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The demolition of the West End

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In the 1950s, the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) announced plans to "redevelop" the West End, a working-class, largely immigrant neighborhood. The BHA described the West End, a primarily residential area, as overcrowded.

By Anna Boyles

Immigrants from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe made the West End their home beginning in the 1800s. At the time of the announcement in 1953, the BHA declared that 25 percent of West End residents were immigrants, mostly from Italy, Poland, and the U.S.S.R. In addition, 37 families were described as non-white. Studies were conducted on the quality of living in the neighborhood by the American Public Health Association Committee on the Hygiene of Housing and reports indicated that around 63 percent of dwelling units were of substandard quality. Specifically, these studies reported that many of these dwelling units had poor lighting and air quality, which could make people sick, and were unsafe in emergency situations, such as fires. Boston decided that the best idea was to level the entire neighborhood and “begin anew.”

Barton and Leverett Streets, July 19, 1959.

Residents of the West End began receiving eviction letters in 1958 and very soon demolition of the neighborhood began. Where would these West Enders move? Would they be able to return?

West End project area looking northeasterly, circa 1959-1964

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, which took over the redevelopment activities of the BHA, assured residents that, “The families displaced by the project will have first preference in the new dwelling units.” The majority of residents in the West End were working class and had a lower income than the average Boston resident. Fifteen years after the demolition began, the only residential buildings that had been constructed in the West End were six luxury apartment towers, not the kind of housing the former residents would have been able to afford.

The federal census reported that the population of the neighborhood in 1970 was estimated to be about 2,000 residents. This number was a substantial drop from 12,000 residents, the number before the redevelopment project plan was announced.  In 1986, the Old West End Community Development Corporation and The West Ender newspaper conducted a survey. Its goal was to discover the housing needs of displaced former residents of the West End. Among former West Enders, just 31 percent remained in the City of Boston. The rest moved to the suburbs of Boston or to other towns in Massachusetts; a small number moved out of state. At the time of this survey, almost three decades after the redevelopment project began, an overwhelming 91 percent of respondents said they wanted to be able to return and live in their old neighborhood, the West End.

For further reading on the West End redevelopment project, see the Boston Housing Authority's West End Project Report.

This post was written by Anna Boyles, a student in the History 380 (Fieldwork) Class at Simmons University. For more information about this class's work studying the history of the West End, see our introductory post to this blog series.