A Walk Through Dorchester's Fields Corner
Dorchester's Fields Corner
Fields Corner always seems to be making a comeback. A search for newspaper articles about this Dorchester neighborhood through the years uncovers numerous proclamations of sunnier days ahead. As early as the 1940s, community leaders were talking about a "Fields Corner comeback." And there were similar declarations made in the 1970s, '80s and more recent years.
But somehow these revitalizations never seem to fully materialize. The economic situation improves for a time and then a series of burglaries, arson or shootings halts the neighborhood's progress. Other times, the community has experienced upticks economically but then has struggled when the next national recession hits.
In the last 20 years, this once Irish-Catholic neighborhood of about 26,000 residents has gotten a new boost as a wave of Vietnamese immigrants has injected new blood into a failing business district. Crime is slowly coming down and gradually the neighborhood seems to be on the verge of making yet another attempted comeback.
Note: All historic photos on this site are courtesy of the Dorchester Historical Society unless otherwise noted.
Above: Two maps showing the Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester, a century apart. It was named for the Fields Store that once stood at the "X" formed by Dorchester Avenue and Adams Street. Town Field (or Christopher Gibson Playground) is seen at the bottom left (southwest) of each map, once intersected by Geneva Avenue. The Fields Corner Shopping Center stands at the old location of the car barns that once served the Fields Corner Train Station to the west of Dorchester Avenue and just north of Park Street.
Dot & Adams
Above: Scenes from mid-century Fields Corner. Like many neighborhoods in Boston, Dorchester has seen widespread ethnic turnover within a generation. The old Irish-American district is now largely a coexistence between two cultures which have not had much experience interrelating: Vietnamese immigrants and African-Americans.
In the photo above to the left, the annual Dorchester Parade passes through the intersection at Dorchester (nicknamed Dot) Ave and Adams Street in the 1960s. The 1872 Robinson Block, anchoring the north side of the square still stands today, although now deprived of its third-story mansard roof. At right, we are looking perhaps two decades earlier in the opposite direction at the four-story Georgian Revival Lenane & Ligget Buildng with its curved facade in the center of the photo. To the left is the O'Hearn Storage complex, which includes (in drastically altered form) the original Isaac Newsome Field House. Built in 1795, it was the home to the family that gives the neighborhood its name. The Fields were prominent in commerce in 19th Century Dorchester. The family owned six houses and set up shop in a large store at the corner of Adams and Dot where the storage building now stands.
The ethnic composition of Boston neighborhoods can seemingly change overnight. In the 1950s, Mattapan and the Blue Hill Avenue area was largely Jewish. The Italian North End was once heavily Jewish and before that, largely Irish. Today, even Southie is diversifying.
Vietnamese immigration to Fields Corner has been traced back to 1986 and '87 when newspaper publishers like Cuong Nguyen started writing about Dorchester as a possible settling spot for Vietnamese immigrants. By 1990, the Vietnamese population totaled some 1,900 in Dorchester. Of course, the immigrant tradition of establishing a neighborhood beachhead is not unique to the Vietnamese and soon the newcomers were making Fields Corner seem more like home. The Viet-AID organization was founded in 1994 by a group of young Vietnamese professionals who wanted to foster economic success and help promote Vietnamese businesses (In 2002, they also completed the $5.1 million Vietnamese Community Center on Charles Street). Meanwhile, Vietnamese doctors, lawyers and real estate agents set up shop along Dot Ave while the Chuc Luc Buddhist Temple found a home in what was once a burnt-out three decker on Park Street.
The Vietnamese migration also renovated what was by then a dying business district spreading out from Dot and Adams. Vietnamese entrepreneurs opened for business all along the avenue and soon the Lucky Store, the Asia Hair Design Parlor, Kimmy's Pharmacy and Dai Nam Gifts, among others, were bringing new life to Dot Ave.and vicinity, mostly funded by informal loans granted by Vietnamese community members.
At the same time, white-owned businesses struggled to adapt to the changing face of the neighborhood. Meyers Delicatessen on Adams Street, a Fields Corner mainstay since 1923, is an illustration of a business that felt the impact of Irish Americans abandoning the neighborhood in the 1990s. The owner told the Boston Globe in 1991, "This could be a Vietnamese hardware store by next year. Vietnamese don't come in here. I don't blame them. It's just the way it is." Indeed the deli did not last long. Other white-owned businesses tried hiring Vietnamese interpreters and advertising in Vietnamese with differing rates of success.
While the Vietnamese have helped the neighborhood regain its economic footing, they have been less successful in connecting with the African-Americans and dwindling number of whites sharing Fields Corner. While there have been strong attempts on both sides to find common ground, these divergent ethnic communities still seem to only live side-by-side, sharing the same space but rarely the same conversations.
