Once supplanted by Charles River Park, the West End returns
As it looks to the future, owner renames the complex to help heal scars of the past
For decades, "If you lived here, you'd be home now" meant you were on Storrow Drive, driving by Charles River Park. Soon, the familiar signs will mean you're back in Boston's West End.
Charles River Park -- a name connoting luxury urban living, but also burdened with half a century of baggage over urban renewal and the destruction of a beloved neighborhood -- is going away, as the neighborhood's storefronts and four-story brick row houses did in the late 1950s.
Instead, the complex of high- and mid-rise apartments and condominiums, built starting in 1959, is embracing the name of the historic neighborhood it displaced. The owner, Equity Residential Properties Trust, is now calling it West End Apartments.
"I definitely like the name change," said Joe Peterkin, 69, a veteran West Ender whose family was moved out of its apartment on Allen Street (now Blossom Street) when he was a teenager. He has since moved back to Blossom Street.
"It is the West End of Boston, part of the city, like the North End and South End," said Peterkin, who volunteers at the West End Museum now being assembled in the old neighborhood.
As in Northern Ireland -- where the British call some towns by one name, the Irish by another -- a name is symbolically powerful in the West End.
Robert B. O'Brien, executive director of the Downtown North Association, a neighborhood group, said, "For a long time 'the West End' belonged to the dispossessed, and 'Charles River Park' was the name the new residents embraced."
The use of an old name to identify a community is "the sign of a new era," O'Brien said. "Now there's the new West End, and I think it's a place for everybody."
Equity Residential, a large national developer and manager of rental properties , decided soon after it bought Charles River Park in the late 1990s that a new image was called for; the name continues to evoke painful memories decades after more than 30 blocks of the old West End were leveled.
"We would have people come into the office, and they felt like it happened yesterday," said Christopher Reilly, area vice president of the Chicago company. "They were still very mad."
The company, which is adding 310 units to the complex, hired branding and identity strategists Kelley Habib John, of Boston, to find a name that both pointed to the future and honored the past.
It didn't take much research.
" 'West End' just makes sense," Reilly said. "There's a lot of positive association with the West End. We'd like to bring back the sense of community and belonging down there."
The West End is synonymous in Boston and the nation for some of the most destructive and embittering aspects of urban renewal initiatives of the mid-20th century, when neighborhoods labeled slums were bulldozed to make way for modern multifamily housing.
"$20 Million Home Project for West End Revealed," read a headline in the Boston Sunday Globe in April 1953. "City Would Demolish 682 Houses to Make Way for Over 2,000 Families." (By 1975, the estimated cost was $150 million.)
The West End project was one of three large initiatives then planned for Boston, which in the post-World War II years was showing its age and losing population to the growing suburbs. It was one of the first urban renewal projects in the nation -- both to be completed, and to be declared a public policy disaster for the American city, as well as a personal tragedy for families displaced by "progress."
The developer, Jerome L. Rappaport Sr., shouldered much of the blame over the years for what transpired, but it was the Boston Housing Authority and US Housing and Home Financing Agency that came up with the idea at mid-century to sweep away a rundown neighborhood and replace it with a dozen or so high-rise apartment buildings.
Rappaport and his partners in Charles River Park Inc. won the rights to the redevelopment and promptly hired architect and planner Victor Gruen, who's credited with creating the American shopping center, to soften the city's original Soviet-style design for the West End.
Rappaport's company built towers, mid-rise structures, parks, and amenities in the 1960s and '70s that became homes to hundreds of satisfied new urban dwellers; white-collar professionals took up residence in what had been a mostly blue-collar, mixed-ethnic neighborhood. Some of the buildings have since been bought by their owners as condominiums.
In a recent interview, Rappaport was nonchalant about the name change. "They own it, they can do what they want," he said.
He was 27 when his company won the project rights. Rappaport said he and his partners had the monumental challenge of luring people from the suburbs back to the city. The name they chose, Charles River Park, reflected both the setting on the river and the extensive, suburban-like green space they created between the buildings.
"We were asking people to come into a wasteland," he said. "People think this was easy."
Leasing the first two buildings, 480 units in 16- and 23-story towers plus town homes, called Emerson Place, took more than two years after it opened in the early 1960s. But eventually new residents, as well as some old West End families, found life good at Charles River Park, referring to it as their "vertical neighborhood."
"We did the job we wanted to do; we created an image," Rappaport said.
The complex grew through the 1970s, with the addition of three other sets of towers -- Whittier, Hawthorne, and Longfellow places -- as well as office and retail space, garages, and Amy Lowell House, for the elderly.
Rappaport fought bitter battles with City Hall over the pace of development in the 48 acres the government had taken by eminent domain. He lost out over one of the last undeveloped lots, where a team that included the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston built West End Place. It opened in 1997, with the purpose of giving homes to some of those who were displaced.
Jane Forrestall, who moved into West End Place less than a decade ago, said differences between original West Enders and newer residents have faded.
"We are all the West End, all of us," said Forrestall, who was not a resident of the historic West End but who likes the new name.
"I don't see it as a negative," she said. "But I don't have a history with it like other people do."
Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.