A Historic Neighborhood
The Roxbury Highlands is in the territory of the Massachusett People and their neighbors the Nipmuc and Wampanoag, who stewarded this land for thousands of years before the arrival of the colonists.
As a child, my favorite place to fly a kite was Highland Park. It was a short walk from home, the warmth of the sun protected me from what I thought was Dracula’s Castle (Cochituate Standpipe), and the view was spectacular.
Largely residential since the 1600s, architectural gems have survived the American Revolution, Victorian-era subdivisions, municipal neglect, bank redlining, urban renewal, arson-for-profit, and speculators. The current community is a diverse group of neighbors and institutions committed to preserving the Highlands historical legacy and their oasis on the hill.
The Roxbury Highlands is located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Roxbury, now known as Fort Hill. It is bordered between Washington Street and Columbus Avenue (east to west) and Malcolm X Boulevard and Marcella Street (north to south). And though the landscape has changed, some of the Roxbury Highland streets and paths I roamed as a child, remain the same. Paths laid before the colonial period, as winter hunting grounds for Native Americans.
During the colonial period, the Roxbury Highlands was farmland and rocky terrain owned by a few wealthy families. These families are today recognized by the streets in Roxbury that bear their names, for example, Dudley, Eliot, and Ruggles. The stone (puddingstone) was quarried to build homes and institutions. (The largest remnants of the surviving puddingstone cliffs, along Malcolm X Boulevard, were leveled in 1973 during urban renewal projects.) The farmland was famed for its apple orchards.
The Roxbury Highlands and its puddingstone cliffs, played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War. Present day Fort Hill is named after the two Roxbury forts that protected the inhabitants of Boston and the Harbor from the British army.
The low fort, closest to the Boston Neck, was built on what is now Highland, Linwood and Cedar Streets. The high fort, built on the top of one of the steepest hills in Roxbury, on what is now Highland Park, protected the road from Pierpont Village (Roxbury Crossing) to Dedham.
Faced with the year-long impenetrable forts and the threat of cannon fire in Roxbury and Dorchester Heights, the British evacuated Boston in 1776. After earning its place in American history, the Highlands were converted from farming territory to vacation destination. Country estates and summer cottages replaced farms.
By the late 1800s, when the 3rd edition of Abel Bowen’s Pictures of Boston was published for “citizens and strangers who visit our city”, the 300-plus page guide listed one building of interest in the Roxbury Highlands: the Norfolk House, a hotel and tavern since 1827.
The low fort had been demolished to construct the Alvah Kittredge mansion (1836) and the high fort was demolished by the city of Boston to build the Cochituate Standpipe (1869).
The Standpipe cost $100,000 and pumped water to Highland residents for 10 years. Soon thereafter, the arrival of public transportation made the Highlands more accessible to the middle-class and the country estates and cottages were replaced with single-family homes, row houses and triple-deckers.
The neighborhood demographics shifted again between the turn of the century and the Vietnam War, with the exit of the mid to upper-class residents and the arrival of Jewish, German and Irish immigrants and Black families from the South and the Caribbean. Most of the white residents fled for the suburbs in the 1950s, the Black population increased, and squatters claimed abandoned homes.
In the 60s, it seemed as if Dracula truly lived in the Standpipe as the life of the neighborhood was slowly drained. Modern apartments had been constructed over dilapidated, beautiful Victorian buildings and the homes and commercial institutions on the Columbus Avenue corridor had been bulldozed.
The destruction of the Roxbury Crossing neighborhood and the devastation caused by previous city-wide urban renewal projects fueled young activists. Residents and newcomers (displaced by urban renewal), challenged plans to build an interstate multi-lane highway, the Southwest Corridor Project, through Roxbury Crossing, Jamaica Plain, Brookline and Cambridge.
The grassroots People Before Highways campaign was successful and put a stop to the project. Fifty-two years later, on November 9, 2021, the Department of Transportation announced the “Reconnecting Communities” program to remedy racial inequities in U.S. highway design.
Today, residents of Highland Park continue to protest development that threatens the historic importance, architectural charm and tight-knit community. Highland Park has been added to the federal National Register and a report, by the Boston Landmarks Commission, is investigating the Highlands as one of the city’s protected Architectural Conservation Districts.
Abel Bowen guided Highland visitors to the Norfolk House and perhaps his early endorsement is the reason the building still stands. However, there are many more places of interest. Curious?
Join a tour of the Highlands through walks offered by the Boston Preservation Alliance, Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, or the Roxbury Heritage State Park. A self-guided tour is another option. Start with the Norfolk House and work your way upland to the “Castle” (kites optional). Article Resources