For the first time ever, the West End Museum is hosting a guest speaker who worked on one of the demolition crews that razed much of the neighborhood in the late 1950s.
Tom Hynes, co-chairman and chief executive officer of Colliers International’s Boston office, will speak at the museum Thursday and talk about his experiences working as a laborer in the West End on the controversial urban renewal project that bulldozed what was once one of the city’s most densely populated and diverse neighborhoods. The demolition of the West End not only resulted in the redevelopment of 46 acres of land but also displaced 2,700 families in the process, according to the City of Boston Archives.
Hynes recalled that in 1959 he was a 19-year-old college student and wanted a construction job where he could work hard and get in shape to play football at Boston College. His uncle, John B. Hynes, was the mayor of Boston at the time.
Nothing prepared him for the experience of toiling on the front lines of destruction.
“It was torturous,” Hynes said in a telephone interview.
Hynes described how a city block would be reduced to a pile of rubble, and bulldozers would push the debris into a huge pile that would then be set on fire, filling the air with acrid smoke. His job was to pull out scrap iron and steel out from the wreckage. The first day on the job was especially grueling, and he recalled how he nearly collapsed after spending hours of lugging radiators and scrap iron out of burning mountains of debris.
Later he was given the task of climbing through basements and picking out bricks that could be salvaged from the ruins of the demolished buildings. Occasionally the work crews would come across a barrel of wine that was stored in a cellar. One crane operator that he worked with thought it was funny to pluck out a wine barrel and pour the wine all over him and the other workers below, he said.
Hynes ended up working in the West End in the summertime in 1959, 1960, and 1961. He also worked during the winter and spring vacations.
Hynes recalled how after working all day, he’d take the Orange Line home back to West Roxbury, completely exhausted, and smelling like “burnt cork.”
“It was amazingly difficult work,” he said. “I certainly got in good shape.”
Hynes acknowledges that at the time, he was “oblivious” of the larger picture and wasn’t aware of what the demolition of the neighborhood meant to the people who once lived there.
“That didn’t dawn on me until long after,” he said.
When he was on the job site, he was just focusing on surviving, he said. The dangerous working conditions didn’t allow much time for reflection. “We had to be vigilant at all times,” he said.
But as time went on, he began to learn more about the history of the West End and understand the irreversible effect that was made on the neighborhood, and the role, however small, that he played in it.
In a press release issued by the museum in advance of his talk, Hynes speaks of the perspective he’s gained since the days that he toiled as a laborer on the demolition team.
“I was oblivious to the fact that the debris had been someone’s home just a few months before,” he said in the press release. “I can imagine the old West End would now be a thriving multicultural neighborhood had urban renewal not taken its toll.”
Hynes understands the destruction of the West End is a sensitive topic and said he’s already heard from an unhappy West Ender. But he hopes that attendees will find his presentation to be informative.
After all these years, Hynes still can’t help but wonder, if the West End had been preserved, what might have been.
For him, one question about the neighborhood will always remain: “What would it be like today?”
Hynes will be a guest speaker at the West End Museum from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday. His presentation will include photographs and a question-and-answer session. Admission is free, and light refreshments will be served.Emily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.