When he died earlier this month, at 94, Jerry Rappaport was hailed as a great philanthropist who also played a key role in developing a gleaming new Boston. A more complete picture of his legacy can be found at the West End Museum at 150 Staniford St.
The museum occupies a small space — just about 3,500 square feet. But it’s big enough to tell the story of a neighborhood demolished in the late 1950s in the name of urban renewal. This home to working-class Bostonians was ultimately replaced by Charles River Park, the luxury housing complex developed by Rappaport. A young Rappaport won the bid to redevelop the neighborhood after a stint in the administration of Mayor John Hynes. Afterward, as Jim Vrabel, a former senior research associate at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now the Boston Planning and Development Agency) wrote recently in CommonWealth magazine, the city allowed the Rappaport team to change the project terms. A set-aside for affordable housing was eliminated; instead, all units were designated for luxury apartments. To build them, about 53 acres of land were taken by eminent domain, and some 7,500 West Enders were displaced, in what is now considered a textbook case of urban planning gone bad.
Years later, the bitterness lingers. As museum director Sebastian Belfanti told me, Rappaport “was a really great landlord to the people he built for.” But that and his later philanthropy “was subsidized by the poor people he got rid of,” he said. To be fair, the dispersal of West Enders came with the blessing of Boston’s political leaders. At the time, the city was a sad and stagnant place, as Vrabel recounted for CommonWealth. The Boston Globe described the city as a “hopeless backwater,” he wrote. Developers had the upper hand and used it to get concessions. They also helped lay the foundation for today’s thriving metropolis. From that perspective, there’s a case to be made — or at least a rationale to ponder — for what happened to the West End.
Yet walk through the museum and it’s clear that 1950s bet on a better Boston came at a price. The rich history of the West End stretches back to the Puritans, and includes waves of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. It was also home to some free Black residents, starting in the late 1700s, Belfanti told me. With the past bulldozed away, Belfanti said his goal is to “try to keep awareness of this space as a fully functioning neighborhood” and to remember “the loss and incredible historical significance of this urban renewal project.” Projects like this happened across the country, mostly to neighborhoods populated by people of color. The West End also stands out because “it happened to a predominantly white neighborhood,” he said.
Rappaport’s legacy came at the expense of poorer Bostonians in other ways, too, said Lew Finfer, a longtime housing activist. Known as “the 10th city councilor” (when Boston had nine), Rappaport used his money and political clout to undermine rent control, said Finfer. As for Rappaport’s generosity, “I know people who were beneficiaries,” said Finfer. “It’s all great. It will help him in front of St. Peter, but there’s some hard time he also should be doing for what he did in the ’50s and ’60s.”
The displaced have not forgotten how they were flicked away. “He thought we were insignificant,” said James Campano, 81, the museum’s founder and editor and publisher of The West Ender, a newspaper he created for former residents. Still, Campano tries to keep a balanced view. “I don’t want to dance on his grave, but I don’t want him portrayed as Mother Teresa,” he said of Rappaport. For sure, Rappaport was generous, setting up programs that promote civic engagement at Harvard and Boston College. He and his wife, Phyllis, also gave millions to public policy, health, and arts initiatives. But as Campano sees it, “I’m glad a lot of people made out. But he never gave a penny to the people he uprooted.”
In 2015, in an appearance at the museum, Brian Golden, director of the then-BRA, issued a formal apology to those driven out. There’s no public record of regret from Rappaport. He visited the museum once, in 2018, and was interviewed by Tom Palmer, a former Globe reporter and museum board member. Palmer told me, via e-mail, that he did it with the intent of making it public, so Rappaport could give “his version of the West End saga.” But Belfanti, the museum director, said the Rappaport family won’t give the museum permission to release the interview.
That leaves the West End part of Rappaport’s legacy to the less charitable view of others.