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West End century

Its old neighborhood long gone, the West End House hits 100, still providing recreation and a community for Boston's youth

The people were poor, the homes packed, and the streets filled with children who would rather not sit inside their cramped apartments with brothers and sisters. Boston's West End, at the dawn of the last century, teemed with immigrants arriving from Russia and elsewhere in Europe. Many worked long hours in Boston's shoe factories and rag shops.

It might have been a treacherous life for children in what a writer called ``noisesome and dark" streets.

But in the early years of the century, a group of Jewish shoeshine boys, who called themselves the Bootblack League and later the Excelsior Club, and a wealthy Beacon Hill banker, James Storrow , created a safe haven.

Storrow had taken an interest in the boys, and in 1906 he gave them a place to meet. Thus was born the West End House, a settlement spot for neighborhood boys. They would learn boxing and debate; Hamlet and baseball were involved. In time, the House would cater to new immigrants, Irish, Poles, Italians. It would eventually admit girls, and would survive the destruction of the neighborhood that had spawned it. Now, housed in Allston-Brighton, the West End House Boys and Girls Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

And it has become one of the last remnants of the vanished West End and a seat of memories for scores of children.

In a perilous urban world, where ethnic and racial tensions could flare, some who spent a portion of their childhoods going to the House say they formed lifelong bonds in the of competition at the House's track meets, ballgames, and boxing matches.

``You beat each other up, and when you walked out you were shaking hands and hugging each other," said Bert Wynn , 79 , of Newton, who attended the House in the early years of the Great Depression. ``The old timers, all we do is sit around and kibitz about the friendship we had. The House was so good to us."

Like many others, Wynn was too poor to pay for membership, so he washed dishes to attend the House's summer camp.

``A lot of families didn't have that kind of money to send us to camp," he said. ``If you were willing to work, you could stay up there for the summer."

The House was founded on the premise that young Jewish and Italian boys were not ``poorer, less intelligent, less definitely ambitious" children than other, wealthier Bostonians, as they had been made out to be, according to ``The Last Tenement," a book by the Bostonian Society about the West End.

It quickly outgrew its original home on Eaton Street, moving to a new building in 1912 and again in 1929. By then, it had two libraries, six club rooms, showers, and handball, basketball, and volleyball courts for 725 members.

During the heyday that followed, many said they discovered themselves and their callings at the West End House.

``They had a declamation [speech] contest, and I entered twice," said Leonard Nimoy, the 75-year-old actor best known for his role as Spock on ``Star Trek." Nimoy's parents settled in the West End after leaving Ukraine. Nimoy played basketball and ran track for the House but found his voice in acting.

``The first time I did Edgar Allan Poe and got fourth place, and I got some advice about trying to do some more current material. The second year I won the contest," Nimoy said.

Frankie Diorio, 75, of East Boston, also got his start at the West End House. He went on to work with Duke Ellington and the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

``It was the best place in the world," Diorio said of the House.

Tony Longo , 68 , of Hernando, Fla., played basketball at the nearby Heath Christian Center but preferred the West End House because, he said, ``it had better competition."

``Plus, I didn't have the money to travel around, and the West End House gave you the uniform instead of making you buy it," he said.

When bulldozers razed the neighborhood, membership dwindled. Though the house remained, residents were driven out. By 1971, it moved to Allston. Girls were admitted later that decade.

One of the first girls to attend was Debbie Zioli, who grew up in the Fidelis Way Housing Project, now known as the Commonwealth Tenant s Association.

``I could tell you right now how every day went. It's that vivid in my mind," said Zioli, 37, now of Wakefield. ``Here was no segregation, none of that `You're a girl and you can't play.' You were a team, and you wanted your team to win."

Despite new members, hard times came again. The state-of-the-art building deteriorated and needed gutting in 2001 . The house's $1.6-million endowment dwindled to $400,000 . But new leadership and a capital campaign brought in nearly $3 million. The House spent $7 million on renovations, including adding a third floor, an Olympic pool, and basketball courts.

``When people reflect on their experience at the club, and kids that I talk to today, they just really feel a strong connection with the people that are here," said the club's director, Andrea Howard .

``They just love coming to a place where every day they feel like they're the most important person on the planet."

If not for the club, a Boston College student, Adrienne Andry, said she probably would have become a pregnant high school drop-out.

``They opened my eyes to things that are out there," said Andry, who also grew up in the Commonwealth Tenant s Association. ``I'll always call the West End House my second home." Adrienne P. Samuels can be reached at asamuels@globe.com.

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