Tucked in between Beacon Hill and the North End, the West End is one of the most affordable neighborhoods within the 'Boston proper' section of the Shawmut peninsula.
Transformed by urban renewal in the 1960s. The lower prices are in large part because the neighborhood lacks the historic charm and architecture that make the surrounding neighborhoods so desirable. The West End and Government Center are two of Boston's historic neighborhoods that were almost completely demolished during the misguided period of urban renewal. If the historic neighborhood had remained intact, or if the federal funds had been used to improve the neighborhood rather than demolish it, then the existing buildings would likely have been as valuable as the surrounding neighborhoods today.
Strongly shaped by urban renewal. Part of the West end is just across Cambridge Street from Beacon Hill, drawing a stark contrast between the most-intact historic neighborhood in Boston and the one almost completely destroyed during Urban Renewal. While Beacon Hill only began to be developed in the 1790s, the West End is actually older than Beacon Hill. Although looking at the neighborhood today, it would be difficult to see this, as almost every historic building was demolished in 1958, and the current building built shortly after.
The West End is well-served by transit, and contains the North Station transit hub. At the north end of the neighborhood, there is a Green Line stop (Science Park/West End), while North Station connects to the Green and Orange lines, as well as the Commuter Rail. On the south side of the neighborhood, there is a Red Line stop (Charles St./MGH) and a Blue Line stop (Bowdoin).
The West End is, naturally, the western end of the Shawmut Peninsula. To the south is Beacon Hill; to the east are Government Center and the North End. To the west, across the Longfellow Bridge, is the East Cambridge neighborhood of Cambridge, and to the north is Charlestown.
Today, the West End is perhaps best known for its almost complete demolition during the misguided urban renewal of the 1950s and 60s. However, it is one of the oldest neighborhoods of Boston – but much of that rich history was obliterated through that demolition. The images of that vast and almost complete obliteration of a lively historic neighborhood were one of the most chilling images of America's urban renewal.
Boston was founded in 1630, and the early development was centered on the Shawmut Peninsula, and what is today the North End. During the 1600s and for much of the 1700s, the West End was still farmland.
Several of the surviving historic streets in the West End began as unnamed paths connecting the farms and pastures of the 'New Fields' or 'West Boston,' and were gradually named for the landowners. These include Phillips Street (named for Zachariah Phillips, c.1658), Lynde Street (Simon Lynde, c.1667), Staniford (John Staniford c.1718), and Russell (James Russell cir.1743),
Bowdoin Square, where Cambridge and Green streets diverged, was developed as the entrance to West Boston. It was previously known as the Field Gate. Today, only the Harrison Gray Otis House survives as a reminder of the mansions which once lined Bowdoin Square.
One of the first new immigrant groups to settle in the West End was the Irish. The economic and political environment in Ireland, especially the potato famine, created the conditions for the first large Irish immigration to Boston beginning in 1845. After briefly passing through the North End, many Irish families moved on to The West and South ends. The West End soon developed a thriving Irish community. By 1880, a new native-born generation of Irish descendants had a secure place in the community while retaining a distinct group identity.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish immigration had slowed and Eastern European Jews began to immigrate into the West End in large numbers. Many came to escape persecution in Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. They formed a community in the West End and became a significant part of the population by 1910. They made their home in the neighborhood, constructing health centers, libraries, labor unions, loan societies, orphanages, and synagogues.
After 1900 the West End was the most densely populated area of the city (174 persons per acre). MORE ON THIS, compare it to Lower East Side ... and today's stats.
All of this bustle ended in the late 1950s, when the West End was completely razed to make way for an "urban renewal" project that replaced all of the West End's homes and stores with superblocks of luxury towers and highways. Here's a view of the West End before demolition:
The West End's brick apartments and neighborhood stores were replaced with "superblocks" lined with luxury high-rises. To this day, there are virtually no businesses in the new West End, other than a few medical offices. Rather than a destination, the new West End feels more like an oasis. People live in the West End, but virtually no one from outside the neighborhood comes in, largely because there is no reason to. As opposed to the bustling center the West End once was, today the West End is a very quiet, largely ignored section of Boston.
