The three-decker and the streetcar symbolize the evolution of Dorchester as one of the larger neighborhoods in Boston. With more than five thousand surviving examples in Dorchester, the three-decker is the ubiquitous image of the development of this working-class periphery to the central city. Often intricate in detailing, these wooden buildings reinforce the generally uniform topography of Dorchester that is accented with a series of modest drumlin hills.
Founded in the same year as Boston (1630), Dorchester remained primarily agricultural until the period of the Civil War. Country gentlemen began to join the serious farmers in the late eighteenth century, but limited transportation discouraged more intensive development. Meetinghouse Hill became the civic center of the community, and Edward Everett Square attracted commercial activities. Industries grew at the northern end of the district and along the Neponset River at the south.
The inauguration of the horse car, the Boston & Providence (1835) and Old Colony (1844) railroads, and eventually the electrified streetcar lines facilitated a rapid period of growth from the 1870s on. As industries were forced out of central Boston to the fringes of Dorchester, immigrant workers followed in a demographic explosion. The private sector responded with construction of three-deckers, roomier descendants of the cramped spaces of the in-town tenements. The most intensive period of this residential development occurred between 1870 and 1929, for workers in the local industries and commuters back into the city. Both the Irish and Eastern European Jews sought these more substantial alternatives to the tenements of their first arrival. More substantial single-family houses were built throughout these decades on Jones and Ashmont hills, Melville Avenue, and elsewhere. Since World War II, Dorchester has primarily continued to serve as the staging area for new waves of immigrants, despite the very limited opportunities for industrial employment.
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