… and then there’s Meeting House Hill …
Jan. 8, 2014
Longfellow Street runs down the back of Meeting House Hill, which is often the neighborhood identifier that I use to locate our street in conversation with people from other parts of the Dorchester.
Meeting House Hill is also part of the section of Dorchester that was written about in the infamous Boston Globe series “68 Blocks,” which offered no new insight into our neighborhood but fed off the suffering and pain of some residents. For that project, the Globe “embedded” (like Fallujah, Iraq?) two young reporters in an apartment at the top of Meeting House Hill, across the street from Ronan Park.
In his inaugural speech at Boston College on Monday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh listed parts of the city by their hill names to stress that he was focused on more than the power brokers of Beacon Hill, at the foot of which is Boston City Hall. Of the hills he mentioned he included Pope’s Hill, Jones Hill and, of course, Savin Hill. He did not include Meeting House Hill. Perhaps because of my excitement at being in that crowd of 8,000 supporters at BC, after having worked for his election, after knowing him as a neighbor (Ronan Park is less than half a mile from his house on Tuttle Street) who represents two precincts in Ward 15 (centered on Meeting House Hill), after all of the personal interactions over the years and, yes, because of my personal pride in seeing one of my tribe rising from his own ashes to lead the New Boston, perhaps with all of that in the back of my mind, that omission has stuck in my craw.
There is no doubt that Mayor Walsh knows the streets surrounding Meeting House Hill as well or even better than some of those elected to represent us. Nor is there any doubt that he understands the challenges and needs of this part of town and is committed to ending the neglect that many people here assume is normal. Still, it was like a dear friend forgetting to list you when he thanks loved ones at his wedding. No biggie, but ouch!
The original settlement of Dorchester was in the area across from St. Margaret’s School (now Pope John Paul II School), where the Blake House (the oldest house in Boston) now sits. This area was near what is called Old Harbor Beach because that is where shipping came in to sit on the sand at low tide and off-load supplies. Behind “The Blakie” is where the settlers built their first meeting house. As time passed, the settlement moved up onto Meeting House Hill, the highest point in Dorchester.
The meeting house was moved to the top of the hill and, with one eye closed, the little streets winding down from the top of the hill toward Dorchester Avenue can still look like a New England seaside town. The green park in front of the present First Parish Meeting House was called Dorchester Common (now Rev. Allen Park). The first public school in America, the Cotton Mather School, was founded by the congregation of First Parish. Beside the meeting house once stood the Dorchester Athenaeum, where Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have campaigned for election. The streets around the meeting house were called Dorchester Center. To make a more than slightly competitive statement, Father Peter Ronan chose the land on the far side of the common to build the grandest Catholic church in Dorchester, St. Peter’s, quarrying the Roxbury pudding stone on the site for the exterior walls, decorating the gothic windows with German blue glass, and covering all with a stenciled wood ceiling. This parish once boasted a congregation of 22,000, almost all of whom were Irish immigrants. Meeting House Hill, Dorchester, is a memorable place.
Back in the Conte Forum at BC, we rose to our feet with the thousands and cheered wildly for the new mayor, the mayor from Dorchester, the red-headed kid who was now the leader of the New Boston. We believe in him and trust that he will “listen, learn, and lead.” We accounted Mon., Jan. 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings (Fiesta de los Tres Reyes), Inauguration Day, as a grand day.
And, down here on the back of Meeting House Hill, we trust that Mayor Walsh will not neglect us.