While the West End was a heavily utilized commercial center that thousands of Bostonians called home, many outsiders did not view the West End as favorably as its residents and customers. Politicians and upper-class Bostonians generally viewed the West End as a slum, despite its residents not viewing it as such, which ultimately led to the neighborhood's razing. In general, the West End's residents were happy to live there, and when it was decreed that the West End would be razed a vast majority of residents unsuccessfully protested for the plans to be abandoned.
Will Urban Renewal Ever End?
Boston was scarred by eminent domain 50 years ago. Now it’s debating whether to wind down City Hall’s urban renewal powers, or whether they can be used for progressive ends.
“Nobody believed they would do it, that they would take a whole neighborhood,” Campano recalls. “Then the cranes came in, and the bulldozers.” The first demolition hit like an earthquake: “The whole block was swinging back and forth.”
In 1958, in one of the most infamous acts of America’s urban renewal era, the Boston Redevelopment Authority seized nearly all of the working-class West End, evicted its last 7,500 residents, and razed it all to make way for new middle-class apartments. “It felt like they took part of you when they took your neighborhood,” says Campano, who co-founded the West End Museum to commemorate his lost piece of Boston.
Last September — 57 years later — came a historic postscript to the story. Brian Golden, the director of the BRA, spoke at the West End Museum’s opening of an exhibition on urban renewal. Before a crowd of 50, the head of the agency that demolished the old West End made amends.
“The BRA of today does not condone the destruction of neighborhoods and the displacement of residents that happened in urban renewal’s wake,” Golden said. “And I want to offer my heartfelt apology on behalf of the agency to the families of the West End.”
Campano, now 75, stood and acknowledged the historic moment. “That’s the first time I ever had a formal apology from the BRA,” he says. “I think they were sincere.”
But Golden had another motivation besides facing history’s wrongs. His speech was part of an intense campaign to keep the special urban renewal powers that the powerful BRA has exercised in parts of Boston since the 1950s. Those powers, which were set to expire this spring, include a bundle of revitalization tools used in many other American cities. But they also include eminent domain, the same power to seize private property that a previous generation of city leaders abused.
Boston officials argued that it’s a new day; that the city’s ugly history of eminent domain abuse is now decades in the past, and that today’s urban renewal can be a powerful tool to encourage and preserve affordable housing. Yet Golden and his boss, Mayor Marty Walsh, asked City Council to hand the BRA a blank check for another 10 years — and not in the most struggling parts of today’s Boston. Instead, the $50 million agency asked to retain its powers over most of the same neighborhoods the city declared blighted a half-century ago, including places transformed by Boston’s real estate boom, where home sale prices have soared far past $1 million.
That request sparked an intense debate about the future of redevelopment in the booming city, home to one of the nation’s strongest urban economies. It’s a debate that is relevant to other cities, particularly those searching for tools to help ensure that the benefits of economic growth are felt in all quarters.
Can urban renewal powers — infamous for harming neighborhoods and their most vulnerable residents — finally be used in a way that is fair for all communities?
Or are they outdated, still prone to abuse, and likely to give powerful bureaucracies a way to perpetuate themselves?
“Most of the legacy of urban renewal in Boston, at least in the public consciousness, is very negative,” says Boston City Council President Michelle Wu. “It’s a story of displacement and government overreach.” Though skeptical of urban renewal, Wu forged a compromise in March: The council gave the BRA six more years to use its special authority, but with new oversight that nudges it to wind it down. The biggest reason for the long ramp, says Wu, is to give the agency time to figure out how to roll back its powers in a way that preserves existing affordable housing agreements.
“Will there be a day that an agency will ask to eliminate some of its powers?” Wu asks. “I hope the answer would be yes. But I know it will take significant outside pressure and oversight.”
In other words, it takes extraordinary effort to rein in extraordinary power.
Progressive Intentions, Vast Authority
Brian Golden works in a corner office on Boston City Hall’s top floor, nine stories up. From tall glass windows, he gazes down on Revolutionary-era Faneuil Hall, redeveloped in the 1970s as a BRA project, and across downtown to the Long Wharf, where ferries sail out to the Boston Harbor islands. On one wall, he’s put up a classic Boston poster from a reelection campaign for James Michael Curley, the city’s political boss of the early 20th century. “The Mayor of the Poor,” it reads. “Humane, Experienced Leadership.” It’s the perfect symbol of progressive intentions crossed with vast authority.
