The West End I Remember
And What I Later Learned Happened to It
By James Armstrong
I write this as a mature—even old, by most measures—man recalling vivid memories of walking through Boston’s West End in my youth. I am relying only on my recall as I write. I’m afraid that if I refresh my memory in reading the works of other witnesses, I’ll subtly adopt someone else’s memories as mine. So, I write only what I can remember…
I got off the train and left North Station headed for choir practice at the church at the bottom of Mount Vernon Street. It was a trip I made every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after school, as well as on Sunday for the church service. It was 1943. I was nine.
As I walked toward Charles Street, I moved through roads lined with tall, brick tenements that had storefronts right on the sidewalk. There were people on the street. There were kitchen chairs in which they sat and talked. There were children playing games, and grandmothers, elbows on windowsill pillows, watching the whole scene from above.
The air I inhaled seemed from a foreign country. I recall strange aromas—coffee being roasted, herbs in open boxes, damp sawdust on the floors of the butcher shops—scents totally strange to me, but they were organic and spoke of the makings of food for the table.
My own home in Melrose was in a two-family house on a quiet, residential street. Stores where we got food were outside the neighborhood. Playgrounds were outside the neighborhood. Schools were outside the neighborhood.
Once, when I went with friends to the local woods in Melrose, we passed some houses and I was astonished by what I saw. I still have the image in my head: A row of identical houses lined up along a street, but there wasn’t a sign of life. At the age of nine, I couldn’t put into words the emotion I felt, but it was something like, “What a waste. Why are these houses here? There is no life here.”
As I think of it now, I believe that my passing through the West End four times a week, seeing the vibrancy and feeling the energy there, had a strong impression on me and changed my view of the world.
Almost 20 years later, as an architecture student, I walked into one of my classes where the topic of the day was city planning. The professor spoke about the great fiasco and human tragedy known as The West End Project. I thought: “Wait, I know that place!” In the course of the lecture and subsequent sessions, I learned how Boston officials had failed the people living in the West End and how this country and other countries had learned—at great social cost—about the civic, economic and personal losses of so-called “urban renewal.”
It was about then that I read Jane Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1962). Several other authors wrote on the tragedies of urban renewal, but Jacob’s book is the most humane of them all to me. She saw what had happened in Boston and in Philadelphia, and described the idea as a heavy loss for our society.
In mid-October 2016, I got off the train at North Station and walked toward MGH to see my doctor. To get there, I had to navigate a jumble of paving and curbs made for cars and trucks with conflicting ambitions—a paving mess going nowhere. In the middle of this I see the lone holdout of the old West End: a brick building about 16 feet wide and four stories high standing isolated like a slice of the North End transplanted. But, it isn’t a transplant. It’s the last, remaining vestige of what the inscription on the side of a nearby highway access ramp describes as “THE GREATEST NEIGHBORHOOD THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN.”
I felt privileged to have walked through the old West End when it had a robust and dynamic street life. The feeling remains with me today of being included in that life, even though I was only passing through; often, I wished to have lived there in that public warmth.
The community’s destruction and the emptiness that followed is forever a cause for shame among city planners and politicians—even those who didn’t participate. It remains a warning to not act as grand designers without first evaluating the true meaning and importance of an existing neighborhood. To not evaluate is to ignore the likely human cost and the cost to the life of the city that will continue to take a toll for years, perhaps forever.
James Armstrong grew up in Cambridge. He lived briefly in Melrose before returning to the city of his birth. A graduate of Massachusetts College of Art and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Armstrong worked as an architect for 30 years, including as technical designer on several commercial projects in Boston. Today, while semi-retired, he remains active as a children’s book illustrator and a photographer. He resides in the Cape Ann area where he enjoys nature and sailing.
A Museum Volunteer’s West End Memories
By Timothy Larson
The warmth of Paula Andreottola’s brownstone apartment stands in stark contrast to the frigid winter air along the Back Bay sidewalk. Paula is a thin, friendly woman with light grey hair. She’s funny and easy to talk to. Inside her neat apartment, a bright hallway presents an expansive collection of NASCAR photos. The walls of her living room feature exposed brick, a picture of the Titanic and her collection of degrees from Northeastern University.
Paula is as connected to her history today as she was during her childhood. Born at the old Boston Lying Inn at the site of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she grew up in the West End in an apartment at 209 Chambers Street, near Blossom Street and Mass. General Hospital. It was her home until 1958, when it was demolished in the name of ‘urban renewal.’ In fact, her family was among the last to leave the old West End. Paula was a little girl at the time, stunned to see a wrecking ball swing into her building and expose all of its staircases and rooms. “You could recognize the inside,” she recalls of the eerie image and how traumatic it was “standing there with your mouth open.”
As a third generation West Ender, Paula’s family had a long history in the community. Both of her parents were born and grew up in the place known as “the greatest neighborhood this side of heaven.” Her mother’s parents from Poland and her father’s parents from Italy settled here with many other recent immigrants to Boston. Paula’s grandfather delivered ice with a horse-drawn wagon.
