During America’s century-long ascent from sleepy colonial backwater to great industrial giant, the urbanization of the country was funneled through a consistent apparatus: the boarding house.
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Cities should move to relax their rules against boarding and SROs, so that the transient might again have grounding stepping stones, and the insolvent might once more be able to obtain footholds. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood was once, not coincidentally, home to both the lowest homeless population and highest SRO concentration in the area.
Nowadays, in the Northwest as across North America, most people live in houses or apartments that they own or rent. But not so long ago, other, less-expensive choices were just as common: renting space in a family’s home, for example, or living in a residential hotel.
Rooming houses, with small private bedrooms and shared bathrooms down the hall, were particularly numerous. This affordable, efficient form of basic housing is overdue for a revival, but legal barriers stand in the way. This article recounts the forgotten history of low-rent dwellings. Subsequent articles will detail how to re-legalize these forms of housing.
Today the notion of the boardinghouse—a “big house full of strangers,” as Jo [March, in “Little Women”] writes in a letter home, where a variety of people would rent rooms and eat at a common table—seems at best quaint, and at worst unsafe and unsavory, as 19th-century critics had it. In the grand narrative of American home life—farm, small town, suburb, apartment—the boardinghouse feels like a long-vanished footnote.
In places like Boston, however, they were anything but minor: They were a key part of how 19th-century cities grew, and left an imprint that survives even now. Whole neighborhoods teemed with them. Boardinghouses for black, Irish, Jewish, and immigrant Bostonians filled the lower slopes of Beacon Hill, while even genteel landladies on fashionable Beacon Street advertised “rooms with a private family.” As American cities turned into true modern metropolises in the 1830s, boarding became a way of life; social historians estimate that between a third and half of 19th-century urban resident were either boarders themselves, or took boarders into their homes.
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Boston and other urban centers are seeing the development of new and denser housing. Some “micro-apartment” developments echo boardinghouses closely, with small private quarters and common areas in which residents can eat and socialize together.
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Boarding not only saved money and time, but to writers or others who craved exposure to a world beyond small towns, they provided an opportunity for social mixing, privacy, storytelling, and intimacy with strangers. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe all lived occasionally as boarders.