropolitan Water Board was created. By 1909 it had grown to manage the region’s sewers, and the Boston area also formed commissions overseeing rapid transit, roads, the harbor, parks, and land. These special agencies ended up serving as a kind of state-controlled shadow government for the region, and in the end accomplished many annexationist goals without the pain of drawing new borders. In 1919, the water, sewer, and parks boards were combined into the Metropolitan District Commission. Today, agencies like the multitown MBTA and the Department of Conservation and Recreation can be seen as the lasting legacy of the Greater Boston movement.

On New Year’s Day 1912, in the same week that Kiley filed his ambitious petition, Hyde Park was annexed to Boston. To Kiley, it must have seemed like a good omen. In fact, however, it was to be the final piece of the puzzle. Since then, the city has added land only by filling in parts of the harbor. Today, residents of the city’s 22 wards and the suburbs beyond may all consider themselves to be “from Boston.” But, as far as the city’s official borders go, the basic footprint established one century ago has endured to this day.

Chris Marstall is the creative technologist at The Boston Globe. E-mail him at cmarstall@globe.com.
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