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Museum pays tribute to the West End that was

A family walks amid demolition debris in the West End in 1962.

West End Museum

A family walks amid demolition debris in the West End in 1962.

The West End Museum on Staniford Street in Boston holds the history of a close-knit neighborhood that was destroyed in what would become known as the worst urban renewal project of the 20th century.

On April 25, 1958, seven thousand residents of the West End received letters alerting them that the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was taking their homes and businesses by eminent domain. These buildings were slated to be demolished to make way for luxury apartments.

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Why destroy a neighborhood where families had lived and worked since the mid-1800s? Because city politicians saw it as a crowded, dirty blight on Boston’s landscape. It was an area that the city fathers had neglected for many years. The bottom line was this: Boston needed the tax revenue that the renewal project was sure to bring in.

Plans were drawn up showing greenspaces and complexes such the Charles River Park apartments which would bring upper-middle-class families to live in the city. The project also included the expansion of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the building of the Shriners Hospital for Children.

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Starting in 1958, 700 buildings on 43 acres stretching from the Charles Street Jail (Liberty Hotel), along and through Cambridge Street to the Museum of Science, were razed. Street names were changed; only Chambers, Allen, Blossom, Cambridge, Lowell and North Anderson streets have their original names.

This was a polyglot of immigrants; Irish, Italians, Jews, and African-Americans lived elbow to elbow. These were blue-collar people; stevedores who loaded and unloaded ships lining the docks of Boston Harbor, haberdashers, barbers, rope makers, bakers, and greengrocers. There were schools, churches, and synagogues and a hospital and clinic.

Boys hawked newspapers on street corners. One of them was a skinny Jewish kid who would go on to become a world famous Vulcan — Leonard Nimoy. He learned acting at the theater in the Peabody House and hung out with his friends at the West End House, the front-runner for the Boys & Girls Clubs.

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The West End Museum’s permanent exhibit, “The Last Tenement,” details with explanations on poster boards what life was like in the West End before the urban renewal project destroyed it. On walls and tables are old photographs, a school book from St. Joseph’s school, a little girl’s doll carriage, a lantern, and a bas relief from the Hotel Madison. Many of these have been donated by people who grew up in the old neighborhood.

Today, only a handful of buildings from the original West End still stand, including St. Joseph’s Church and Rectory, the Winchell School, Old West Church, and the Harrison Gray Otis House. These buildings and the collection of maps, faded images and objects from residents’ lives that are inside the museum are all that is left of a neighborhood that was, through the centuries, home to 60,000 people.

According to the museum’s director, Susan Hanson, “a woman who grew up here and whose family was one of those evicted gave us her book bag from the Peter Faneuil School. The West End House, founded in 1906 by wealthy philanthropist James Storrow, has donated some artifacts. When you start something like the West End Museum, showing the history of a neighborhood, people are always dropping off personal mementos. The collecting has gone on since we opened in 2011, and will go on for years.”

THE WEST END MUSEUM 150 Staniford St., 617-723-2125, www.thewestendmuseum.org. Free.

Frances Folsom can be reached at francesfolsom@comcast.net.
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