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Life on the Corner: The West End, Part 1

West End, before Urban Renewal (Image courtesy of the West End Museum)

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.

West End after Urban Renewal. Only St. Joseph’s Church is left standing in the old West End. Cardinal Cushing’s right hand man, Msgr. Francis Lally, was a member of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. (Image courtesy of the West End Museum)

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.

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17 Replies to “Life on the Corner: The West End, Part 1

  1. Dear Nick, thank you for the interesting story on the West End. I had no idea that the area got destroyed like that. I was living in the North End then but was very young. My parents never mentioned anything about it. Keep those great stories coming!

  2. I was only twelve but remember watching the wrecking ball take down the houses on the other side of the street. I also remember our landlord being taken out of his house in a straight jacket because he had lost his house. Those were not good memories.

  3. Nick
    Bravo Bravo, I remember it well I had an aunt named Amelia and two Cousins, that lived on Joy St, My aunt used to walk to the North End almost every day to visit her sister, who was My grandmother at the time, she passed just before they had to move, it was a sore spot in my family for years,thanks for the great story can’t wait till part 2.
    Bobby Church

  4. My father grew up in the West End and his fondest memories seemed to be the friendships he garnered while going to the West End House (still standing on property owned by MGH). I never heard my father, his sister or brothers ever bemoan the demise of the West End. Yes, they had good memories of the place, but they also felt, once it was gone that it’s time had come and gone. They all seemed to agree that what replaced the West End was OK with them. My father was an upholsterer in the West End, but upon learning of the plans to level it, he moved his business to Allston where he did pretty well. I now live in Charles River Park…I guess you can say I have returned to my father’s old ‘hood.

  5. What a good writer you are. The first paragraph is a gem. I’m eager to learn why the North End might have been spared. I wonder if it had anything to do with the Central Artery, which blocked off the North End from the city for so long.
    You may or may not know that leaders on Beacon Hill were afraid that the north slope of Beacon Hill would also be razed. There are a few records about that at the BH Civic Association.

    1. Thank you, Karen. The North slope of beacon Hill was always considered part of the West End. It was also referred to by a racist name which I can’t and won’t mention. Many medical residents at MGH lived there during their training years because of the reasonable rents. Tenement housing was the original affordable housing but the political establishment didn’t like it because property assessments, and therefore property taxes, were low.

  6. Great article. The northern slope of the Hill was definetly considered the West End. I grew up there and do know it’s other name. My grandfather was John I. Fitzgerald, the state rep among other political positions and I think he was close with your wife’s father?? My father talked about the West End “the best end” until he died.

    1. You’re right, Liz, my father in law was named Joe McDonald and he always spoke about John I with great respect and reverence.
      He also said the West End Fitzgerald’s were the classy ones not like their low life namesakes in the North End.

  7. Both sides of my family lived in the West End and we are probably unique in the fact that neither side of my family was displaced when the West End was razed. My Dad’s side lived on Billerica Street (where the Tip O’Neill Federal Building is) and that street remained until 1983. Although my grandmother lived in the West End, she was a native North Ender and we would go back and forth to see her sisters as some of the other people describe above. My Mom’s side lived for generations on Anderson St, the “North Slope” as you refer to it. I spent much of my life in that area and always thought it was such a shame that the neighborhood was destroyed in that manner. This is a great article, thanks!

  8. I lived in the west end until I was 16 years old. I lived on Pitts St I never thought
    the west end was a slum. I loved my apt 4 rooms 5 kids and 2 adults lived there happily and then urban renewal come in and we all moved to Dorchester.

    1. MY MAIDEN NAME WAS MARGARET FERLITO I LOVED EVERYTHING ABOUT LIVING IN THE WEST END I STILL HAVE FRIENDS FROM THAT ERA WE DID NOT KNOW WE WERE POOR WE WERE HAPPY LIVING THERE AND WALKING EVERY WHERE NO CARS SKATES AND BIKES MOSTLY ITALIAN WENT TO ST JOSEPHS SCHOOL FATHER POWERS WAS OUR PASTOR I THINK WE HAD A HAPPY CHILDHOOD

  9. I was from the west end we had abeautiful
    Brownstone one family home the only exception
    Was the studio apartment in the basement with
    A walk out backyard. My mom would cook dinner and leave a pan of food behind the door
    For the renters ( they were either doctors or nurses from mgh.
    My mom passed away at 57 her heart was literally broken our home was beautiful and they
    Had just updated the heating and plumbing twice a week mom would shine the brass knobs and kick plate on the front door.
    When we got the first letter I remember my mom and dad sitting and talking and then mom crying
    She went to MANY meetings at the state house
    Even carried signs but each time she would come
    Home looking defeated
    The monies paid was minuscule compared to the worth
    Their main income was a laundry at which was also taken so now find work.
    I was 15 I had to find a school to go to the second day after moving I went back to visit
    The marble fireplace was gone and so were the
    Windows and front door I climbed the two flights of stairs to my bedroom sat down on the floor
    And just cried
    Life after never felt secure mom was sick she passed away dad went back to school to update
    His former printing career for work
    Someone mentioned the Fitzgerald s they lived
    On my street Allen st across from st Joseph church which was not the hill
    The end result is not a memorable place to live
    But only a place known for the mass general hospital so the prestigious places they hoped to
    Build don’t carry any prestige the condos inside
    Are small and look like apartment buildings there
    Are better places to buy in Boston
    Nothing accomplished but community destruction

    1. just read your comment and wondered what number Allen st you lived at? my aunt and uncles lived at #13 right across from the rectory

      pat

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