The West End Museum had been on my birthday to-do list for a few years, and I finally made it there this year. All I knew about the West End before my visit was its general location in the city of Boston and that actor Leonard Nimoy had grown up there.
I was not expecting to learn a tragic story.
The West End was a bustling, crowded community of immigrants. The Irish started settling there in the 1850s. Then the Eastern Europeans came. Then the Italians came. Some African Americans also settled there. It was a community of the working poor. From what I read in the museum, all of the different ethnic groups lived together harmoniously. Apartments were small, so people hung out on their front stoops and street corners.
In the 1950s, the West End became a victim of “urban renewal.” The city of Boston started redeveloping neighborhoods with federal funds. The West End was in need of a makeover; buildings were run down and the narrow streets were a fire hazard. Residents were displaced but they were told that new affordable housing would be available, which would allow them to return.
See where this is going? Former residents couldn’t afford to return. And as it was, they were paying higher rents for substandard housing wherever they had been displaced.
This redevelopment plan was poorly implemented and affected thousands of people. Their community was ripped away from them and many were traumatized.
This tragedy happened 50–60 years ago and former residents still have a bond with their neighbors and with their neighborhood. The West Ender is a quarterly newsletter published by a former resident through which people share memories and search for long-lost neighbors and classmates.
But back to the museum itself. It consists of two large rooms. One room houses the permanent exhibit, which tells the whole story and includes many artifacts and photos. The other room houses rotating exhibits. The current exhibit when I visited highlighted the history of the West End’s schools. The Abiel Smith School was one of the first public schools for black students in the United States. The Wendell Phillips School was one of Boston’s first integrated schools. The Somerset Street School was the first public kindergarten in the United States. English High School was one of the first public high schools in the country. Impressive, no?
I’m glad that this museum exists, so the history of Boston’s lost neighborhood is not forgotten.