As BRA director, Golden has the most powerful job in City Hall besides the mayor’s. The BRA, founded in 1957, isn’t just an urban renewal agency. It’s also Boston’s planning department and economic development corporation, and it approves or rejects all large-scale development proposals in the city. During Mayor Tom Menino’s 20-year reign, critics claimed Menino used the BRA to personally control what was and wasn’t built in the city. The agency used urban renewal to help luxury and nonprofit projects alike: a W Hotel downtown, the Whittier Street Health Center in lower-income Roxbury, and Kensington Place, a 27-story, mostly high-end apartment tower erected in Chinatown despite neighborhood opposition and in another unpopular move, used its power to raze a historic theater. Walsh, who succeeded Menino, ran for the job on a promise to reform the agency.
Golden became director when Walsh took office in January 2014. Since then, he’s been on a mission to convince Bostonians that the agency is changing.
“The destruction of people’s homes and neighborhoods is not something people got over easily, nor should they,” Golden says. “There’s no one at this agency who thinks the approaches taken in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were appropriate. [And] the political reality of Boston in the 21st century would never permit that.”
Golden’s September talk at the West End Museum was just one stop in a yearlong campaign to convince Boston not to let the BRA’s urban renewal powers expire. “In recent decades,” he argues, “this agency has used these tools in a far more nuanced manner, that has yielded far more good for the people of Boston than not.”
Urban renewal zones, he notes, give the BRA more power to create affordable housing requirements on land it sells. That’s a key goal in Boston, where the poor, working class and middle class alike are in danger of getting priced out of the city. Those restrictions — land disposition agreements, or LDAs, for short — stay with the property, and the BRA can use them as leverage decades later. A housing nonprofit recently replaced its aging apartment complex in Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood — a product of 1960s urban renewal — with a new apartment and condo development, thanks to a land swap the BRA helped negotiate with Harvard University. Golden says the BRA can even use urban renewal tools to extract funds from a luxury project to benefit an affordable housing project. For instance, affordable housing requirements attached to a high-end residential and office tower project near Boston’s North Station were used to help subsidize a middle-class housing development nearby. (In Boston, developers are so focused on building high-priced homes that city officials don’t just look for ways to encourage affordable housing for the poor, but also “workforce housing” — homes that people who work in the city can afford.)
Golden says the BRA hardly ever uses eminent domain to take an occupied home or a place of business anymore: “It’s an extraordinary rarity.” Boston’s most notable recent takings, in 2011, were nothing like the West End. The city forced two businesses in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, a high-poverty neighborhood, to relocate to make room for a new Boston Public Schools headquarters, and a few blocks away, it wrested a neglected historic home from its owner to hand it over to a preservation group. More often, say Golden and his staff, the BRA uses eminent domain in even smaller, surgical ways: for a temporary construction easement, to enlarge a sidewalk, to let a developer install an awning above a public right-of-way.
The BRA has other special powers inside the city’s urban renewal zones that help solve the dilemmas of building new in an old city. It can more easily buy and sell land, assemble and combine parcels from different owners, and clear a property’s title — especially important in Boston, says Golden, where some parcels’ histories go back to the 1600s. Developers can do that on their own, but it’s more difficult. With urban renewal tools, Golden says, “we can make really significant problems go away.”
The way Golden describes it, modern urban renewal in Boston sounds progressive — enlightened, even. But there’s a problem. The BRA only has these powers in places where, long ago, it found blight. So why don’t the powers move out of now-rich neighborhoods as the city changes?
The answer is rather embarrassing for the BRA. It has lost track of those LDAs it created. It doesn’t even know how many there are — several hundred, maybe. Figuring it out will take intense dives into old paper documents. But many LDAs were set to expire along with the urban renewal zone they’re in, so ending the program in a zone would have consequences the BRA can’t explain.
What’s more, “we could not easily identify everything we own,” says Golden. Even the BRA’s database of land it still owns has gaps.
“Why have all these things been neglected?” Golden asks. “I don’t know. I wasn’t in a decision-making capacity.” (He joined the BRA in 2009 and got the top job five years later.) “But it’s crystal clear, the agency did not focus itself on the task of preparing for urban renewal after the expiration.”
The BRA says it may take two years to finish a complete inventory — and until then, it can’t plan to shrink the city’s urban renewal zones. That stymied urban renewal’s critics on the city council, who had hoped to do just that. By acting as if urban renewal would go on forever, the bureaucracy succeeded in keeping its extraordinary powers.