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OPINION

The West End’s lesson for Mayor Wu

In assessing the damage of the West End, it’s important not to view it either as an isolated example or in merely historic terms, confident that we would not make similar mistakes again.

High-rise towers sit on the fringe of Charles River Park in the West End in this 2005 photo.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

The recent death of real estate developer and philanthropist Jerome Rappaport has reminded Boston again of one of the great tragedies of city planning and its urban renewal era: the clearance of an entire lower-income section of the city and its replacement with high-rise luxury housing.

It was Rappaport who implemented the vision to clear the buzzing, multi-ethnic, somewhat dilapidated West End — formally declared a “slum” in 1955 — and replace it with Charles River Park’s anti-urban apartment complex. The West End, famously portrayed, as it faced the wrecker’s ball, in Herbert Gans’s sociology classic, “The Urban Villagers,” looks, in retrospect, like the sort of neighborhood so often sought but so seldom realized: an urban quilt, per Gans, that brought together “Italian, Russian Jewish, Polish, and Irish” households. In an earlier era, it had been home to the majority of Boston’s Black residents. When incomes are similar, those of different backgrounds tend to get along, Gans wrote. The West End’s conditions should not be sugar-coated — there were vacant buildings and littered alleys. But there is little doubt that today its tenements, like those of the North End, would be valuable and sought-after.

But in assessing the damage of the West End, it’s important not to view it either as an isolated example or in merely historic terms, confident that we would not make similar mistakes again. To be sure, Boston had specific reasons for its action; it was a city seemingly mired in decline, long before high-tech and biotech, its leaders desperate to stanch a flight of wealth.

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But the hubris of the era’s city planners — and hubris it was — went far beyond any one project. It was based in the elite view that experts could —and should — best design the urban environment, even as they had an evident distaste for the creative messiness of places like the West End.

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Members of Boston City Council and Housing Authority look over West End housing conditions on Brighton Street in this undated photo.HANDOUT PHOTO/The Boston Globe

It was, as argued by Jane Jacobs — who punctured the urban renewal balloon in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” — a view that favored “nobody’s plans but the planners’.” She celebrated housing variety, a stew of business, industry, and residences, and the walkable sort of place Americans have begun to crave — and at odds with the notorious Le Corbusier modernist vision of a city without streets, essentially a public housing or luxury apartment campus.

There is little doubt that Mayor Michelle Wu, who made housing affordability a cornerstone of her campaign, would ever consider plans such as that which claimed the West End and parts of the South End, as well as low-income, often minority neighborhoods across the country: Detroit’s Black Bottom, Chicago’s Bronzeville, DeSoto-Carr in St. Louis. Nonetheless, there are aspects of hubris in her housing vision.

There is much to cheer in the Wu housing plans. Notable are its support for accessory dwelling units on house lots large enough to accommodate them — a vehicle for multigenerational living and a chance for older residents to stay in their neighborhoods while realizing rental income. Easing parking requirements for new construction reflects a changed, post-pandemic world, in which working from home will be common, car commuting reduced, and walkability increasingly prized.

But an emphasis on achieving “affordability” through subsidized “mixed-income” complexes risks hubris. It is an impulse rooted in the problems associated with public housing — which devolved from its working-class origins into concentrations of poverty. Overlooking the inherent problems that come with public ownership and management, advocates of subsidized mixed-income housing as an alternative not only face expensive per-unit costs but are confident in their expertise that their vision is the way we should live.

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Gans noted that West Enders were not consulted when their working-class neighborhood was designated a slum. He makes it clear they disagreed — that a neighborhood that was universally low-income was one they cherished, to the point that residents’ mental health suffered when they were “dispersed throughout the metropolitan area.”

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.HANDOUT PHOTO

The great natural triumphs of Boston’s affordable housing — the tenements of the North and West Ends, the 13,000-plus triple-deckers of Dorchester and Roxbury — arose organically through the work of regional builders responding to what Bostonians preferred and could afford. What pioneer sociologists Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy termed Boston’s “zone of emergence” was built despite the opposition of early-20th-century progressives such as Brookline’s Prescott Hall, who denounced “the menace of the triple-decker.” City leaders should realize there are better ways than subsidized rentals to provide for housing needs: relax zoning to allow builders to create naturally-occurring affordable housing based on a time-honored formula of small homes on small lots. This is the magic of the triple-decker.

History tells us that it is inevitable that there will be an income spectrum of neighborhoods in a dynamic city, and that that spectrum will change over time. Cities are not — and should not be — flash frozen. Low-income neighborhoods can and should be good neighborhoods — so long as city governments ensure safe and clean streets and effective schools. Surviving West End alumni — you might meet one at the West End House in Allston — savor fond memories. Has City Hall asked low-income Bostonians whether they prefer to live in a mixed-income rental complex? Do they feel comfortable? Is that the best way for them to accumulate wealth? Would they prefer to own their own small place?

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Wu has also toyed with asking state permission to return to rent controls. Suffice to say, that’s a whole different sort of planning hubris — but it’s united with the urban renewal impulse in reflecting the view that the character of city neighborhoods should be centrally directed. In healthy cities and their metropolitan areas, neighborhoods change. Boston may increasingly become the purview of the relatively well-off (though it’s hard to believe that will be true of the entire city), while suburban areas become home to new immigrants, people of color, and the working class.

The lesson for Mayor Wu: Be modest in your goals, and never neglect basic city services. Those are what the low-income neighborhoods you’ve championed need the most.

Howard Husock is a senior fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author most recently of “The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It.

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Correction: A an earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly stated the role of Edward Logue in the clearing of Boston’s West End. The clearance preceded his tenure as head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.