There are still a few of us left who remember when the West End was demolished and replaced with Charles River Park. It’s a sad story and one that has always been of particular interest to me because my wife was born there and because so many West Enders moved to the North End. One of the most perplexing aspects of this was always why the city chose to raze the West End and not the North End? At first glance it made little sense. The West End had larger apartments almost all of which had central heat and hot water. Compared to the North End, few families had to share toilets and the population was much more ethnically diverse than the mainly Italian North End. It’s an interesting story and, like all Boston stories, it involved politics, money, power, prejudice and race. The only thing missing was sex but even that may have played a small, supporting role.
For much of the 19th and well into the 20th century, the West End was the storied Ward 8 which was controlled by the Democratic political machine of Martin Lomasney, the Boston Mahatma. Lomasney ruled the Ward from the Hendrick’s Club at the corner of Lowell and Causeway Streets from where he dispensed favors and jobs to his constituents. While he was alive, Lomasney was one of the most powerful ward bosses in Boston but after he died in 1933 the power base of the West End began shifting to the upper Wards of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, Roslindale and Hyde Park. The ethnic makeup of the neighborhood also changed from being predominantly Irish to being Italian and Jewish. By the end of World War II the population of the West End had decreased from a high of 23,000 to about 7,500 and was 60% Italian, 30% Jewish with the rest being a mix of Polish, Black, Armenian, Greek and other ethnics.
In 1949 the Federal government passed an urban revitalization or slum clearance bill offering to reimburse cities for improving their housing stock. Boston’s mayor at that time was John B. Hynes who was city clerk under James Michael Curley and who became acting mayor when Curley went to jail. At that time Boston, like many other cities, was old and tired. Property values were depressed and people were fleeing the city for the suburbs. Hynes and the Boston Housing Authority decided that the best way to revitalize Boston was to reclassify the West End from being a neighborhood to being a rat infested slum. What a surprise that was to the seventy five hundred people who lived there, they didn’t know they lived in a slum. To them the West End was affordable housing.
The city stopped collecting trash, didn’t repair the streets and did every sneaky thing they could to stigmatize the West End. When some people like Joe Lee, an old Yankee and school committeeman, tried to protest they were ignored by the power players.
The nerve of those West Enders. What made them think they could occupy 46 prime acres of prime city land between Beacon Hill and the Charles River? Who were they, just a bunch of poor Jews and lower class Italians, certainly not the “in crowd.” Every important Boston institution turned their backs on the people of the West End. The business leaders, the so called Vault, were cheerleaders for mayor Hynes, all the Boston newspapers happily printed articles about what a good idea it was to raze the West End and, most shameful of all, the Catholic Church ignored the pleas of the people to intercede.
Was anti-Semitism involved? I think so. Was there racism against lower class Italians? Absolutely. Not since the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” was a city demolished so ruthlessly and efficiently as was the West End.
I’ve included a link to a speech given by Mayor Hynes in 1954 where he outlines the problems facing Boston at that time and his proposed solutions. Nowhere in that speech does he mention the people of the West End. It’s almost like they didn’t exist. The bitter irony was they promised to build a new neighborhood in the West End. Cities don’t build neighborhoods, they destroy them and they’ve learned how to do it in lots of clever ways. Neighborhoods are built organically by people not real estate developers and city planners.
In 1958 while the bulldozers and cranes were doing their dirty work, the destruction of the West End was the topic of many conversations in the North End. We were sure we were next in line for urban renewal. One day my father piled us into his Olds and drove out to Medford. There was a house for sale just off the Fellsway West, a two family with a garage. We never got out of the car. I could see the tears in my mother’s eyes at the thought of leaving the North End and her mother, brothers and sisters. I remember thinking how strangely quiet it was out there in the wilds of Medford; no shops, no crowds of people, no yelling, no double parked cars. Who could ever live like that? Certainly not us, so we stayed in the North End. The Boston Redevelopment Authority reluctantly decided to spare the North End from the wrecking ball but the question remains, what saved the North End? I think I may have the answer which I will reveal in the next installment.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.