By Matt Ellis
It’s been more than half a century since the buildings and streets of the old West End disappeared under urban renewal. Many families forced to move from “the greatest neighborhood this side of heaven” have scattered further, to their retirement in a southern state or to live with family in other communities. But, they continue to carry with them the memories and stories of what was lost to the wrecking ball. The West End Museum is endeavoring to collect and preserve those remembrances through its Share Your Story project.
As part of that project, the Museum hosted the Share Your Story Social on September 16. More than 40 original West Enders and their family members gathered together with a team of volunteer videographers. Attendees excitedly shared their memories on tape and caught up with one another, lending to a great atmosphere and mood throughout the day. In addition, Museum staff collected 10 written accounts of people’s experiences in the old neighborhood.
John Manolian, who lived in the West End from his birth in 1949 until he relocated in 1961, pointed out the location of his building on a large map that hangs at the Museum.
“I remember sitting on the curb when the crab man would come by. We’d buy them and we’d sit on the curb and eat them. I remember they were 10 cents each,” Manolian said. “It’s important to chronicle history. I like to hear stories and tell my experiences living here — what I did as a kid, how safe the neighborhood really was — that kind of stuff sticks with you. My aunt is 93 and she still talks about [the old West End].”
Many, like Manolian, felt compelled to lend their names and voices to this project. Charlotte Hay is a Museum volunteer who worked as a video editor in the UK and has recorded personal stories from dozens of original West Enders. She also helped organize the Social under the direction of volunteer project coordinator, Caroline White-Nockleby.
“I found it fascinating to learn about the thriving, diverse community which existed in the West End, and how the radical rebuilding of the area shaped the lives of the original residents. I felt this was a perfect time to record stories of former West Enders, and collect them in one place, so future families and generations can easily look back upon them. I was very grateful to be a part of it,” Hay said.
Paul Senecal (center in photo) was born in the West End in 1935 and moved away when he was 25, as the neighborhood was disintegrating. He moved to Brookline, started a family and had a successful career in retailing. For many years, he was the General Manager of the Jordan Marsh store in Downtown Crossing. He still gets together with friends from the old neighborhood for lunch every month.
“We call ourselves Romeos, which stands for Retired Older Men Eating Out,” he said. “We rehash the memories we have about growing up in the West End and talk about the people we knew. The memories are so good.”
Senecal came to the event with Michael Gropman, the deputy superintendent of the Brookline Police, whose family also came from the West End. Last May, Gropman brought a group of Brookline cops to the Museum to learn about how urban renewal bred residents’ mistrust for city government as part of an effort to educate the force about how history impacts their ability to connect with the public.
“It’s critical we expose our officers to history,” Gropman told The Boston Globe. “To understand where they are going, they first need to know where they are and how they got there.”
Mariann Porter dropped off some old photos of the neighborhood from her collection and shared her memories as well. Even though she grew up on Phillips Street, on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, she considers herself a West Ender. “I remember sailing on the Charles River and swimming at Magazine Beach,” she said. “I went to school at St. Joseph’s with Father Quinn and the nuns.”
Like so many who moved from the neighborhood during urban renewal, Porter wishes the cost of housing in this section of Boston was less expensive. “If I could afford it, I would move back. I have such great memories,” she said.
Volunteers are making their way through all of the footage, working towards editing each individual’s video for posting on our website, sharing on social media and preserving in the Museum archives. This project aims to preserve the personal histories of a neighborhood that, despite the years and the changes new development has brought, continues to exist as a place of warm memories.
Paul Senecal summed up those thoughts, “All my childhood friends are from here. We went through good times and bad times. We all stuck together throughout our lives. And the West End Museum is a great place to come to share something that was important to all of us.”
If you’re a former West Ender, we want to hear from you. Learn how you can share your story.