By Nicholas DeBlasio
The atmosphere inside The West End Museum is always brightened by the arrival of volunteer and former West Ender, Joe Greenberg. Often, when joined by other old residents and volunteers, the mood becomes more like that of a neighborhood clubhouse than a museum. That communal, clubhouse feeling was always present in the old West End, as the people in the neighborhood were close both socially and literally. “One of the main wonderful parts of growing up in the West End,” said Joe, “is that, for the most part, you knew just about everybody, and they knew you.”
Born in 1944, Joe lived at 347 Charles Street, sharing a 400-square foot apartment with his father, mother and brother Jeff. Seven other families lived in the building. Joe’s grandparents lived in the building next to him, his aunt lived right around the corner with her family, and his two uncles both lived within walking distance. He saw his extended family often, “and that made it a warmer place to grow up.” Joe also remembers a cousin of his mother’s, a military man called Biggie, who would come in from the naval shipyard twice a year and give Joe and Jeff each a dime — this being a time when a kid could get two pieces of candy for a penny at the store.
Such local stores were a major part of life and socialization in the West End. Joe and his family, like many other families, didn’t have a refrigerator, so food didn’t last long. That meant that West Enders were in and out of the local mom-and-pop stores every day. Joe remembers frequenting Manko’s grocery store and Schnipper, a huge man that everyone got their fruits and vegetables from. Seeing his fellow West Enders out shopping was a key part of social life in the old neighborhood. “Most of these people were also your neighbors, so again it was one of those things that drew the community close together, and in my opinion enriched life, because you saw that everybody was in it together.”
Life in the old West End was humble for many families. Joe remembers having the same food day-in and day-out: cereal in the morning, peanut butter and jam sandwiches at lunch, baloney and beans for dinner. There were pests, too. Since Joe’s family lived directly across from the Charles River, water rats sometimes made their way into the cellar. He recalls his mother telling him about a water rat that got into his crib when he was eight weeks old, so she grabbed it by the tail and chucked it out the window. Yet these things never really bothered Joe, largely because there was nothing to be jealous of. Seeing his neighbors on the streets every day showed him that everyone was in the same boat and that constant intermingling made living in the old West End special.
A particular encounter with an organization called the Red Feather Charity left Joe confused, and later amused. The group was doing an article about poverty in the West End, and they approached Joe’s mother about having him model for a photograph. At the shoot, the man who had arranged it said that Joe’s clothes were too old and torn — somehow forgetting the article was about poverty — and brought in new clothes for Joe to wear. “When they were done taking all the pictures,” Joe laughs, “they took the clothes back.”
Because money was tight, Joe’s father would play the numbers, as a bet of one nickel could potentially win sixty dollars. Sometimes when he and his brother came home, Joe’s mother would tell them that they were having Chinese food for dinner — a telltale sign that their father had “hit the number.” Those nights, they even had the food delivered by taxi cab so it wouldn’t get cold in the time it would take to walk from Chinatown. Sixty-five years later, Joe still remembers exactly what he got: beef in oyster sauce, lobster Chinese style, pork strips, lobster sauce, fried rice, and pork lo mein.
The old West End had two invaluable learning and social resources: the Elizabeth Peabody House and the West End House. These, according to Joe, were some of the best parts of growing up here. Both houses offered clubs and classes run by volunteers, including Joe’s mother, who taught typing. Science club, chess club, geography club, sewing club and public speaking were just some of the programs the Elizabeth Peabody House ran. Joe was even able to learn glassblowing there from a local volunteer. There was a theater, complete with a balcony, a projection room and comfortable seats, where Joe participated in performances like Antigone and Our Town. “They were the kind of organization that didn’t want you to fit into their mold, they wanted to fit into your mold.”
The West End House is where Joe learned to play basketball and box. Joe said there were five or six boxing gyms within a 300-yard circle that boasted such famous local boxers of the time as Paul Christie, Tommy Grebb, “Pineapple” Stevenson and the champion Tony DeMarco. Basketball was also big in the area, that being the early days of the Basketball Association of America, precursor to the NBA. Back then, said Joe, when you went to a Celtics game, the players would come out to sit with the fans and talk with them for however long they wanted. Still, a lot of the basketball at the time happened at places like the West End House. “Every city had their own basketball team, and they would play each other. The West End’s big rival was the Chelsea Red Devils. That’s where my father began his experience as a basketball referee.”
Harry “Buddo” Greenberg, Joe’s father, was indeed one of the original referees for the BAA, and is the person who originally conceived the idea for the 24-second clock. There was no timer in basketball then, and players constantly passing and dribbling the ball without attempting to score would lead to extremely low-scoring games. Walter Brown, then-owner of the Celtics, was sitting in on one of Buddo’s practices and noticed that he was having his players shoot within 35 seconds. When he asked why, Buddo said the game needed more action and higher scores in order to draw a crowd. And the rest, as they say, is history.
While about half of the West End House’s operations were sports-related, it also hosted classes and tutors, some of whom were volunteers from prestigious universities, such as Joe’s math tutor from MIT. “The West End House was really in business to find opportunities for people who couldn’t afford them,” said Joe. Perhaps the most important lessons he learned were from a Harvard graduate who personally taught him the art of public speaking. Later, during his 38 years teaching at George Washington University, Joe passed on what he learned.
1957 marked the end of Joe’s time living in the West End, as he and his family, among many others, were kicked out to make way for the urban renewal project. Now living in Revere, Joe’s parents had to spend extra money on transportation to keep their jobs in the city, which also took time away from each other and the family. Joe’s enrollment at Boston Latin School was also cut short, as he couldn’t afford the tuition that came with living outside the city. That was getting off easy, according to Joe, as many other families had nowhere to go at all.
Joe took five trips back to the old neighborhood during its demolition. The first time, nothing had really changed except that it was a ghost town. The second time, he saw the markings of the fire escapes on the sides of the buildings that had been removed for scrap. The third time, all the windows had been broken. The fourth time, demolition had started with the fronts of the tenements, allowing Joe to see the insides — the furniture, the linoleum, everything just as it had been — like a cross-section of a dollhouse.
Joe found those first trips back more interesting than emotional. But on his fifth trip, when Joe returned to find only rubble, he started to cry. His reaction wasn’t just to the destruction of his childhood home, but to the realization without the buildings, it was only a minute walk from Charles Street to Saint Joseph’s Church, from MGH to Science Park Station. He realized just how small of a piece of land he had lived on for 13 years of his life and he knew he wanted to see an experience so much more. Since then, he’s made more than 85 international trips.
Ultimately, Joe came to volunteer at The West End Museum to help preserve the history and culture of the old neighborhood he so fondly remembers as home.