Her father, who recently celebrated his 97th birthday, lived in the apartment building now known as the “Last Tenement”—literally the final standing residential trace of the old neighborhood—located at 42 Lomasney Way, across from The West End Museum and in the shadow of the TD Garden and new high-rise developments. It was from that very spot that Paula’s father watched the construction of the Hotel Madison in the 1920s. He served in Italy during World War II and returned to his beloved neighborhood with a smuggled beagle named Queenie. Upon his return, he married Paula’s mother and started driving a cab in the City.
Paula has many vivid memories of her West End childhood. Among the earliest is the day she was hit by a car while playing on her street, and whisked away to Mass General accompanied by her parents. After Paula recovered, her pediatrician on Phillips Street made a house call and removed her stitches, but to Paula’s chagrin, wouldn’t let her keep them. She also has fond memories of building snowmen and sledding on the Esplanade, and sitting on her father’s shoulders watching the Fourth of July fireworks. She remembers sleeping on her fire escape in the summer and sitting on her grandfather’s lap eating “pasta bazoo” (actually, pasta fagioli) made with tomatoes from her grandmother’s rooftop garden. According to Paula, the original Italian immigrants normally ate plain dishes like pasta with beans and tomatoes, or with garlic and oil. Dishes like veal parmesan were set aside for special occasions.
Paula loved the diverse culture and food of the West End. She remembers all of the small owner-operated shops—cobblers, grocers, butchers—as well as the social clubs and little bars. The neighborhood was safe; everyone knew each other and got along even though people often spoke different native languages and knew only broken English. Parents of all different nationalities would get together and play cards on weekends. As a child, Paula would often pop in neighbors’ houses, visit friends and sample diverse foods, and it just seemed normal. Neighbors were Jewish, Irish, Italian and Lithuanian, but none thought of themselves as different.
Paula often visited nearby neighborhoods. She describes the old Scollay Square as a place with “atmosphere” and a thriving nightlife on par with any urban entertainment district; it wasn’t as seedy as many people believe, she says. She recalls how her aunt worked as a dancer in a burlesque show at The Howard Theater and would come home with her fellow dancers for a meal cooked by Paula’s grandmother. Paula and her parents would walk to the North End on Saturdays to buy produce and pizza from “a little pizza guy and his little wagon.” In the spring, she and her family would walk down Charles Street, take Easter pictures in the Public Garden and ride the swan boats.
People loved living in the West End, she recalls, because of the sense of community. She remembers clearly how people in the neighborhood really cared for one another. “Nobody ever griped that there was no heat, no hot water in those tenements,” she says. Parents didn’t worry about their kids when they were outside playing because the neighborhood was safe. “You never had to worry about a babysitter because everybody’s house was open. Mothers didn’t know where their kids were, so [they would] holler out the window, and somebody’s gonna answer you and tell you, ‘over here’ or ‘over there.’” In one testament to the tight-knit nature of the community, Paula tells the story of how her tricycle was stolen, but then immediately—and mysteriously—returned after had she alerted friends.
As she remembers it, “Nobody was looking for an easy ride, a free ride. They were willing to work and they instilled that in their kids.” West Enders, she says, took their positive family values with them even as they were forced out of their homes and community.
Paula’s family moved to Winter Hill in Somerville, but maintained its connections to the West End. She returned for many years with her family to attend weekly mass at St. Joseph’s, the church where she had been baptized, and another of the very few surviving buildings. It was painful to walk by the space where her family’s apartment building had stood. “There was nothing there but an empty lot…It look[ed] seedy…All kinds of undesirables would hang out there because there was nobody there to bother them, and for years it remained like that,” she recalls.
Her impressions match those of other West Enders victimized by Boston’s vision of a more modern city. The leaders of the urban renewal movement did a terrible thing by needlessly destroying the West End, according to Paula. She says they made it “sound like the West End was a throwaway neighborhood. It wasn’t.” As she remembers it, the city cut off trash collection to make it look like a slum, so they could get permission to demolish it. The West End was, she says, “a great neighborhood, and people would kill to have that today.”
For many, the relationships forged in the old neighborhood outlived the wrecking ball. Many West Enders relocated into the same Somerville neighborhood as the Andreottolas. At 13, Paula got her first job, working for a former West End family that owned a dress shop in the North End.
The experience of watching her neighborhood disappear may have been what prompted Paula to make Boston history her minor—and combine it with studies of English—at Northeastern University, or what guided her to the State House where she worked as a legislative aide and became involved with various political campaigns.
Today, Paula Andreottola enjoys sitting in her Back Bay home and reminiscing about her childhood in the West End. Now retired, she has become active as a volunteer at The West End Museum, where she can share stories and recollections about a place that for so many is still as real now as it was more than 60 years ago.