Forty years ago Boston's West End
was destroyed in the name of progress. Today the people who lost their homes
live in a `neighborhood of the mind' and keep the past alive by telling
by Andrew Weiner
On a rainy November morning, Jim Campano stands in the
Davis Square subway station doing what he's done each morning for the past 15
years: selling newspapers and telling stories. In a weathered red barn jacket,
Campano almost blends into the brick wall behind him. His dark snap-brim cap is
pulled down nearly to his glasses, and his regular customers give him a wink or
a grin as they collect their papers. His voice is low but lively when he talks
about growing up in the West End, the Boston neighborhood that was wholly
demolished 40 years ago during the heyday of urban renewal. (Its boundaries
were Cambridge Street, Storrow Drive, Billerica Street, and what is now New
Chardon Street -- it's now the site of the IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE HOME NOW
sign.) He hopscotches quickly between stories describing the sights and smells
of the old neighborhood, the corner where he used to hang out, the characters
who used to pass by. Occasionally he pauses and turns wistful, caught up in
remembering a time and place that are now long gone.
So it comes as a surprise this morning when Campano starts telling the sabotage
stories. There's the one about the time he and his buddies tried to topple
concrete slabs onto a wrecker's crane. Or the time they poured plaster in its
gas tank. His favorite, though, is the time he hit a crane with a Molotov
cocktail. He sweeps his arm in front of him as he mimics the loud sucking noise
his firebomb made when it ignited. Flashing a grin, he asks slyly: "I can still
be a radical, right?"
In a city that trades heavily on its own past, the story of the West End is
seldom told except by those who once lived there. The official account is that
the old neighborhood just got in the way. Tens upon hundreds of run-down
tenements were sitting on a patch of prime real estate, and the unfortunate
consequence was that some people had to lose their homes. Besides, that was all
a long time ago, long enough that people should have gotten over it by now.
But ask any former West Ender and you'll learn that some people don't find it
so easy to forget. You'll hear plenty of fond memories, but you'll also hear
bitter stories of bad faith and broken promises, of hurt feelings that refuse
to go away. Listen to enough of them and you might start to believe that
there's a collective equivalent to phantom-limb syndrome.
They tell their stories to each other whenever they can -- at pastry shops and
drop-in centers, at reunions and get-togethers. Many of those who've moved away
communicate through the West Ender, the quarterly newsletter that
Campano has edited for the past 15 years. (A companion TV show is broadcast on
SCAT, Somerville's community-access channel.)
Today, the West End exists only as what Campano calls a "neighborhood of the
mind." The long-demolished street corners and tenement blocks have been kept
alive through the concerted efforts of old West Enders to keep telling their
stories. You could say that the people who grew up there continue to live in
the past -- a vital, colorful, necessary past. Heaps of rubble and wreckage
have been painstakingly reconstructed into a virtual neighborhood, a community
of memory that transcends both history and geography. If you lived there, you'd
be home now.
West Enders often say things like, "It was a whole other world back then."
Though this is true of any neighborhood, the West End really was a different
world -- all the way up to its demise. The West End was a classic immigrant
neighborhood on the model of New York's Lower East Side: a labyrinth of narrow
streets lined with densely packed rows of five- and six-story walk-ups. These
tenements were inhabited initially by Irish immigrants, then successively by
Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, Russians, and Albanians. Whereas Boston's other
neighborhoods steadily transformed themselves into ethnic enclaves, the West
End featured unparalleled diversity among its 20,000 inhabitants.
Frank Lavine grew up there. The son of Jewish Lithuanians, he was able to spend
the first six years of his life speaking nothing but Yiddish. "My family lived
in a little shtetl," he says. However, tolerance in the community made it
possible to straddle the Old and New Worlds, maintaining traditions while
learning respect for other cultures. "People talked about the melting
pot, but we lived there," he says.
