Arts

Architecture

Boston’s old West End persists as a ‘palace’

By 1960, the West End neighborhood of Boston was in transition, from demolition to redevelopment. Remarkably, many former residents remain a community.

JACK O’CONNELL/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

By 1960, the West End neighborhood of Boston was in transition, from demolition to redevelopment. Remarkably, many former residents remain a community.

It’s 2012. It’s been more than 50 years since the demolition, between 1958 and 1960, of the vast majority of Boston’s old West End neighborhood.

The other day, the latest issue of the West Ender newspaper arrived in my mail.

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Believe it or not, half a century after they lost their homes in a brutal example of so-called “slum clearance,’’ the surviving former residents of the West End still have a newspaper.

They now live scattered all over the map, and of course their numbers are dwindling. But as far as they’re concerned, they’re still members of a community.

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I’ve written about it before, but the West End story gets more poignant with each passing year. I don’t think there’s a comparable example of neighborhood loyalty to be found anywhere in the United States.

The West Ender comes out four times a year. In the current issue, there are 40 notes and letters from former West Enders. Some send in old snapshots. Others reminisce lovingly about the old days in the neighborhood.

There’s a lesson here for architects and city planners. What is it that makes the West End so intensely remembered?

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First, though, some background. The old West End was a neighborhood located roughly between Cambridge Street and North Station, surrounding Massachusetts General Hospital. There were perhaps 11,000 residents (though sources vary on the number). They were mostly a mix of first- and second-generation, low-income immigrants: Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish, others.

In the 1950s, cities like Boston were worried about the flight of the middle and upper classes to the suburbs. So-called urban renewal became a way to get rid of poor people, in the hope of attracting the middle class and its money back to the city. The city took the land, demolished 900 buildings, and turned most of the site over to a developer who built a group of bland apartment blocks called Charles River Park. New streets and buildings were given Yankee names - Whittier, Longfellow - as if to erase the memory of the former diverse population.

A couple of small patches endured for a few more years, but by the end of 1960 the West End as a neighborhood was only a memory. It’s a memory, though, that refuses to die. Last October, a West End dance party was held in Malden. Last month, former residents returned for the annual West End Mass, held at St. Joseph’s Church, one of the half dozen or so buildings to survive the demolition.

On Saturdays, a group of West Enders meet at a mall in the suburbs, where they socialize and talk about their old lives. And in the West End Museum at 150 Staniford St., you can see horrifying film footage of the demolition - the area looks like a bombed-out war zone - or watch videos of oral histories.

What makes the memory of this neighborhood so durable? Why do the people, half a century later, still feel that they are members of it?

One reason is plain old sensuality. Former West Enders still write in fondly about every kind of smell and sound. One says he loved the smell of a linoleum store. Another sends in a poem in which she talks about “tasty sauce filling our home with wonderful scents.’’ (This poet identifies herself as one “whose life is based on living in the West End.’’) Others talk about Polish, Russian, Italian bread, about pies, about sweets “when company came.’’ Not all memories are quite so calm, but they are certainly vivid. One man writes about a bar known informally as “The Bucket of Blood,’’ where, as a kid, he would watch and hear the street fighting on Saturday nights from his family’s front windows. The same guy remembers what he calls “the best meatball sub in Boston,’’ adding that it was so good because the cafe owner “never cleaned the pan.’’

The smell of linoleum? Grungy, delicious meatballs? These are people who are remembering with their noses and tongues. Neuroscientists tell us that these are the most nostalgic of our senses, that they are the ones that bring back the past most strongly. The West End, alas, reminds us that we live today in a world where we’ve largely edited out the senses, except for seeing and hearing. Architecture is now too often thought of as a merely visual art, like painting or sculpture. Or worse, it’s like movies: You hear talk now of future buildings that will have digital facades, in other words architecture that can be programmed and changed at will. We’ll live in a placeless world that will be like a multiplex of outdoor screening rooms.

We forget that to experience a building or a neighborhood richly, we need to hear it, smell it, taste it (even the air has a taste, a humidity, a temperature), touch it (as we move our hands over the rough surfaces of old buildings), and experience it spatially as we move through it. The old West End was a feast for all the senses.

Then there’s density. The West End was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the United States. You were always pushed up close to things, both to other people and to buildings. That’s one reason the neighborhood imprinted itself so deeply on the perceptions of its residents. Everyone more or less knew everyone else. All generations, toddlers to grandmothers, shared the neighborhood. What the city observer Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street’’ were plentiful, functioning as a kind of informal safety patrol.

As the world learns to live with less energy, and as population continues to zoom, more of us are going to be living in denser circumstances. Densely populated cities use far less energy per capita than thinly spread out suburbs. One lesson of the West End is that density can be a social plus. It offers, perhaps, a more intense experience of family and community life.

Finally, the old West End was what is called a memory palace. A memory palace is a device for memorizing. It was used by the ancient Romans and later during the Renaissance. You first visualize the interior of some building you know intimately. That’s the “palace.’’ Then you associate a memory with each part of that interior. Let’s say you’re memorizing a list of people. You pair each name with some element - a room, a painting, a chair, whatever - and later when you wish to recall the names, you roam the interior in your imagination. Each element becomes a visual cue that stimulates a recollection.

If the old West End was anything, it was such a memory palace. The tightly packed streets and buildings were rich with incident and detail. There were lots of hooks on which to hang your memories. The neighborhood’s intricacy supplied a zillion clues. You didn’t have to consciously memorize, of course. You couldn’t help remembering.

The West End, like any low-income neighborhood, had its share of drawbacks. But after half a century of nonexistence, what’s remarkable is the way it’s still alive in the minds of so many people. Compared with the forgettable urban placelessness we often create today, the West End feels pretty good.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.
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