West End

A short history of the West End
By Vivienne Belmont

The Old West End Church on Cambridge Street is one of the few buildings remaining from the old neighborhood.

“Without wealth, nor obvious material advantages, the West End community became the epitome of a mixed neighborhood with African-American, Jewish, Polish, Italian, and Irish residents living and worshipping side by side,” wrote Anthony Mitchell Sammarco in his book “Images of America: Boston West End.”

In the early 1800s, the West End was a fashionable area of Boston. It was close to the town and the river, and it had mansions designed by the likes of Charles Bulfinch, who designed many Beacon Hill homes as well as the State House.

By the mid-1800s, the West End began to lose status as a fashionable neighborhood. More and more immigrants and Native Americans began to move in.

The West End was divided into upper and lower ends, the upper being the higher class area closer to the river and Cambridge Street and the lower end being the lower class area closer to Scollay Square.

In the late 1800s the area was populated by Irish with some Yanks in the upper end, but by the turn of the century, the dominant group was Jewish.

In the 1920s, Cambridge Street was widened, separating part of the West End on the North Slope of Beacon Hill from the rest of the neighborhood. Then the North Slope was absorbed by Beacon Hill. In the late 1920s, the West End drew an influx of Italian and Polish immigrants. The lower end was mostly Italian.

After World War II, the neighborhood had people of 23 nationalities, including Irish, Italians, Chinese, Greeks, Albanians, Ukrainians and Syrians. A smattering of middle-class professionals lived close to the hospitals, and some bohemians lived near Cambridge Street. Students and artists lived there too.

Back then, three neighborhoods in Boston, the North End, South End and the West End, were considered slums, mostly consisting of tenements. In the West End, many of the buildings were poorly maintained and some were vacant. The alleys were filled with garbage and many of the stores were vacant.

But the West End was considered a slum mainly because it was a low rent area. An ethnically and racially diverse population lived there in reasonable harmony in a city often divided by race and religion.

In 1951, the city of Boston announced that the West End and the South End neighborhoods were marked for urban renewal. “Landlords were advised not to make extensive repairs on their properties,” Herbert J. Gans wrote in his book “The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans.” By 1958 the neighborhood became really dilapidated.

“The West End was an urban village, located next to Boston’s original and once largest skid row area, Scollay Square,” Gans wrote.

From 1958 to 1959, the West End was taken down building by building, and 7,000 residents lost their homes and their neighborhood. The city paid residents a moving allowance of $75 to $100. In the 1960s, a new West End of luxury, high-rise apartments emerged with lots of open space and room for parking.

“The area was simply swept away with only a few buildings, two churches, and the buildings of the Massachusetts General Hospital surviving to provide a shocking contrast to the once thriving neighborhood,” Sammarco wrote.

The old West End residents, although they longed to return home, could not afford to pay for the new, expensive apartments.

“The West End was not a charming neighborhood of ‘noble peasants’ living in an exotic fashion, resisting the mass-produced homogeneity of American culture and overflowing with a cohesive sense of community,” Gans wrote. “It was a run-down area of people struggling with the problems of low income, poor education and related difficulties. Even so, it was by and large a good place to live.”

Information taken from:
“ Images of America: Boston West End,” Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, Arcadia Publishing, 1998.
“ The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans,” Herbert J. Gans, The Free Press, 1962.

Inside this story:

West End Home
1. A Historic Past
2. Old Loyalties Survive
3. A New West End Emerges

Photo Gallery
Old West End
New West End

 

 

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