Above: Residential housing patterns and an infusion of Vietnamese immigrants into the Fields Corner neighborhood has resulted in a facinating cultural kaleidoscope along Dot Ave. As seen above, iconic cultural entities stand shoulder to shoulder in Fields Corner's business district. It's hard to say where the neighborhood will go next. Groups like Viet-AID, Historic Boston Inc. and Fields Corner Main Streets continue to work hard for yet another attempted economic comeback. And indeed there have been many positive signs within the past decade including the renovating of the Red Line T Station, the restorations of the facades of the Golden Building and Lenox Building, the construction of the community center and a continued effort to make the Fields Corner Shopping Center a worthy commercial space. And yet there have been reports of some Vietnamese beginning to leave the neighborhood for the suburbs (a second generation immigrant tradition) and petty — and occasionally unpetty — crime that still plagues Fields Corner. As always, it seems to be a neighborhood in transition.
Since 1872, Fields Corner has been a transportation hub along the transit route south out of Boston, largely contributing to increased development in the area in the late 19th century. Red trolley cars once ran the four mile trip in 45 minutes to Milk and Washington downtown, beginning at 3:45 in the morning. Located along Dorchester Avenue at Park Street, the Fields Corner waiting room stood where the Blarney Stone Pub is now located (see photo below). Over the years, the expansive ground which included a bus terminal, cab barns, trolley cars and the subway took up extensive land on Fields Corner's west side. The station that now exists opened on November 5th, 1927, once the southern terminus of the Red Line. It was renovated in 2008 and remains one of the last elevated grade stations in the Boston T system.
Today, the site of the old carbarns is occupied by the Fields Corner Shopping Center. The struggling neighborhood mall has scrambled to hold onto anchor tenant stores through the years. In the mid-1960's, it was home to a 50,000 square foot Bradlees store along with a Supreme Market, State Street Bank & Trust and McManus Ice Cream Parlor. After Bradlees left in the 1990s, stores aimed at low-income residents have come and gone. Perhaps most notorious was the Midland Foods Supermarket, with its reputation for sanitary code violations, dirty floors and spoiling meat. This was followed by the closing of a HomeGoods and AJ Wright in the 2000s.
A Supreme Liquors, Dollar Store and Checks Cashed business are perhaps pessimistic signs for the Fields Corner Shopping Center, while new stores like CW Price and a Bank of America branch lend some hope to a ressurgance for the plaza.
Below: Boston Elevated Railway buses once stood on these grounds.
Fields Corner has always seemed to struggle with crime and poverty. And while it has never completely overwhelmed the neighborhood, incidents and a general insecurity pesters local welfare, preventing Fields Corner from becoming a prime residential or commercial destination.
In the mid-century 20th Century, Fields Corner was often described as a "Joe six-pack" neighborhood. Perhaps due to the elevated disturbance of the rumbling Red Line and the modest three-decker housing stock, the neighborhood has always been decidedly working class. And indeed, stories of crime in Fields Corner are nothing new. A 1926 Boston Globe story tells of $3,100 worth of dresses and coats looted from the Ladies' Fashion Shop at 1514 Dorchester Ave. While an article from 1920 tells of a gang that broke into Hood's Creamery and drew the ire of Station 11's finest. The following year a George C. Bruen was arrested for "brewin'" some 40 gallons of then-illegal beer in his electrical shop. In the 1950s, gangs of young teens often stole handbags and committed small burglaries.
But more serious crime seemed to arise in Fields Corner during and following the racial tensions of the 1970s. Blacks and Hispanics often faced off against Irish-American gangs in those years, as local groups like Racial Unity Now (RUN) tried to stem the friction. The tension was fierce. In 1975, a black man and his son were "beaten almost to death in an all-Irish bar," according to former police chief William Bratton. And many African Americans who moved into the neighborhood had their houses stoned. The 1976 stabbing of teenager John Pembroke at Town Field after a dispute between white and Hispanic youths continued to exasberate the situation. As more and more residents of color moved into Fields Corner during Boston's busing years, many whites (as in many neighborhoods across the city) tried to buck the trend.
Arson has also long been a problem in the neighborhood. Large fires in February of 1976 and April of '77 led reporter Michael Kenney to comment that "there is a sense that fires have seriously jeopardized, if not wiped out, the hopes of a commercial revival in Fields Corner." A series of 1993 arsons in Irish bars hastened the flight of Irish Americans out of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, fires targetting new Vietnamese businesses appeared to be linked to an extortion ring and Vietnamese organized crime. Reporting done by the Boston Globe in 2004 tracked down a Vietnamese extortion ring operating out of Philadelphia that was attempting to bully neighborhood businesses.
In the new century, high-profile shootings and crimes brought unwanted media attention to the neighborhood. A 2004 stabbing of a 14 year-old made headlines as did two incidents at the Fields Corner T. In 2005, a 23 year-old man was killed during rush hour at the station, landing on the third rail of the subway track. Four years earlier, another shooting had occured on the platform during a dispute involving a gold chain. The neighborhood has made the front pages for other incidents through the years as well, such as a 1989 fatal stabbing on Dix Street, a 1995 apartment homicide, a 2012 fatal shooting on Park Street and a 2012 shooting at the Universal Barber Shop on Geneva Ave.
