The boardinghouse spirit still survives, however. Cooperative housing, in which residents band together to maintain facilities (and respectability), carries echoes of it. Single-room occupancy buildings offer rooms with a shared kitchen. Halfway houses for recovering drug addicts and formerly homeless people often offer boardinghouse-style independent quarters and shared meals. The YMCA, whose American iteration was founded in Boston to provide boarding services to “young strangers” new to the city, and the YWCA live on, providing transitional housing and meals to the needy. College students living in dormitories and eating together in a cafeteria get a taste of the social spark boardinghouses offered; for travelers, bed and breakfasts offer a genteel, temporary version.
Some newer innovations, too, are capturing boardinghouses’ allure, offering a way to save money, escape the constraints of home, and find something like a family in the middle of a city. Micro-apartments, extra-tiny private spaces with shared kitchens down the hall, are taking off in cities including Boston, New York, and Seattle. The website Airbnb connects people with extra space to strangers who need a place to stay. In this innovative moment, it’s not hard to imagine a 21st-century revival of more traditional boardinghouses, too. “While boarders’ complaints were numerous, they often formed long-lasting bonds with their housemates,” Gamber wrote in an e-mail. “I’m not sure how practical or affordable running a boardinghouse or living as a boarder would be...but I suspect that enterprising entrepreneurs would find a ready market.”
One variation has seen young Americans boarding with the most patient landlords of all: their parents. The recent recession pushed a quarter of American young adult “boomerang kids” back into living at home. As the economy slowly recovers, however, independent young workers are beginning to move back out on their own, bringing with them all the demands that made 19th-century boardinghouses so practical. Today’s Jo March may be sleeping in her parents’ basement, dreaming of a room for herself in the city.
Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.