West End, Boston, Massachusetts

West End, Boston, Massachusetts

The West End of Boston, Massachusetts is a neighborhood bounded generally by Cambridge Street to the south, the Charles River to the west and northwest, North Washington Street on the north and northeast, and New Sudbury Street on the east. Beacon Hill is to the south, and the North End is to the east. However, the area is widely known because a late 1950s urban renewal project razed a large Italian and Jewish neighborhood to redevelop the area.


The West End occupies the northwest portion of the Shawmut Peninsula. Much of the land on which the neighborhood lies is the product of Land reclamationFact|date=July 2007. Beginning in 1807, parts of Beacon Hill were used to fill in a small bay and mill pond that separated Beacon Hill and the West End from the North End. Today the neighborhood consists primarily of superblocks containing high rise residential towers. The West end borders the Charles River between Longfellow Bridge and the Charles River Dam Bridge. The Charlesbank Playground runs along the bank of the river but is separated from the rest of the neighborhood by Storrow Drive, a large cross town expressway.

Early days

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Boston's waterfront and North End were becoming overcrowded, and many of the city's well off residents took the opportunity to develop the area now known as the West End. At that time, the area was separated from the older neighborhoods by a small bay. The architect Charles Bulfinch was responsible for much of Boston's architectural character at the time, and played a large part in this new development of the West End.

Bulfinch spent much of his early career in the 1790s designing mansions, many of them in the West End and other Boston neighborhoods. O'Connor, Thomas H., "The Hub: Boston Past and Present", Northeastern University Press Boston, 2001. ISBN 1555534740 ] One of the most famous examples of these was the first Harrison Gray Otis House. This historic building was the first of three that Bulfinch designed for the affluent lawyer Harrison Gray Otis, and is one of the few buildings that survived Urban Renewal in the West End.

Other famous West End landmarks designed by Bulfinch are the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Charles Street Jail. Bulfinch Was also responsible for designing the West End Market on the corner of Grove and Cambridge Streets. Constructed in 1810, this historic market did not survive the area's redevelopment in the 1950s Whitehill, Walter Muir, and Kennedy, Lawrence W., "Boston: A Topographical History" 3rd Ed, Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN 0674002679]

Bulfinch's architecture of newer large brick buildings with gardens attracted many of Boston's wealthier citizens. By 1810, the West End was inhabited by wealthy business men, merchants, and lawyers. Many would soon move the nearby Beacon Hill, turning the West End into an African American community and stopping point for new immigrants. ]

African American history

In the early 1800s the West End along with Beacon Hill's north slope became an important center of Boston's African American community. The mostly affluent and white inhabitants of Beacon Hill's south slope were strongly supportive of abolitionism. This encouraged middle and working class free African Americans to move in to the nearby North slope and West End.

In 1808, the West End became home to Boston's first all black school. It was founded by Abiel Smith as a place for the growing African American population to receive a basic education, as African Americans were not allowed to attend public school. The school was later named the Abiel Smith School in honour of its founder.

In 1809, the African Meeting House, Boston's first African American Church was founded. Constructed on 8 Smith Court in the West End, the church served as an important gathering place and community center for African Americans. ] Gans, Herbert, J., "The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans", Free Press, 1962. ISBN 0029112400. ]

After the Civil War, the West End continued to be an important center of African American culture. It was one of the few locations in the United States at the time where African Americans had a political voice. At least one black resident from the West End sat on Boston's community council during every year between 1876 and 1895. ]


From the second half of the 1800s to the mid 1900s, Boston's West End became a home to many different immigrant groups. The wealthy and middle class business men were almost entirely gone, but Many African Americans remained in the neighborhood, making it one of Boston's most diverse. Among the many immigrant groups contributing to this melting pot were Armenians, Greeks, Irish, Lebanese, Italians, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Syrians, Ukrainians and many other Eastern and Southern Europeans. It was during this period that the neighborhood's population reached its peak at approximately 23,000 residents O'Connor, Thomas H., "Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal", Northern University Press, 1993. ISBN 155553161x ]

As a result of this immigration, the religious make-up of the neighborhood changed dramatically. Protestant churches moved away or shut down, to be replaced by Catholic churches and synagogues. For example, the old West Church, built in 1806 closed in 1892 due to lack of congregation. It reopened two years later as a library to better serve the new community.


One of the first new immigrant groups to settle the West End was the Irish. After briefly passing through the North End, many Irish families moved on to The West and South ends. The West End soon developed a thriving Irish community.

