Stark differences make many Mass. communities neighbors in name only 

Municipal boundaries often separate cities and towns with wide demographic differences 

IN 1847, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ordered that a line be drawn from the mouth of the Shawsheen River, down along its eastern bank, and “thence in a straight line westerly, to a marked stone in the wall … by Jacob Barnard’s house.” This formed the first two legs of the boundary of the new town of Lawrence, and it is this line, with some later adjustments, that still marks the division between the neighboring municipalities of Lawrence and Andover. 

Today, that same line represents one of the most striking socioeconomic divisions in the state. North of the line, residents of Lawrence earn a median household income of $44,613. South of the line, the median income in Andover is more than three times higher, at $151,334. Lawrence is about 53 percent white; Andover is 80 percent white. Only 1 in 10 adults in Lawrence has a bachelor’s degree or higher; in Andover, 3 out of 4 are college graduates. 

In the middle of the 19th century, Lawrence was an economic marvel, the site of the Great Stone Dam and the booming mill complex powered by the Merrimack River. Andover was an agricultural town of just a few thousand people, and setting the two towns apart on the map was both a practical response to how an industrial community should be governed as well as a handout to the interests of the factory proprietors who wanted to rule their own jurisdiction. Once drawn, though, a border is very difficult to un-draw. Andover and Lawrence were set on different historical courses, and those differences hardened into gaping inequalities more than a century later. 

Some dividing lines in today’s geography are even more antique than the one between Lawrence and Andover. The border between Woburn and Lexington dates back to the 1640s, when Woburn was still part of Charlestown and Lexington part of Cambridge. That means that an imaginary line drawn at a time when King Charles I ruled over New England still has a very real effect today: People living on the Lexington side earn, at the median, a little more than twice as much as those on the Woburn side. 

An overall map of the state can be useful for visualizing broad regional trends, like how Western Massachusetts is different from metro Boston, or how the 128 suburbs compare to the 495 suburbs. But with so many colors and symbols, a statewide map can actually be poorly suited for making specific observations about the differences between neighboring towns. These kinds of neighbor-to-neighbor comparisons—which highlight how things change when you jump from one side of a town line to another—oftentimes dramatically illustrate just how much geography plays a role in patterns of inequality. 

In the interactive visualization below, which is geographic even though it isn’t a traditional map, we can consider cities and towns in terms of their neighbor-to-neighbor comparisons.  (Click on “Instructions” to learn how it works and then explore communities across Massachusetts.) 

Divisions between mill cities and their adjacent dormitory suburbs offer some of the most striking contrasts in economic inequality amongst neighbors: not only Lawrence and Andover, but also Springfield and Longmeadow, Holyoke and Southampton, Fall River and Freetown, or Fitchburg and Lunenburg.  

Like Lawrence, many of these cities were set apart when they had a growing economic base of factories. When the Massachusetts economy shifted to service industries and personal wealth became ever more tied up in single-family homes, those same jurisdictional lines left these cities cut off from the landscapes of suburban affluence. 

Lines of racial division also set adjoining municipalities apart from one another. It’s hard to tell from a satellite view where West Bridgewater ends and Brockton begins, but when you cross that line you’re going from one of the least diverse towns in the state (96 percent white) to one of the most (36 percent white). Melrose was once a part of Malden until it was sliced off in 1850; now Malden is home to a population that’s 43 percent foreign-born, while only 12 percent of Melrose was born abroad. 

Are these differences just accidental? Certainly not: a municipal line isn’t just the spot on the map where the highway department installs the iconic “Entering Anytown” bookleaf-shaped signs. Those lines control where residents pay taxes, what schools their children go to, which police department is allowed to arrest them, and where they cast their vote in elections. For all of those reasons and more, the inequalities between towns tend to be self-reinforcing: A rich town can lavish money its schools, thereby attracting more well-off residents, while enforcing land-use controls that keep new residents out. On the opposite side of the line, towns with weak property-tax bases can find themselves stuck with expensive social service obligations, while playing host to some of the last clusters of affordable housing in the state. 

Meet the Author
It might seem strange that our lives are still structured by antique geographical descriptions, like the reference to “a marked tree with stones about it, standing on the west side of the old bay path where the mill brook crosseth said path” that defines part of the border between Duxbury (where the median home value is $651,000) and Kingston (where it is only $378,500). But there are many forces that keep these invisible lines alive. One is the inertia of political self-interest. Cities and towns have mayors, select boards, chambers of commerce, and many other institutional elites who tend to fight hard against any erosion of local prerogatives. But another, more deeply embedded reason is the mythos of local identity. People identify with the “character” of cities and towns—even if that so-called character is little more than racial and class stereotypes laundered into geographical language. 

The interactive visualization makes it possible to see that geographic divisions preserve and amplify the many other inequalities that fragment our economy and society. Throughout Massachusetts, neighboring towns are very often neighbors in name only, with municipal lines forming the breaking point between places that are functionally worlds apart. 

Garrett Dash Nelson is curator of maps and director of geographic scholarship at the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library.