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Q&A: History of the West End, the "lost neighborhood"

Posted by Sara Brown  April 20, 2011 04:26 PM

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Once a thriving neighborhood--home to Massachusetts General Hospital and a diverse population--Boston's West End was significantly impacted by urban renewal in the 1960s, leading some to call it the "lost neighborhood."

Anthony Sammarco, an author and historian, told the West End's story in his book "Boston's West End," and will present an illustrated lecture about the West End's history at the annual meeting of the New England chapter of the Victorian Society on Tuesday, April 26 at the Beacon House.

Sammarco, who teaches history at the Urban College of Boston, has written dozens of books about Boston's history and development, including books about Dorchester, Back Bay, South Boston, and Charlestown. He is a proprietor of the Boston Athenaeum and treasurer of the Victorian Society, New England Chapter.

His book, "Boston's West End," is part of the Images of America series published by Arcadia Publishing.

Here, Sammarco talks about the history of the West End, including settlement homes that helped immigrants assimilate, the enduring character of the West End, and spots one can still visit in the "lost neighborhood."

Your Town: Some people might not know the history of the West End, or even where the West End is. Can you give us a "West End for Beginners" introduction?

Anthony Sammarco: The West End is a large area of the city of Boston, though it saw massive land clearing as "urban renewal" in the 1960's. The area is roughly from Myrtle Street on the western slope of Beacon Hill, along Charles Street to Charles Circle to Martha Road, up to Cambridge Street. The West End is a large area that in essence no longer exists, and its boundaries have become blurred.

YT: As you mentioned, most of the West End was razed in the 1960s. What was the neighborhood like 100 years ago, compared to today?

AS: Prior to the "urban renewal" of the West End in the early 1960's, the neighborhood was much like the densely settled North End and South End of Boston. It was a distinctly urban neighborhood, with an overlay of 18th, 19th and 20th century housing, places of worship and institutions. It was a densely settled area and ethnically, racially and religiously diverse.

YT: What are some of your favorite pieces of West End history?

AS: The aspect of settlement houses interests me in the West End. Amy Peabody House and West End House are two places that provided outreach to all members of the West End community, from children at storytelling hours to adults performing in theatrical performances to raise money for the houses. These settlement houses began the Americanization process of many who were immigrants, and assimilated those who had moved to Boston.

YT: How did you research the book? What sources did you use in the community?

AS: I was kindly assisted by Joseph LoPiccolo who is the historian of the West End of Boston. He was not only helpful with stories and assistance in trying to pinpoint photos in a now "lost" neighborhood, but he loaned many photographs that the West End Historical Society had collected and received as donations from former "West Enders." These photographs chronicle not just a lost neighborhood, but the thriving streetlife and activity there.

YT: You've also written about other Boston neighborhoods like Dorchester and East Boston. As an author and a historian, what stands out to you about the West End? What might people be surprised to learn?

AS: I've written 63 books on Boston, the neighborhoods and some of the surrounding cities and towns, but what stands out in my mind about the West End is the sense of rememberance. The West End of Boston was a thriving, diverse neighborhood that truly was a cross section of the city, and though they were forced to move after the area was declared a "blighted slum," the former residents never lost sight of the fact that they would always be "West Enders." That sense of loyalty and connection amazed me, even decades later.

YT: Any must-visit places in the West End?

AS: Places one should visit in the West End are the Old West Church, the Otis House (now the headquarters of Historic New England,) the Massachusetts General Hospital, Charles Street Station and St. Joseph's Church. These spots remained in a neighborhood that was almost entirely swept away, almost like anchors in a changing world.

This book "Boston's West End" is a tribute to a lost neighborhood of the city of Boston, but it also shows that urban renewal was changed. The rich overlay of a thriving nexus of cultures may have been forced to move through eviction, but it survives in the hearts of former West Enders and their families.

The illustrated lecture on Boston's West End neighborhood, part of the Victorian Society, New England chapter's annual meeting, will be at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 26, at Beacon House, 19 Myrtle Street. Admission is free.

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