Rocks generated the name and early character of Roxbury. The three drumlins that define the Roxbury highlands are composed of a conglomerate called Roxbury puddingstone, a popular building material used throughout Boston in the late nineteenth century. These rocky highlands differentiated themselves from Lower Roxbury, where industry developed along the Neck, the connector to the Shawmut Peninsula between the Back Bay of the Charles River estuary to the north and South Bay to the south.
Members of Governor John Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Company colonized Roxbury in 1630, erecting the first meetinghouse at John Eliot Square (RX11) in 1632. As the agricultural population grew, later parishes were hived off at West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. The strategic importance of Roxbury in the colonial period as the land bridge to Boston expanded at the time of the Revolution, when the highlands proved invaluable for observation and fortification.
The Boston Neck's Washington Street continued as a central spine even after filling operations on both sides of the isthmus expanded the corridor. A horse-drawn omnibus on Washington Street was inaugurated in 1826; three decades later, horse-drawn trolleys (electrified in 1887) provided increased service. By 1846, Roxbury incorporated as a separate city, recognizing its growing scale and importance. By 1868, however, Boston annexed its neighbor, offering more economical access to municipal water, sewer and other necessities. Lower Roxbury, connected to the South End of Boston, offered industrial jobs for immigrant workers eager to escape the central city. The highlands, however, attracted the middle and upper classes to more salubrious suburban opportunities. The extension of the elevated rail service to Dudley Station in 1901 signaled the opening of more of Roxbury to working-class commuters. Brick apartment buildings, wooden three-deckers, and commercial structures filled in the more prosperous neighborhoods as opportunities for development arose. The exodus of Jewish immigrants from the central city to the Grove Hall section of Roxbury signaled the new demographics of Roxbury. Even more dramatic, the African American diaspora that brought black families from the South to northern cities following World War II rapidly refocused the racial mix of the community. Former synagogues became Baptist temples in rapid order. The transportation system that facilitated the late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century expansion of Roxbury also determined its economic decline when the Orange Line elevated trains were relocated north to the Southwest Corridor (SE33) in the 1980s. Dramatic campaigns of urban renewal in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the area of Lower Roxbury, did more to isolate the community from the central city than to revitalize its economy and neighborhoods.
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