Later on, this community became associated with Martin Lomasney. Lomasney, also known as "the Mahatma" was the ward boss of Boston's ward 8 located in the West End. He was well known for taking care of the community that had developed there, especially the Irish families.

Early in his career he established the Hendricks Club in the heart of the neighborhood. The Hendricks began as a social club and gathering place, but later turned into the center of Lomasney's political machine. It was from here that he began to provided social services, charity, and shelter for poor immigrants. In return, he was able to drum up votes and support from much of the neighborhood. O'Connor, Thomas H., "Boston A to Z", Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN 067400310]


By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Irish immigration had slowed and Eastern European Jews began to immigrate into the West End in large numbers. Many came to escape persecution in Russia and Poland becoming small time merchants, or street peddlers. They formed a community in the West End and became a significant part of the population by 1910. They made their home in the neighborhood, constructing health centers, libraries, labor unions, loan societies and orphanages. ] . A large population of Jews from the city of Vilna in Eastern Europe and established the Vilna Shul or Synagogue on Phillips Street in 1919. The Shul was constructed from two old tenements and is one of the few buildings to survive the destruction of the old West End. Actor Leonard Nimoy was raised in this community.

Urban renewal

By the 1950s, Boston's West End had turned into a working-poor residential area with scattered businesses with small meandering roads much like the North End. According to most residents, the West End was a good place to live at this time. The once overcrowded neighborhood was in the process of "deslumming"Jacobs, Jane, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", page 287. Random House Inc. NY, 1961. ISBN 067974195x.] and the population had dropped to around 7,500 residents. Anderson, Martin, "The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal 1949 - 1962", The MIT Press, 1964.] By the end of the 1950s, over half of the neighborhood would be completely leveled to be replaced with residential high rises as part of a large scale urban renewal project.

Political background

The large scale renewal of the West End was first proposed in the 1930s,shortly after the National Housing Act of 1934 was passed, by Nathan Strauss Jr. among others. The neighborhood was considered a slum by wealthy Bostonians who did not live there. The working class residents of the West End felt strong ties to the community and so the plan would not become politically feasible until the 1950s. Weaver, Robert C., "Dilemmas of Urban America", Harvard University Press, 1966. ISBN 0674207009.]

By the end of the 1940s, Mayor Curley was running the city with an iron fist. Mayor Curley's administration's "policies all but ignored the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) and Yankee business community." [http://www.curp.neu.edu/pdfs/Grauds_Urban_Renewal_Boston_NewHaven.pdf Urban Renewal in New Haven and Boston, Transgression or Triumph] p.13] One of his tactics was to blame the woes of the poor on the wealthy. This is said to be one of the factors that caused an exodus from Boston and contributed to the blight that ensued.

‘’Curley made many enemies in his long career. He enjoyed verbally attacking the Boston Brahmins, and he encouraged his Irish constituents to blame their woes on the Yankees. Many of the people who had long dominated the city came to feel unwelcome in Boston. The exodus of Protestants to the suburbs that took place during the Curley era left a lasting legacy.’’ [http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=317 Mass Moments: Mayor Curley Jeopardizes Election] ]
Even with the corruption charges that surrounded him Curley was seen as a people's mayor. [http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAcurley.htm Spartacus] ]

When the John B. Hynes administration came into power in 1949 they made an about face on this mentality. Hynes wanted to return prosperity to Boston and Curley worked with business leaders and formed the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). The BRA consisted of 4 men appointed by the mayor and 1 appointed by the governor. It was formed to replace the Boston Housing Authority which the mayor had lost confidence in. The BRA was responsible for the large scale urban renewal of much of Boston, including the West End.


As part of a plan to create a "New Boston", the BRA redeveloped neighborhoods throughout the 1950s. The New York Streets section of the South End was redeveloped before the West End, and Scollay Square was leveled to create the Brutalist Government Center afterwards. The motivation behind these projects was to replace neighborhoods that had been classified as slums with neighborhoods that would bring in increased tax revenues. It is estimated that before the renewal project, the tax revenue from the West End was approximately $546,000 a year.

The redevelopment of the West End was officially announced on 11 April 1953. Mayor Hynes and the BRA stated that the project would be beneficial to the neighborhood. The West End's narrow streets were a fire hazard and many of the buildings were not up to code, with approximately 80% of them substandard or marginal. Tenants were assured that affordable housing would be found for them, and many were led to believe that they would be able to move back into the West End after the project was complete.

