By Tim 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.