The West End Museum presents “Reflections on Boston’s West End: The Origins & Lessons of Urban Renewal,” a lecture series that provides a comprehensive examination of the forces that led to the urban renewal programs in mid-20th century America.
Structured as a series of seven lectures with discussion, each session has a distinct topic, but all use Boston’s West End urban renewal project as the primary example and connecting point.
Attendees will learn how an entire Boston neighborhood vanished, displacing about 7,500 people who called it home. Tenement houses with mom-and-pop storefronts fell to the wrecking ball, ultimately to be replaced by high-rises with professed suburban amenities, all in the name of progress. The destruction of the West End came to be seen as a landmark case in urban planning circles. Its simplistic, top-down approach became a textbook example of how NOT to transform a city. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Series presenter James Briand has worked with The West End Museum since 2009, developing classroom presentations and tours on various topics including urban renewal, the work of Jane Jacobs, the 1949 Housing Act, and Title One. Briand has authored numerous articles on local history and is a lifelong resident of the Boston area.
Beginning February 19 and running through the fall, the lectures take place on Wednesday evenings from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. at The West End Museum. Pre-registration is required at thewestendmuseum.org/events.
Attendees may opt to register for the entire lecture series for $120 ($60 Museum members and students), or individual sessions for $20 each ($10 Museum members and students). Individual lecture titles, descriptions, and dates appear below.
Lecture 1: Urban Renewal & the People of the West End Demolition
Explore the story of the clearance and redevelopment of the West End and the people at the heart of those events. The rich mix of families that filled the dense, winding streets of the neighborhood comprised about 7,500 residents from more than 20 different ethnic and racial groups, including Italian, Jewish, Irish, and African-American. Their backgrounds, hopes, and aspirations will be considered along with the vision for the city and the motivations of the key players who sought to build a new, supposedly better Boston by tearing down the West End.
Lecture 2: The History of the Slum in America & Boston
Learn about the history of slums in America, including how Progressive Era (1890-1920) thinkers linked physical conditions of city neighborhoods with social, economic, and moral degradation. Such thinking laid the groundwork for so-called urban renewal programs in America’s cities and, specifically, in Boston’s West End.
Lecture 3: FDR, Truman & Urban Renewal in Boston
Explore the history of housing and urban renewal programs under FDR’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal, and how they set the stage for the destruction of a vibrant, multicultural Boston neighborhood of approximately 7,500 people.
Lecture 4: Jane Jacobs & the Legacy of Boston’s West End
To celebrate Jane Jacobs Week, examine the heated debate on “the future of the city” in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a special focus on the contrasting views of urban policy experts such as Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. Explore the ways in which Jacobs — author of the landmark book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961) — drew inspiration from the story of Boston’s West End.
Lecture 5: When the Car Was King & Boston Paid the Price
Learn how the rise of the automobile reshaped Greater Boston during the Eisenhower administration, and how seeking to accommodate more vehicular traffic helped pave the way for the destruction of the West End of Boston.
Lecture 6: The Power Brokers of Boston & Urban Renewal
Explore the economic, social, and political considerations tied to Boston’s political, business, religious, and educational interests that aligned to support the demolition and redevelopment of the diverse but tight knit West End neighborhood, home to about 7,500 residents.
Lecture 7: David & Goliath — The Last-Ditch Effort to Save Boston’s West End
Learn how a small group of immigrants, isolated from the power structures in Washington D.C. and Boston, took on the federal and state government to save their beloved West End from urban renewal. Explore the people, the battle, and the legacy of their loss.