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Roxbury’s Highland Park inches towards architectural conservation district status

The “Marble Block” on Cedar Street, where there is an effort to create an architectural conservation district for Roxbury’s Highland Park neighborhood.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

For decades, residents of Roxbury’s Highland Park have pushed to preserve their neighborhood’s unique mix of architectural styles.

Later this year, the city could designate Highland Park, also known as Roxbury Highlands, as an architectural conservation district, a recognition that would give it an extra buffer protecting buildings from major alterations.

The proposed district — approximately bordered by Malcolm X Boulevard, Washington Street, Marcella Street, and Columbus Avenue — is known for its rocky outcroppings and eclectic mix of historic and contemporary architecture. The Fort Hill Tower, a former water tower built on the site of a Revolutionary War-era fort, is perhaps the neighborhood’s most famous landmark. Anyone walking up the neighborhood’s steep hills can discover 18th-century Georgian single-family homes, 19th-century Queen Anne row houses, and buildings with ties to social justice movements, such as the St. James African Orthodox Church that served as a subsidiary of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, according to a draft study report the Highland Park Study Committee submitted to the Boston Landmarks Commission.

“It’s pretty rare to have so many different styles of architecture from so many different periods in one neighborhood,” Andrew Shelburne, a member of the Highland Park Study Committee, said. “We have buildings from the colonial period, and then we have energy-efficient buildings that are a model for how Boston should be moving forward.”


The designation would create a commission of two members and two alternates from Highland Park and three Boston Landmarks Commission representatives, who’d issue guidance on developments in the area, monitor use of its open space, and review any exterior changes to the district’s buildings.

Advocates say the designation is long overdue in a neighborhood that has faced significant gentrification for years, and that, as the study report notes, has lost such gems as the Roxbury Court House in the early 1970s and an 1850s Greek Revival cottage in 2016. They say other neighborhoods wouldn’t wait — and haven’t waited — so long for such protections.


“It’s economics and racism,” said study committee member Ernest Coston, who’s lived in Highland Park for five decades.

The study report detailed the neighborhood’s history and evolution.

The neighborhood’s architecture reflects the many communities who’ve called Highland Park home over centuries. Once a woodland home to the Massachusett people, the area has hosted early America colonists, enslaved and free Black people, abolitionists, and activists over time. Jewish communities, Latino immigrants, and Black people from the American South have dominated the neighborhood at different points in its history. The racial, ethnic, and class diversity found in Highland Park today speaks to this varied history.

Despite development pressure that has eaten away at some of its rich history, much has survived: The Dillaway-Thomas House on Roxbury Street, a yellow, wood-framed, single family house reminds visitors of Highland Park’s role in colonial America. The Marble Block on Cedar Street showcases one of many examples of multifamily living.

88 Lambert Avenue. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The neighborhood also contains important features of the city’s social history. At 88 Lambert Ave., for example, stands the former home of filmmaker Henry Hampton, whose Blackside Inc. production studio created award-winning documentaries like “Eyes on the Prize.”

Unlike many of Boston’s flat, dense neighborhoods, Highland Park boasts a varied topography with a number of parks and other green spaces. Stone elements like mile markers, retaining walls, Roxbury puddingstone outcroppings, and art like the Black Jesus statue at Highland Street define the area.


Despite its many assets, the neighborhood fell victim to disinvestment in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and that’s made it an easy target for developers hoping to rehabilitate old buildings in Boston’s lucrative housing market.

“It feels like we’re fighting greed,” Shelburne said. “It’s a violent process that ends in the destruction of our neighborhood.”

Boston hasn’t created an architectural conservation district since the Fort Point Channel Landmark District was designated in 2009. The Boston Landmarks Commission accepted a petition to consider giving Highland Park that designation in 1978, but nothing came of it. The National Register of Historic Places added Highland Park to its registry in 1989, but, as residents discovered, that doesn’t prevent demolition or other alterations to the neighborhood’s buildings.

“We thought a historical district would provide money for people to fix up their properties and stop them from being torn down,” Coston said. “Little did we know it didn’t work like that.”

The Black Jesus statue is positioned high on Highland Street. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

If approved, the conservation district would monitor demolitions or developments that threaten the neighborhood’s unique layout, preserve its ample green space, and slow displacement of residents. The commission would have to sign off on proposals for demolition, major architectural or landscape changes, and new construction visible from the street; typically, such commissions work with applicants to refine projects that present concerns, the city said. The proposed district would differ from entities like the South End Landmark District, which places restrictions on certain changes residents can make to their homes.


“What we’ve crafted is unique to Highland Park,” said Jon Ellertson, a member of the Highland Park Study Committee. “It’s been fashioned to meet the needs of our neighborhood as we’ve heard them.”

Andrea Cáceres, a study committee member and community organizer, said she wished the designation would give residents more leverage on affordable housing preservation and development. Still, she said, she’s glad it would let residents have more say in how Highland Park changes over time.

“Neighbors will have the power to negotiate about what gets done,” Cáceres said.

Shelburne said he hopes their proposal inspires other neighborhoods to pursue a preservation district.

Kate Phelps, a co-secretary of Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition, and who has lived in Highland Park for over 20 years, agreed; she said she’s hopeful that Mayor Michelle Wu will take a different approach to development that threatens to strip the city’s neighborhoods of their unique features.

“She’s signaling a new attitude to reshape development in a neighborhood-friendly way,” Phelps said.

The Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, Boston’s chief of environment, energy and open space, said she’s excited about the chance to not tell just one portion of Highland Park’s history, but “layers of history” that bring Indigenous, abolitionist, and working-class stories to the forefront.

“It’s part of our effort to move historical preservation from being a predominantly white space to something much more accessible, inclusive, and expansive,” White-Hammond said. “Getting them across the finish line is just the beginning.”


Residents can submit written feedback to the study committee until Tuesday, April 12, when the committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed designation. The committee will then publish a final report. If the Landmarks Commission, City Council, and Mayor’s Office approve the designation, the mayor will appoint the new district commission.

Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.