Chelsea is a city in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, United States, directly across the Mystic River from the city of Boston. As of 2013, Chelsea had an estimated population of 36,828. It is also the second most densely populated city in Massachusetts behind Somerville. Chelsea is the smallest city in Massachusetts in terms of land area, with a total area of .
Chelsea is a diverse, working-class community that contains a high-level of industrial activity. It is one of only three Massachusetts cities to have a majority Hispanic or Latino populations. After flirting with bankruptcy in the 1990s, the once struggling industrial city has reversed a prolonged decline and in recent years has enjoyed sustained economic growth. Thanks to its relative affordability and close proximity to Boston, Chelsea has added more than 1,200 homes since 2005, mostly loft-style apartments and condominiums suitable for small families or young professionals. There has also been significant office, retail and restaurant development throughout the city.
The area of Chelsea was first called Winnisimmet (meaning "good spring nearby") by the Massachusett tribe, which once lived there. It was settled in 1624 by Samuel Maverick, whose palisaded trading post is considered the first permanent settlement by Boston Harbor. In 1635, Maverick sold all of Winnisimmet, except for his house and farm, to Richard Bellingham. The community remained part of Boston until it was set off and incorporated in 1739, when it was named after Chelsea, a neighborhood in London, England.
In 1775, the Battle of Chelsea Creek was fought in the area, the second battle of the Revolution, at which American forces made one of their first captures of a British ship. Part of George Washington's army was stationed in Chelsea during the Siege of Boston.
Chelsea originally included North Chelsea, which consisted of what is now Revere, Winthrop, and parts of Saugus. In 1846, North Chelsea was set off as a separate town. Reincorporated as a city in 1857, Chelsea developed as an industrial center and by mid-century had become a powerhouse in wooden sailing ship construction. As the century wore on, steam power began to overtake the age of the sail and industry in the town began to shift toward manufacturing. Factories making rubber and elastic goods, boots and shoes, stoves, and adhesives began to appear along the banks of Boston Harbor. It became home to the Chelsea Naval Hospital designed by Alexander Parris and home for soldiers.
According to local historical records, Nathan Morse, the first Jewish resident of Chelsea, arrived in 1864, and by 1890 there were only 82 Jews living in the city. However, Chelsea was a major destination for the "great wave" of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, especially Russian Jews, who came to the United States after 1890. By 1910 the number of Jews had grown to 11,225, nearly one third of the entire population of the city. In the 1930s there were about 20,000 Jewish residents in Chelsea out of a total population of almost 46,000. Given the area of the city, Chelsea may well have had the most Jews per square mile of any city outside of New York City.
On April 12, 1908, nearly half the city was destroyed in the first of two great fires that would devastate Chelsea in the 20th century. The fire left 18,000 people, 56 percent of the population, homeless. Despite the magnitude of the destruction, it would only take the city about two and a half years to rebuild and five years to surpass the extent of 1908's infrastructure. The city was also laid out differently after the fire, with wider streets and more access for emergency vehicles. Many of the city’s residents left and never returned, which opened the door for many immigrants living in Boston to “move up” to Chelsea. To immigrants living in crowded tenements in Boston’s West End, East and South Ends, Chelsea was the next stop on their path of economic upward mobility.
By 1919 Chelsea’s population had reached the record level of 52,662, with foreign-born residents comprising 46 percent of the population. Fully transitioned from a suburb to an industrial city, the waterfront flourished, with shipbuilding, lumberyards, metalworks and paint companies lined Marginal Street.
During the 1930s the first exodus of Jews from Chelsea to the suburbs began. As the community prospered and grew, many wanted to seek new opportunities in the more affluent communities of Newton and Brookline. By the 1950s the Jewish population had decreased to about 8,000 and more people began to establish roots in the seaside towns of Swampscott and Marblehead, Massachusetts.
After World War II, Chelsea began a long, slow decline; between 1940 and 1980, the population declined by 38 percent. Chelsea, however, lost more population than other urban areas after the 1950s because of the elevated expressway built to connect the North Shore to Boston, via the Mystic River Bridge (later renamed for Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin). The highway planners failed to foresee that the new Route 1 North Expressway would damage the city far more than the 1908 fire. Hundreds of homes were lost to make way for the expressway as it cut the city in half. The resulting out-migration took with it many of the small, local businesses, much of the capital and, seemingly, the soul of the city. Historic homes were abandoned, along with the industrial buildings, brownfields, salt piles and gas storage tanks dotting the cityscape.
In 1973, disaster struck again when the Second Great Chelsea Fire burned 18 city blocks, leaving nearly a fifth of the city in ashes. Both fires originated in Chelsea’s “rag shop district,” cluttered streets filled with junk shops hawking scraps, metal, and combustible items. Wood-frame buildings and three- to six-family houses were built tightly together, and quickly caught fire.
A major shift took place in the early 1970s as Chelsea became a center for Latino immigration. Racial conflict and tension became a regular part of life in Chelsea. Although the Hispanic population continued to grow, the city did not hire its first Spanish-speaking police officer until 1992. By the early 1990s, Chelsea was both the poorest and most dangerous city in Massachusetts.
By 1990, Chelsea had collapsed economically and socially. Crime was rampant, not least among the police and local government officials. The population drain made way for more immigrants, but depleted the city’s tax base. The cost of running the city and maintaining its infrastructure did not decrease correspondingly so, in 1991, the city suffered fiscal collapse. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted special legislation to place Chelsea into receivership. For the first time since the Great Depression, a Massachusetts city surrendered home rule and allowed a state-appointed receiver to control all aspects of city government. City Hall was eviscerated, the police and fire departments reorganized, management of the public schools given to Boston University, and indictments handed down. Mayor John “Butchie” Brennan and two former mayors were found guilty of federal crimes.
Governor William Weld named James Carlin as the first receiver followed by Lewis "Harry" Spence. This was the first time since the Great Depression that a major United States municipality had such an action taken against it. Events preceding the action included failed financial intervention by the state, a political stalemate over the city's budget, deepening economic decline and a spiraling fiscal crisis. Fortunately, Chelsea had no long-term debt publicly held; thus, a solution to its problems could be explored in isolation of creditors.
By the summer of 1995, when the state returned City Hall to the people of Chelsea, a new government had been born, brought to live by a panel of citizens charged with drafting a new city charter. The new charter eliminated the position of mayor, converting management of the city from a strong mayor to a council–manager government system, where a strong city manager is selected by City Council members. As such, municipal government focused on improving the quality of services provided to residents and businesses, while establishing financial policies that have significantly improved the city's financial condition. With their leaders more accountable and efficient, Chelsea reversed its long decline and entered a period of population growth and economic development.
In 1998, the City Council's focused efforts earned Chelsea the distinction of being named one of 10 All-America City Award winners by the National Civic League in recognition of its grass-roots approach to solving problems. Since earning that honor, Chelsea has claimed other victories. The city weathered a recession in the early 2000s and emerged with its finances intact, prompting Chelsea's bond rating to improve.
Chelsea's skyline has been transformed by the construction of the Wyndham Chelsea, built on a lot where junk cars once sat abandoned in the wake of the fire of 1973. Opened in 2001, the hotel chain was the first company to make a substantial investment in Chelsea after receivership. The city’s two main shopping centers, the Mystic Mall and Chelsea Commons, have recently undergone major renovations as well.