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Looking back at Boston’s West End, and the forces that led to its destruction

Buildings in the West End were torn down in the late 1950s. According to City of Boston Archives, 2,700 families were displaced as a result of the demolition project,?

A new lecture series at the West End Museum will take a closer look at the urban renewal efforts that led to the demolition of one of Boston’s most densely populated and diverse neighborhoods.

Titled “Reflections on Boston’s West End: The Origins & Lessons of Urban Renewal,” the seven-part series kicks off at the West End Museum on Feb. 19.

“Attendees will learn how an entire Boston neighborhood vanished, displacing about 7,500 people who called it home,” museum officials said in a press release. “Tenement houses with mom-and-pop storefronts fell to the wrecking ball, ultimately to be replaced by high-rises with professed suburban amenities, all in the name of progress. The destruction of the West End came to be seen as a landmark case in urban planning circles. Its simplistic, top-down approach became a textbook example of how NOT to transform a city. As Winston Churchill said, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’”

A West End family wearing their Sunday best walk over rubble to get to St. Joseph's church. (Charles Frani Collection/West End Museum)Charles Frani Collection/West End Museum

The lecture series will be presented by James Briand, who has worked with the West End Museum since 2009, and each talk will focus on a different topic.


“This was an important point in history, and it’s such a fascinating story on a human level,” said Briand. “We wanted to dig deeper.”

The lectures will take place on Wednesdays from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The West End Museum. Pre-registration is required at Admission is $20 ($10 for museum members and students), or you can sign up to attend the entire series for $120 ($60 for museum members and students).

A summary of each lecture is below.

Feb. 19: Urban Renewal & the People of the West End Demolition

Explore the story of the clearance and redevelopment of the West End and the people at the heart of those events. The rich mix of families that filled the dense, winding streets of the neighborhood comprised about 7,500 residents from more than 20 different ethnic and racial groups, including Italian, Jewish, Irish, and African-American. Their backgrounds, hopes, and aspirations will be considered along with the vision for the city and the motivations of the key players who sought to build a new, supposedly better Boston by tearing down the West End.


This sign would have been posted around the neighborhood as buildings were torn down during the urban renewal efforts that began in the late 1950s. (West End Museum)West End Museum

March 25: The History of the Slum in America & Boston

Learn about the history of slums in America, including how Progressive Era (1890-1920) thinkers linked physical conditions of city neighborhoods with social, economic, and moral degradation. Such thinking laid the groundwork for so-called urban renewal programs in America’s cities and, specifically, in Boston’s West End.

April 22: FDR, Truman & Urban Renewal in Boston

Explore the history of housing and urban renewal programs under FDR’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal, and how they set the stage for the destruction of a vibrant, multicultural Boston neighborhood of approximately 7,500 people.

A boy from the West End stands on top of the remnants of a building that was once part of the neighborhood. The Museum of Science can be seen in the distance behind him. (Charles Frani Collection/West End Museum)Charles Frani Collection/West End Museum

May 6: Jane Jacobs & the Legacy of Boston’s West End

To celebrate Jane Jacobs Week, examine the heated debate on “the future of the city” in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a special focus on the contrasting views of urban policy experts such as Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. Explore the ways in which Jacobs — author of the landmark book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961) — drew inspiration from the story of Boston’s West End.


Sept. 16: When the Car Was King & Boston Paid the Price

Learn how the rise of the automobile reshaped Greater Boston during the Eisenhower administration, and how seeking to accommodate more vehicular traffic helped pave the way for the destruction of the West End of Boston.

This artistic rendition of a "New Boston" shows Government Center taking the place of Scollay Square. This image was used as marketing material to promote urban renewal programs, and "many of the buildings drawn were never actually built," according to the West End Museum. West End Museum

Oct. 14: The Power Brokers of Boston & Urban Renewal

Explore the economic, social, and political considerations tied to Boston’s political, business, religious, and educational interests that aligned to support the demolition and redevelopment of the diverse but tight knit West End neighborhood, home to about 7,500 residents.

Nov. 18: David & Goliath — The Last-Ditch Effort to Save Boston’s West End

Learn how a small group of immigrants, isolated from the power structures in Washington D.C. and Boston, took on the federal and state government to save their beloved West End from urban renewal. Explore the people, the battle, and the legacy of their loss.

Members of Boston City Council and Housing Authority looking over West End housing conditions in the West End. HANDOUT PHOTO

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.