Our photographs are posted on Facebook, Instagram, or they’re shared on small, high resolution screens of smartphones. What we see is a carefully curated slice of life: A series of unending sunny vacations, night-life shenanigans, dreaded pursed lip self-portraits, and gourmet dinners.
Unsatisfactory, mundane, and embarrassing photos are quickly deleted, leaving us with a parade of smiles and sequins. Which is perhaps why the Facebook page Dirty Old Boston is quickly gaining popularity. The page is a home for pictures from the 1930s through the mid-1980s, and a pageant of perfection it is not.
The photos are grainy, the street scenes are gritty, and some of the pictures — such as a recent series of prom snap shots — are the sort of sweet but cringe-worthy moments that would never survive the delete key today.
Sifting through shoe boxes of old photos and searching the Web, fans of the page upload images of a pre-gentrified Boston when urban flight depleted neighborhoods, the elevated Orange Line darkened city streets, and the seedy Combat Zone thrived. Visitors to the page can see how the skyline has transformed, cars have changed, hairstyles have come and gone. It’s a vision of a world from when computers were punch-card operated.
In less than a year, Dirty Old Boston, started by retired teacher and West Roxbury resident Jim Botticelli, has collected nearly 45,000 “likes” on Facebook. It was announced last week that Dirty Old Boston will be adapted into a book to be published in the fall of 2014.
“I’m a nostalgia buff, which is why I love looking at these pictures,” Botticelli said. “But it’s also to show people what the city used to look like. You have people who have been living here for 10 or 15 years who have no idea what the city was.”
Botticelli, who came to Boston for college in 1972 to study at Northeastern University, recalls a Kenmore Square that was populated by dingy rock clubs like the Rathskeller (better known as the Rat), a dive that smelled like stale beer and ashtrays, rather than the restaurants fragrant with hand-rolled cavatelli which exist there today.
Those memories are what draw fans such as 54-year-old Edward Onessimo to the page. He also contributed a few of his own old photos.
“I’m of an age where less and less of my city is the way I first encountered it,” he said. “Having dinner at B&G Oysters last night I remembered that it was once the home of Capriccio, my original favorite South End restaurant, and nobody there now would remember that. I basically grew up in the Combat Zone, where my father had a fruit stand. That neighborhood alone has changed multiple times before my eyes.”
The pictures on the page aren’t limited to long-departed supper clubs and trolley cars. At the time of the Boston Marathon bombings, many posted pictures from marathons past. Family war heroes showed up earlier this week to commemorate Memorial Day.
It’s a crowd-sourced history of the city that doesn’t exist in books, said Chris Lovett, news director of Boston Neighborhood Network News.
“These are pictures that people in the news business don’t normally shoot, so there are some shots where there was nothing going on,” Lovett said. “There are people who just happened to be walking around shooting pictures or watching a band at a club.”
Lovett submitted photos of the late Park Theatre in Dorchester (it was showing “Grease” and “Foul Play.”) He took the photos himself, and put them on the site. The publishers of the forthcoming Dirty Old Boston book acknowledge that it will be challenging to obtain permission from those posting photos, but also to ensure that the quality is high enough for a glossy book.
Furthermore, many of the postings on the Dirty Old Boston page are photos found on the Internet. If Union Park Press, the publisher of the book, was to run those without permission, they would be facing “a lion’s den of copyright issues.”
“We decided to put up a website — it’s Dirtyoldbostonproject.com ,” said Shelby Larsson, director of marketing and publicity of the small publishing house. “It’s our submissions site. What we’re looking for are pictures that are owned directly by that person. They either took them, or they own them because they were left from a family member.”
If response to the book is as enthusiastic as it has been for the Web page, Union Park Press should have no problem. Especially with rabid posters such as illustrator and cartoonist Rich Sullivan.
“Dirty Old Boston is total nostalgia, and we boomers love nostalgia . . . ourselves, of course,” he joked.
Terri Affanato McAvoy, who owns an optical shop in North Attleborough and a ceramics business in Italy, visits the site multiple times a week to recall her old Boston of the 1970s and ’80s. She also shares her old pictures.
“Maybe everything now is just so fast, high tech, and impersonal that we long for the simpler times,” she said.
But it’s not only boomers who are fans of the site. Robert McCarthy, a 23-year-old graphic designer, confesses that he checks the site daily.
“It’s fascinating for me to see how much things have changed,” he said. “It’s shocking that there was an entire part of town showing X-rated movies. People say Boston is prudish, but clearly it wasn’t.”Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.