The West End, a small neighborhood just north of Beacon Hill and west of Downtown Boston, enjoys sweeping views across the Charles River and towards Boston Harbor. The neighborhood is within easy walking distance of the Esplanade and Hatch Shell, Downtown, Beacon Hill, and the City of Cambridge. Cultural and civic amenities in the area include the West End Museum and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
The West End is the focal point of an urban compass. The TD Garden, where the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins play, anchors the area to the northeast. Southeast is the Government Center and City Hall. Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the premier medical centers in the United States, economically and physically anchors the area to the southwest. Northwest is the Charles River and the Esplanade with Cambridge across the river.
History of West End Neighborhood
The West End is bounded by Cambridge Street to the south, the Charles River to the west and northwest, North Washington Street on the north and northeast, and New Sudbury Street on the east. Beacon Hill is to the south, and the North End is to the east. The area is widely known because a late 1950s urban renewal project razed a large Italian and Jewish neighborhood to redevelop the area.
Much of the land on which the neighborhood lies is the product of land reclamation. Beginning in 1807, parts of Beacon Hill were used to fill in a small bay and mill pond that separated Beacon Hill and the West End from the North End.
Emergence of the West End
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Boston’s waterfront and North End were becoming overcrowded, and many of the city’s well off residents took the opportunity to develop the area now known as the West End. At that time, the area was separated from the older neighborhoods by a small bay. The architect Charles Bulfinch was responsible for much of Boston’s architectural character at the time and played a large role in the development of the West End.
Bulfinch spent much of his early career in the 1790s designing mansions, many of them in the West End and other Boston neighborhoods. One of the most famous examples of these was the first Harrison Gray Otis House. This historic building was the first of three that Bulfinch designed for the affluent lawyer Harrison Gray Otis, and is one of the few buildings that survived Urban Renewal in the West End.
Other West End landmarks designed by Bulfinch were the Massachusetts General Hospital’s domed granite building, built 1816-1825 (today known as the Bulfinch Pavilion), and the West End Market on the corner of Grove and Cambridge Streets. Constructed in 1810, this historic market did not survive the area’s redevelopment in the 1950s.
Bulfinch’s architecture of newer large brick buildings with gardens attracted many of Boston’s wealthier citizens. By 1810, the West End was inhabited by wealthy business men, merchants, and lawyers. Many would soon move to the nearby Beacon Hill, turning the West End into an African American community and stopping point for new immigrants.
Another early West End building is the Charles Street Jail (1851), designed by Gridley James Fox Bryant, which was renovated into the Liberty Hotel.
Immigration and Diversity in the West End
From the second half of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, Boston’s West End became home to many different immigrant groups. The wealthy and middle class business families were almost entirely gone, but many African Americans remained in the neighborhood, making it one of Boston’s most diverse. Among the immigrant groups contributing to this melting pot were Armenians, Greeks, Irish, Lebanese, Italians, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Syrians, Ukrainians and many other Eastern and Southern Europeans. It was during this period that the neighborhood’s population reached its peak at approximately 23,000 residents.
As a result of this immigration, the religious make-up of the neighborhood changed dramatically. Protestant churches moved away or shut down, to be replaced by Catholic churches and synagogues. For instance, the old West Church, built in 1806 closed in 1892 due to lack of congregation. It reopened two years later as a library to better serve the new community.
One of the first immigrant groups to settle the West End was the Irish. After briefly passing through the North End, many Irish families moved on to the West and South End. The West End soon developed a thriving Irish community. Later on, this community would be associated with Martin Lomasney. Lomasney, also known as “the Mahatma”, was the ward boss of Boston’s Ward 8 located in the West End. He was well known for taking care of the community that had developed there, especially the Irish families.
Early in Lomasney’s career, he established the Hendricks Club in the heart of the neighborhood. The Hendricks began as a social club and gathering place but later turned into the center of Lomasney’s political machine. It was from here that he began to provided social services, charity, and shelter for poor immigrants. In return, he was able to drum up votes and support from much of the neighborhood.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish immigration had slowed and Eastern European Jews began to immigrate into the West End in large numbers. Many were escaping persecution in Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. They formed a community in the West End and became a significant part of the population by 1910. They made their home in the neighborhood, constructing health centers, libraries, labor unions, loan societies, orphanages, and synagogues. Actor Leonard Nimoy was raised in this community. The new Boston Synagogue, the Vilna Shul, and the African American Meeting House which was the home of Anshi Lubuvicher from 1900 to 1972 are the only surviving West End synagogues. The Boston Synagogue is a newly merged congregation; the Vilna Shul, 16 Philips Street which was outside the urban renewal demolition area, is now a synagogue museum; and the African American Meeting House is now a church museum. The Vilna was the last of the approximately seven West End synagogues to stay open, closing in 1985.
West End Targeted for Urban Renewal
By the 1950s, the West End had turned into a working poor residential area with scattered businesses with small meandering roads much like the North End. According to most residents, the West End was a good place to live at this time. The once overcrowded neighborhood was in the process of “deslumming” and the population had dropped to around 7,500 residents. By the end of the 1950s, over half of the neighborhood would be completely leveled to be replaced with residential high rises as part of a large scale urban renewal project.
The large-scale renewal of the West End was first proposed in the 1930s by Nathan Strauss Jr., among others, shortly after the National Housing Act of 1934 was passed. The neighborhood was considered a slum by wealthy Bostonians who did not live there. The working class residents of the West End felt strong ties to the community and the plan did not become politically feasible until the 1950s.
