By William Stilwell
Boston is a city that prides itself on both its rich, historic past and its present as a hub of technology and new development. The Downtown skyline is dominated by high rise offices, luxury apartments, and upscale hotels, while below Beacon Hill and the North End act as enclaves of a bygone era. This dichotomy makes a walk from the Financial District to the North End feel like a form of time travel. Boston features cobblestone streets and historic buildings for tourists to visit while also boasting Fortune 500 companies and a spot on the shortlist for Amazon’s coveted HQ2. The dreams of a New Boston, outlined by Mayor John B. Hynes throughout his successful 1949 campaign, have been fully realized. Under his administration the Freedom Trail was established, the Central Artery was constructed, and the process of slum clearance and urban renewal began. Unprecedented amounts of construction and new development swept the city in the following decades, transforming the so-called hopeless backwater of rotting wharfs, vacant factories, and crumbling infrastructure into the prosperous Boston of today.
But this New Boston was built to meet the needs of the few, not the many. Urban renewal is a not a literal term, but rather a phrase meant to justify the destruction of entire neighborhoods and the removal of thousands of working class and working poor men and women from their homes. The most infamous case of urban renewal in Boston was the razing of the old West End, a process that took place between 1958-1960. The West End was not the only neighborhood to suffer from the wrecking ball of urban renewal; the process would come to destroy Scollay Square and demolish large swaths of the South End, Charlestown, Chinatown, the North End, Roxbury, and Brighton. But the razing of the West End was unique in its totality and brutality.
The West End occupies the area between Cambridge Street, the Charles River, Government Center, and the Bullfinch Triangle, and while the name remains geographically accurate, the neighborhood today bears little resemblance to the ethnic enclave of narrow streets and cramped tenements of the mid-twentieth century.Mirroring the North End, the denizens of the West End at the start of the nineteenth century were middle and upper class Protestants of English descent. Starting in the 1830s the neighborhood began to attract working class immigrants: first the Irish, and in the subsequent decades, Jews from Eastern Europe, and eventually Italians at the turn of twentieth century. The community of African-Americans that had settled on the north slope of Beacon Hill following the Revolution are often referred to as part of the West End, but this definition is not shared by those who lived in the West End. Racism fueled this distinctionas well as Cambridge Street’s status as a business district and its eventual widening in the 1920s. Unlike the North End, however, which was solidly Italian by the mid-twentieth century,the West End was a mix of mostly second and third generation immigrants of various European ancestries, with most being Italian or Eastern European and a small number of African-Americans and students.The neighborhood was far from homogenous, with division existing between ethnic groups and socioeconomic class.Because the old neighborhood today exists only in memory, it has become somewhat romanticized, but in fact it was quite ordinary. It was full of everyday working class people living in low rents, often surrounded by their families.The streets were narrow, with buildings taking up the majority of the space in the neighborhood, creating a very real fire hazard,which still seems hardly reason enough to evict and relocate thousands of people. Why were such drastic measures taken?
By 1949, Boston had lost much of its nineteenth century luster. The wartime industry boost had worn off, and the stagnation that had been taking place since the early twentieth century returned. The port of Boston was no longer the hub that it once was, the factories had mostly shut down, and many of the returning GIs had followed the electronics industry out to the suburbs around Route 128. This is the Boston that John B. Hynes inherited as mayor after taking office in early 1950. He ran on the theme of a New Boston, promising to restore “Boston’s good name and reputation.” In his inaugural address he laid out a plan to improve the physical condition of the city by widening the streets, providing more parking, and clearing out the city’s slums.
This promise came at a time when the federal government was providing funding to build highways and redevelop urban neighborhoods deemed ‘blighted.’ Part of the impetus to redevelop the poorer areas of the city was to better stimulate the downtown business district and bring back the middle class from the suburbs. In 1944, Boston University administered a contest for plans to stem the tide of Boston’s decay. The third place prize would propose replacing the working class North End and West End neighborhoods with “first class residential sections.”While this was merely conceptual, it foreshadowed future redevelopment in Boston. The 1949 Housing Act incentivized local municipalities to use eminent domain to seize up slums and redevelop them as business or industrial areas.Both the South End and the West End were targeted by the city as areas ripe for redevelopment, starting with a section of the South End known as the New York Streets, demolished in 1955, with many of the former residents moved into newly constructed public housing.
On April 11, 1953 Mayor Hynes officially announced that the West End was to be redeveloped, with plans for low rent housing for over 1,100 families and hundreds of brand new high rent apartments. Five years later on April 25, 1958 the eviction notices hit every door in the West End, and in a move largely supported by the general public and the local papers,the entire neighborhood was razed and replaced by the Charles River Park. Houses, schools, churches, and synagogues were all demolished, and the 7,000 or so remaining residents were removed. Many were expecting to return to the neighborhood eventually. Sadly, although the residents were promised new inexpensive housing, it never came to fruition, and instead they were forced out mostly to the northern suburbs.
Today, the West End consists primarily of luxury apartments, parking lots, and public parks. What was once an isolated enclave of the poor is now an isolated enclave of the rich. Few buildings remain of the old West End: the Harrison Gray Otis House, the Old West Church, St. Joseph’s Church, and the old Charles Street Jail. But one remaining building, often overlooked and obscure, represents the toll of urban renewal and serves as a monument to the immigrant history of the old neighborhood. 42 Lomasney Way, although dwarfed by the modern buildings around it, looms large as the lone reminder of the 12,000 displaced people of the original West End. Once surrounded by a series of similar houses, 42 Lomasney now sits surrounded by a highway onramp. People in the passing cars see a relic of a recent but forgotten past, out of context yet still calling for attention to the plight of the working class and working poor who’s government found no place for them. Commonly referred to as the Last Tenement, this little building is the pedestal of Ozymandias, for nothing beside remains. But it was not the sands of time that swallowed up the West End: it was the wrecking ball and bulldozer of discrimination.
William Stilwell joined the Old North education team in April 2015. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in history, and when he’s not at Old North he can be found giving tours of Fenway Park and King’s Chapel. Will is passionate about early American history, and specifically the history of Boston.