Boston is a city of neighborhoods, as we often hear. Each has its own distinct character, having evolved over the city’s nearly 400-year history as its borders expanded and a diverse population came to call it home. Some neighborhoods have such strong identities as to be famous far beyond the region.
With so much history and loyalty attached, you might think it would be easy to say where Boston’s neighborhoods begin and end. You’d be wrong. A simple question—say, “is this apartment really in the South End?”—can have a different answer depending on which map you use. The neighborhood maps used by the Boston Redevelopment Authority don’t match those used for parking permits, which don’t match the borders used by neighborhood associations, which don’t match the divisions between ZIP codes or census tracts—and none of those may match the old borders that existed when some neighborhoods were separate towns. Altogether, it’s what Mayor Thomas M. Menino once described as a “hogmosh of undefined lines.”
In an attempt to determine the true shapes of Boston’s neighborhoods, we decided to go straight to the source: the people who live here. A year ago we launched a simple online map survey and asked people to draw neighborhood boundaries as they see them. (We left Charlestown and East Boston off the list—being physically separate, their borders left little to debate.)
The map here aggregates the responses we’ve received so far, about 950 in all. Darker colors on the map represent areas that more people agree are part of a given neighborhood, while lighter colors represent areas with less consensus. In a sense, the darkest region in each neighborhood can be thought of as the core of that neighborhood, at least in the minds of our respondents.
The North End, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay are almost indisputable—though perhaps thanks to realtors’ loose definitions, there’s some question of how far south and west the Back Bay really stretches. The ever-debated Allston/Brighton border shows up as a light swath of uncertainty from the river to Comm. Ave. And while it’s extremely clear where old-school Southie begins and ends, it’s less certain whether the public really sees the Waterfront as part of South Boston.
The data here are far from perfect. There is no way to distinguish the wild guesses of a newcomer from the informed view of a native. And it’s likely that the respondents to an online poll would have been more familiar with some neighborhoods than others—the map gets notably vague about the more southern neighborhoods such as Mattapan or Roslindale.
But it does offer a new way to think about the city, as a patchwork of places with stronger and weaker local identity. Sometimes the less-defined areas are large public spaces belonging to all—Franklin Park, for instance. And sometimes they indicate sub-neighborhoods of their own, like Forest Hills, Egleston Square, and Grove Hall, whose own identities may be stronger than ties to their parent neighborhoods.
In the end, this project suggests that as necessary as boundaries are, we need to remember that they’re also fluid and permeable. Perhaps the lack of hard edges on this map is a comforting indication that people identify by the strong hearts of their neighborhoods, and not by the lines that divide them.