By the end of the 1940s, Mayor Curley was running the city with an iron fist. His administration’s “policies all but ignored the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) and Yankee business community.” One of his tactics was to blame the woes of the poor on the wealthy. This is said to be one of the factors that caused an exodus from Boston and contributed to the blight that ensued.
‘’Curley made many enemies in his long career. He enjoyed verbally attacking the Boston Brahmins, and he encouraged his Irish constituents to blame their woes on the Yankees. Many of the people who had long dominated the city came to feel unwelcome in Boston. The exodus of Protestants to the suburbs that took place during the Curley era left a lasting legacy.’’ But even with the corruption charges that surrounded him, Curley was seen as a people’s mayor.
When the John B. Hynes administration came into power in 1949 city officials recognized that the federal government’s Housing Act of 1949 presented the opportunity to remake parts of Boston. The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) held responsibility for developing Boston’s urban renewal plans and was designated the city’s local public authority for federal funds.
Redevelopment of the West End
As part of a plan to create a “New Boston”, the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and its 1957 successor, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, redeveloped neighborhoods throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The New York Streets section of the South End was redeveloped before the West End, and in the 1960s Scollay Square was leveled to create the Government Center. The motivation behind these projects was to replace neighborhoods that had been classified as slums with neighborhoods that would bring in increased tax revenues.
The redevelopment of the West End was officially announced on April 11, 1953. Mayor Hynes and the BHA stated that the project would be beneficial to the neighborhood. The West End’s narrow streets were a fire hazard and many of the buildings were not up to code, with approximately 80% of them substandard or marginal. Tenants were assured that affordable housing would be found for them, and many were led to believe that they would be able to move back into the West End after the project was complete.
The plan involved completely leveling a 46-acre portion of the West End, displacing 2,700 families to make way for 5 residential high rise complexes that would contain 477 apartments. The new development was aimed towards upper middle class residents. Most of those displaced would not be able to afford to return.
In October 1957, the BRA held a hearing on the new project. More than 200 West End residents attended and the consensus was overwhelmingly opposed to the plan. The Save the West End committee was formed with the support of Joseph Lee to organize protests against the new development. Most residents believed that the project would not be realized, and so did not act until it was too late.
Residents received their eviction letters on April 25, 1958. The BRA used the Housing Act of 1949 to raze the West End to the ground. Working-class families were displaced, and superblocks replaced the original street layout. The result was a neighborhood consisting of residential high rises, shopping centers and parking lots.
Post Urban Renewal
The urban renewal of the West End has been attacked by critics for its destruction of a neighborhood and its careless implementation. One of the main criticisms of the project is that the neighborhood was not considered a slum by the residents, and instead had a strong sense of community. A later mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, described the West End as “a typical neighborhood” and “not blighted.” The perception of the neighborhood as a slum was mostly held by wealthy outsiders and was enhanced by city policy. For example, the city stopped collecting garbage and cleaning the streets, leaving the neighborhood a mess. A photographer for a local newspaper was even assigned to go to the West End, overturn a trashcan, and take a picture of it to create the impression of a blighted neighborhood.
Many building owners were not adequately compensated for their property. Due to city law, as soon as tenement buildings were condemned by the BRA, the city became the legal owner. This meant that building owners had no income as rent was paid directly to the city. Soon owners became desperate to sell their property at severely reduced prices.
The justification for razing the West End has also been called into question. Some say that, as one of the neighborhoods that supported the former mayor, it was in the political sights of the Hynes administration. The entire net cost of the project was $15.8 million, not including the additional loss of tax dollars for the years that the West End was vacant. It is uncertain as to whether the increased tax revenue would ever be enough to justify the costs.
The negative effect of urban renewal on the former residents of the West End has been well documented. Between one quarter and one half of the former residents were relocated to substandard housing with higher rents than they were previously paying. Approximately 40% also suffered from severe long term grief reactions. Many former residents share their memories and grief through the West Ender Newsletter, published with the tag line, “Printed in the Spirit of the Mid-Town Journal and Dedicated to Being the Collective Conscience of Urban Renewal and Eminent Domain in the City of Boston.” The newsletter has been edited and still is by James Campano, activist during the demolition and since, who now serves on the Managing Board of West End Place representing the West End Museum and the Old West End Housing Corporation. The destruction of the West End community led to a strong distaste for Urban Renewal in Boston.
West End Today
Today, the West End is a mixed-use residential and commercial area. A few non-residential areas were spared from the urban renewal of the 1950s, such as Massachusetts General Hospital, the Charles Street Jail, and the Bulfinch Triangle—a small section surrounded by Causeway, Merrimac, and Washington Streets. Massachusetts General Hospital and the Charles Street Jail are located in the northwest section, while Government Center which was the former site of Scollay Square, comprises the southern section. Most of the northern section houses North Station and the TD Garden.
The character of the area prior to the urban renewal can still be seen in existing commercial and mixed use building of the Bulfinch Triangle. Here there are a few pubs and restaurants that depend on traffic traveling to and from Faneuil Hall and the Garden. The residential areas that have been rebuilt are primarily upscale high-rises, though the neighborhood is currently making strides to re-establish the close knit community that once was. The West End Museum currently has a permanent exhibition at West End Place outlining the history of the neighborhood and its residents, while the West End Community Center hosts classes and events in addition to the annual West End Children’s Festival.
Gans, Herbert, J., The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans, Free Press, 1962. ISBN 0-02-911240-0.
Nancy Seasholes. Gaining Ground: Landmaking in Boston’s West End. Old-Time New England. Volume: 77 Number: 266 Issue: Spring/Summer 1999.