Jim Campano agrees. "I don't want to make it sound like heaven, but we all did
get along," he says. "If I could figure out what it was, I'd bottle it and sell
Looking at old photographs of the neighborhood, it's not hard to understand why
West Enders are so nostalgic. Kids in knickers and vests play games like Kick
the Wicket and Buck-Buck; hunchbacked peddlers hawk ice from pushcarts; old
women in black dresses lean out their windows to chat while a hurdy-gurdy
serenades them from below.
|HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW:
the plans for the "revitalized" West End show a densely populated neighborhood (top) giving way to an orderly business and residential area (bottom). The reality became a lesson in how not to effect urban renewal.
Such scenes were only the backdrop for the drama of a remarkably rich and
public street life. The players, Campano says, included characters like Doc
Seganksy, a dentist who ran a numbers game in his spare time. Back issues of
the West Ender are filled with stories about Tabashnik, an itinerant
kook who played musical instruments picked from the trash, and whose voice was
so sweet that local synagogues would ask him to sing during holiday services.
What you can't see in the photos, though, is the close network of informal ties
that held the neighborhood together. Everybody knew everybody else. Almost
everyone belonged to a fraternal association or a storefront club. The West End
House, one of the largest of these and a forerunner of the Boys' Clubs, claimed
more than 600 members at its peak.
The West End, it seems, was not just a neighborhood but a way of life. In fact,
the sociologist Herbert Gans held up the West End as a model of cohesive
community in his 1962 book The Urban Villagers. For those too young to
have known such a place, the stories inspire a kind of imaginary nostalgia for
an impossibly enviable past. But for those who lived there, it's still hard and
painful to believe that it's gone. Asked to describe his memories of the West
End, former resident Sam London hesitates and declines. "It was so different,
it's unreal," he mutters ruefully.
If the West End belonged to a different Boston, so too does the story of its
demolition, an event that former residents would later call "the Taking." It
was a time, in the decade following World War II, when the city's center
was stagnating as suburbanization gained momentum. Declining population
necessitated tax hikes, and the businesses that hadn't left the city were
desperate to lure middle-income families back downtown.
The early 1950s were also the glory days of urban renewal. In practice, such
projects were little different from what had earlier been called slum
clearance. But city planners at agencies like the Boston Redevelopment
Authority used a new vocabulary of modernity, technology, and progress. They
had the example of recent projects in Chicago and Philadelphia, and the promise
of funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
So it was that the residents of the West End found themselves standing between
a cash-strapped city and a potential windfall. With $11 million in federal
funds at stake, who was going to say that the run-down tenements of the West
End weren't a slum? Not Mayor John Hynes, who said at the time, "Our problem
with urban renewal is that it doesn't move fast enough." Not the banker who
described the neighborhood as a "cancer," called for a "municipal
hysterectomy," and claimed, "There's only one way for the West End to go --
The city decided to replace the neighborhood with a series of upscale apartment
towers. After the project's top bidder pulled out, the contract was awarded to
Jerome Rappaport, who, it turns out, had served on Hynes's election committee.
The new Charles River Park would be nothing like an urban village: fliers for
prospective residents touted the availability of valet service and wine
storage, and the advantages of privacy and in-town shopping.
Before long the city had completed the findings it needed to condemn the West
End and seize its properties by eminent domain. Residents greeted news of the
plan with disbelief. Even their representatives were dumbfounded. As Frank
Lavine recalls, local pol Joe Lee declared simply, "They wouldn't dare."
Lee was wrong. At the beginning, only a few West Enders trickled out of the
neighborhood, but soon the 7000 remaining residents realized that they were
alone in their opposition to the project. Recalls Campano, "We were against
this whole juggernaut: HUD, the BRA, the mayor, the developers, the papers, and
the Archdiocese." Lavine, who was instrumental in the Save the West End
Committee, is more succinct: "We were pissing against the wind."
West End residents had been promised fair compensation for their property,
relocation payments, and decent affordable housing for all who needed it.
Still, many simply refused to go. When the city stopped collecting trash, they
began leaving in larger numbers. Finally, in April 1958, the city formally
seized homes and businesses by eminent domain. A month later the wrecking crews
moved in. Within three years, the West End had been razed: homes, shops,
churches, even the streets were gone. All that remained was some 50 acres of