Less serious crimes have also prevented the business district from achveieving full functionality. Vietnamese businesses which began to dot Dorchester Avenue in the 1990s consistently complained about crime from students attending the local Cleveland Middle School (now the Harbor Charter School). Many businesses took the rather extraordinary step of closing up shop during the hours when students were headed back and forth to school. Others have tried to enforce a "Two student at a time" rule. One 2004 study cited 26 robberies, 44 aggravated assaults and 44 burglaries in the month of Feburary alone.
But the neighborhood managed to prevent gangs and violence from taking full control. Arsons along Blue Hill Avenue during the 1960s and '70s led to shopkeepers closing their doors during daytime hours and an eventual economic disaster. Fields Corner has bounced back. The Vietnamese infusion of the 1990s is partly responsible along with local groups that have fought to renovate buildings that were victimized from arson. The rebulding of St. Ambrose Church after a 1984 arson is indicative of the Fields Corner spirit. The year after the fire, the stain-glassed windows were back, a new tower constructed and Sunday masses resumed.
In its perpetual comeback mode, Fields Corner now tries to get up off the mat once again.
Town Field (AKA Gibson Playground)
Above: A look at Town Field, also known as Christopher Gibson Field, as seen through the years. The field has served as a ball field, playground and gathering space for the community. A 1923 newspaper story gives a sense of the field's previous life as 4,000 spectators were in attendance to see Jeffries A.C. of East Boston take on Neponset's St. Ann's that fall. Chaos erupted during the second half when some 2,000 spectators rushed the field after three players punched hecklers on the sideline. Apparently the game was a rather rough affair throughout, as players on both sides were reported as "swapping punches with great good will." Today the field no longer has its stadium configuration but does host semi-pro baseball games and has a children's playgrounds where more mannerly behavior is encouraged. At one time Geneva Avenue ran through the park, but the street was discontinued in 1922 gaining 3,000 more square feet for both the park and the concrete bleachers that were once packed with spectators on weekends.
The Municipal Building
Built in 1874 and designed by Boston's first official city architect, George Clough, the Victorian Gothic Municipal Building on Arcadia Street has served just about every imaginable civic purpose through its nearly century and a half of existence: Police station, mini-city hall, courthouse, library, offices, apartments and even jail (the cells can still be found in the basement).
A crane and wrecking ball stood poised to bring down the building after an arson gutted it in 1983. But after the Fields Corner Community Development Corporation disputed a report from city engineers deeming the building structurally unsound, a Boston Housing Court judge stayed the order for demolition. 1.8 million dollars later, public and private sources transformed the building for commercial and residential use — and a new life. Thirty years later the building remains. The structure features a steeple, gabled roof, cupola and granite foundation and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Field House and O'Hearn Storage Building
One of the odder historical discoveries in Dorchester is that the 1795 Field's House still exists in Fields Corner in an almost unimaginably new form. Standing behind the O'Hearn Storage Building in what is sometimes called Hero Square, the house has been transformed into a kind of small brick warehouse. A music hall once operated here as well, prompting Historic Boston Inc. to express an interest in restoring the various brick buildings to some form of their previous incarnations.
Bottom Left: Fields Corners residents could once visit the old Dorchester Theatre at Park and Dot Ave to see "the show" on Saturdays for a dime and Sundays for a quarter. It opened in 1915 and held approximately 850 spectators. In the 1960s it was closed down for renovations and reopened as The Park Theatre with a 75 cent admission. The theatre was known for the rather unruly behavior permitted of local kids. Today a Radio Shack occupies to lower floor of the building. The Fields Corner Theatre was up the block next to where Citizens Bank now stands at Dot and Adams.
Bottom Right: Fields Corner today boasts of widespread diversity within its community of about 26,000 residents. While the integration of black residents in the 1970s and Asians in the 1990s was not always smooth, racial tensions have eased, even if full social integration is still lacking.
Below: Looking northeast at the Robinson Block more than a century apart. Some of the three-story buildings in the neighborhood have been taken down, while the Robinson Block itself has lost its roof.
Below: A look at the transit overpass in the 1940s and today along Dorchester Avenue at Fields Corner. The sign in the older photo reads "Rapid Transit: 14 Minutes to Park Street."
We Need Your Help...Do You Remember Fields Corner's Past?
Below is a map of Fields Corner. We are trying to reconstruct what businesses or organizations occupied each building or plot of land in Fields Corner through the years. Please let us know if you "Remember What Was There" using the form below.
Fields Corner North
Fields Corner South
Send Your Fields Corner Memories & Comments
"My aunt Marie Perella worked there for years. As a kid it was a ply I would stop in to say hi, I hopes she would give me money for ice cream. She did. That business was there for years as was the Globe Furniture store that burnt down. A children's / toy stir took over the old Gratt store on the right side of Dot Ave going to Savin Hill...can't remember the name, I remember the store was divided by a set of stairs." -Debbie Cummings