The Boston Phoenix November 30 - December 7, 2000


The Taking

Forty years ago Boston's West End was destroyed in the name of progress. Today the people who lost their homes live in a `neighborhood of the mind' and keep the past alive by telling stories.

by Andrew Weiner

Old West End On a rainy November morning, Jim Campano stands in the Davis Square subway station doing what he's done each morning for the past 15 years: selling newspapers and telling stories. In a weathered red barn jacket, Campano almost blends into the brick wall behind him. His dark snap-brim cap is pulled down nearly to his glasses, and his regular customers give him a wink or a grin as they collect their papers. His voice is low but lively when he talks about growing up in the West End, the Boston neighborhood that was wholly demolished 40 years ago during the heyday of urban renewal. (Its boundaries were Cambridge Street, Storrow Drive, Billerica Street, and what is now New Chardon Street -- it's now the site of the IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE HOME NOW sign.) He hopscotches quickly between stories describing the sights and smells of the old neighborhood, the corner where he used to hang out, the characters who used to pass by. Occasionally he pauses and turns wistful, caught up in remembering a time and place that are now long gone.

So it comes as a surprise this morning when Campano starts telling the sabotage stories. There's the one about the time he and his buddies tried to topple concrete slabs onto a wrecker's crane. Or the time they poured plaster in its gas tank. His favorite, though, is the time he hit a crane with a Molotov cocktail. He sweeps his arm in front of him as he mimics the loud sucking noise his firebomb made when it ignited. Flashing a grin, he asks slyly: "I can still be a radical, right?"

In a city that trades heavily on its own past, the story of the West End is seldom told except by those who once lived there. The official account is that the old neighborhood just got in the way. Tens upon hundreds of run-down tenements were sitting on a patch of prime real estate, and the unfortunate consequence was that some people had to lose their homes. Besides, that was all a long time ago, long enough that people should have gotten over it by now.

But ask any former West Ender and you'll learn that some people don't find it so easy to forget. You'll hear plenty of fond memories, but you'll also hear bitter stories of bad faith and broken promises, of hurt feelings that refuse to go away. Listen to enough of them and you might start to believe that there's a collective equivalent to phantom-limb syndrome.

They tell their stories to each other whenever they can -- at pastry shops and drop-in centers, at reunions and get-togethers. Many of those who've moved away communicate through the West Ender, the quarterly newsletter that Campano has edited for the past 15 years. (A companion TV show is broadcast on SCAT, Somerville's community-access channel.)

Today, the West End exists only as what Campano calls a "neighborhood of the mind." The long-demolished street corners and tenement blocks have been kept alive through the concerted efforts of old West Enders to keep telling their stories. You could say that the people who grew up there continue to live in the past -- a vital, colorful, necessary past. Heaps of rubble and wreckage have been painstakingly reconstructed into a virtual neighborhood, a community of memory that transcends both history and geography. If you lived there, you'd be home now.

West Enders often say things like, "It was a whole other world back then." Though this is true of any neighborhood, the West End really was a different world -- all the way up to its demise. The West End was a classic immigrant neighborhood on the model of New York's Lower East Side: a labyrinth of narrow streets lined with densely packed rows of five- and six-story walk-ups. These tenements were inhabited initially by Irish immigrants, then successively by Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, Russians, and Albanians. Whereas Boston's other neighborhoods steadily transformed themselves into ethnic enclaves, the West End featured unparalleled diversity among its 20,000 inhabitants.

Frank Lavine grew up there. The son of Jewish Lithuanians, he was able to spend the first six years of his life speaking nothing but Yiddish. "My family lived in a little shtetl," he says. However, tolerance in the community made it possible to straddle the Old and New Worlds, maintaining traditions while learning respect for other cultures. "People talked about the melting pot, but we lived there," he says.

Jim Campano agrees. "I don't want to make it sound like heaven, but we all did get along," he says. "If I could figure out what it was, I'd bottle it and sell it."

HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW: the plans for the "revitalized" West End show a densely populated neighborhood (top) giving way to an orderly business and residential area (bottom). The reality became a lesson in how not to effect urban renewal.

Looking at old photographs of the neighborhood, it's not hard to understand why West Enders are so nostalgic. Kids in knickers and vests play games like Kick the Wicket and Buck-Buck; hunchbacked peddlers hawk ice from pushcarts; old women in black dresses lean out their windows to chat while a hurdy-gurdy serenades them from below.

Such scenes were only the backdrop for the drama of a remarkably rich and public street life. The players, Campano says, included characters like Doc Seganksy, a dentist who ran a numbers game in his spare time. Back issues of the West Ender are filled with stories about Tabashnik, an itinerant kook who played musical instruments picked from the trash, and whose voice was so sweet that local synagogues would ask him to sing during holiday services.

What you can't see in the photos, though, is the close network of informal ties that held the neighborhood together. Everybody knew everybody else. Almost everyone belonged to a fraternal association or a storefront club. The West End House, one of the largest of these and a forerunner of the Boys' Clubs, claimed more than 600 members at its peak.

The West End, it seems, was not just a neighborhood but a way of life. In fact, the sociologist Herbert Gans held up the West End as a model of cohesive community in his 1962 book The Urban Villagers. For those too young to have known such a place, the stories inspire a kind of imaginary nostalgia for an impossibly enviable past. But for those who lived there, it's still hard and painful to believe that it's gone. Asked to describe his memories of the West End, former resident Sam London hesitates and declines. "It was so different, it's unreal," he mutters ruefully.

If the West End belonged to a different Boston, so too does the story of its demolition, an event that former residents would later call "the Taking." It was a time, in the decade following World War II, when the city's center was stagnating as suburbanization gained momentum. Declining population necessitated tax hikes, and the businesses that hadn't left the city were desperate to lure middle-income families back downtown.

The early 1950s were also the glory days of urban renewal. In practice, such projects were little different from what had earlier been called slum clearance. But city planners at agencies like the Boston Redevelopment Authority used a new vocabulary of modernity, technology, and progress. They had the example of recent projects in Chicago and Philadelphia, and the promise of funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

So it was that the residents of the West End found themselves standing between a cash-strapped city and a potential windfall. With $11 million in federal funds at stake, who was going to say that the run-down tenements of the West End weren't a slum? Not Mayor John Hynes, who said at the time, "Our problem with urban renewal is that it doesn't move fast enough." Not the banker who described the neighborhood as a "cancer," called for a "municipal hysterectomy," and claimed, "There's only one way for the West End to go -- down."

The city decided to replace the neighborhood with a series of upscale apartment towers. After the project's top bidder pulled out, the contract was awarded to Jerome Rappaport, who, it turns out, had served on Hynes's election committee. The new Charles River Park would be nothing like an urban village: fliers for prospective residents touted the availability of valet service and wine storage, and the advantages of privacy and in-town shopping.

Before long the city had completed the findings it needed to condemn the West End and seize its properties by eminent domain. Residents greeted news of the plan with disbelief. Even their representatives were dumbfounded. As Frank Lavine recalls, local pol Joe Lee declared simply, "They wouldn't dare."

Lee was wrong. At the beginning, only a few West Enders trickled out of the neighborhood, but soon the 7000 remaining residents realized that they were alone in their opposition to the project. Recalls Campano, "We were against this whole juggernaut: HUD, the BRA, the mayor, the developers, the papers, and the Archdiocese." Lavine, who was instrumental in the Save the West End Committee, is more succinct: "We were pissing against the wind."

West End residents had been promised fair compensation for their property, relocation payments, and decent affordable housing for all who needed it. Still, many simply refused to go. When the city stopped collecting trash, they began leaving in larger numbers. Finally, in April 1958, the city formally seized homes and businesses by eminent domain. A month later the wrecking crews moved in. Within three years, the West End had been razed: homes, shops, churches, even the streets were gone. All that remained was some 50 acres of emptiness.

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