The plan involved completely leveling a 46 acre portion of the West End, displacing 2,700 families to make way for 5 residential high rise complexes that would contain only 477 apartments. The new development was aimed towards upper middle class residents meaning most of those displaced would not be able to afford to return.

In October 1957, the BRA held a hearing on the new project. At least 200 West End residents attended and the consensus was overwhelmingly opposed to the plan. The Save the West End committee was formed with the support of Joseph Lee to organize protests against the new development. Most residents believed that the project would not be realized, and so did not act until it was too late.

Residents received their eviction letters on 25 April 1958. The BRA used the federal housing act of 1949 to raze the West End to the ground. Working class families were displaced, and
superblocks replaced the original street layout. The result was a neighborhood consisting of residential high rises, shopping centers and parking lots.


The urban renewal of the West End has been attacked by critics for its destruction of a neighborhood and its careless implementation. One of the main criticisms of the project is that the neighborhood was not considered a slum by the residents, and instead had a strong sense of community. A later mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, described the West End as "a typical neighborhood" and "not blighted."Jones, Michael, "The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal and Ethnic Cleansing" p.524, St. Augustine's Press, South end Indiana, 2004. ISBN 1587317753 ] The perception of the neighborhood as a slum was mostly held by wealthy outsiders and was enhanced by city policy. For example, the city stopped collecting garbage and cleaning the streets leaving the neighborhood a mess. A photographer for a local newspaper was even assigned to go to the West End, overturn a trashcan, and take a picture of it to create the impression of a blighted neighborhood.Jones, Michael, "The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal and Ethnic Cleansing" p.175, St. Augustine's Press, South end Indiana, 2004. ISBN 1587317753 ]

Many building owners were not adequately compensated for their property. Due to city law, as soon as tenement buildings were condemned by the BRA, the city became the legal owner. This meant that building owners had no income as rent was paid directly to the city. Soon owners became desperate to sell their property at severely reduced prices. ]

The justification for razing the West End has also been called into question. Some say that, as one of the neighborhoods that supported the former mayor it was in the political sights of the Hynes administration. The entire net cost of the project was 15.8 million dollars not counting the additional loss of tax dollars for the years that the West End was vacant. It is uncertain as to whether the increased tax revenue would ever be enough to justify the costs.

The negative effect of Urban Renewal on the former residents of the West End has been well documented. Between one quarter and one half of the former residents were relocated substandard housing with higher rents than they were previously paying. Approximately 40% also suffer from severe long term grief reactions. The destruction of the West End community led to a strong distaste for Urban Renewal in Boston.


Today, the West End is an up and coming, thriving neighborhood, comprising mixed-use commercial and residential area. A few non-residential areas were spared from the urban renewal of the 1950s, such as Massachusetts General Hospital, the Charles Street Jail, the Bulfinch Triangle and a small section surrounded by Causeway, Merrimac, and Market Streets. Massachusetts General Hospital and the Charles Street Jail are located in the northwest section, while Government Center which was the former site of Scolley Square, comprises the southern section. Most of the northern section is covered by North Station and the TD Banknorth Garden.

The character of the area prior to the urban renewal can still be seen in existing commercial and mixed use building of the Bulfinch Triangle Here there are a few pubs and restaurants that feed off the traffic traveling to and from Faneuil Hall and the Garden. The residential areas that have been rebuilt are primarily upscale highrises, though the neighborhood is currently making strides to re-establish the close knit community that once was. The West End Museum currently has a permanent exhibition outlining the history of the neighborhood and its residents, while the [http://westendcommunitycenter.com West End Community Center] hosts classes and events in addition to putting on the annual [http://www.westendchildrensfestival.org/ West End Children's Festival] .



*Gans, Herbert, J., "The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans", Free Press, 1962. ISBN 0029112400.

External links

* [http://www.boston.com/news/globe/magazine/articles/2005/08/07/born_again/ "Born Again", from "The Boston Globe"]
* [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/13760 1963 article by Nathan Glazer] , reviewing "The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans" by Herbert J. Gans
* [http://westendcommunitycenter.com/ The West End Community Center]
* [http://www.untravelmedia.com/tours/1/the_greatest_neighborhood_this_side_of_heaven/ A multimedia walking tour of the West End addressing the controversy of the urban renewal]

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