West End Removal – Tessa Harlow

Like any neighborhood, the West End evolved over time with the change in demographics to the area. When fewer, wealthier people live there, the streets were open and houses were larger. As those people moved on to more ‘posh’ areas, the West End became more dense and more multi-family homes were put in to hold the increase in residents. Synagogues and catholic churches were added to fit the needs of this new, diverse population.

An example of this change can be seen in the Old West Church. Originally, the church was Protestant, more specifically Congregational. It existed that way, serving the Christian Community in the area for quite a while, until, with the influx of immigrants to Boston, the community makeup changed, and there was no longer the same need for a Protestant Church. Instead of keeping building for its original purpose, with almost empty pews or having it demolished, the Old West Church was purchased by the City of Boston and changed into a library to support the community of the West End. It remained this way until 1960 when there was no longer a community to support, in which it was purchased by the Methodist Church. The Old West Church stands as an example of how buildings can adapt and be sculpted to fit many needs.

The West End’s physical attributes were what gave the City of Boston and its officials the idea that it was a ‘slum’. The streets were narrow, which was cause for concern when it came to emergency vehicles attempting to maneuver between them. On top of the tight squeeze between the streets, there were also always children about in the streets, a relatively common occurrence in most urban neighborhoods. Another reason the City cited was the status of the houses and apartment buildings themselves, which had fallen into disrepair. Buildings falling into disrepair is common in lower income areas, especially when there is less political pull in an area. Immigrants will commonly have less of a political voice, largely due to the fact that noncitizens aren’t allowed to vote in Boston. This lack of power ties with the likelihood that they are less likely to have the means to fix it themselves. Apartments also had a tendency to be packed with residents, as extended family may be living in one home. The City used these reasons to seize the land through eminent domain, as the neighborhood had become unsafe to continue to live in. But while Boston officials saw slums, the residents of the West End saw a diversely woven community, where the different backgrounds came together to live, and yes, many also saw these issues, but they hoped that instead of completely removing the community they had developed, that Boston would help in making the area better to live in.

The clearing of the West End can be loosely compared to the clearance of homes in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain to make room for the expressway that would eventually become the Southwest Corridor Park. In the mid-20th Century, Boston started addressing many of the transportation issues that were plaguing the overcrowded city. One of these fixes was going to be The Inner Belt Expressway, an interstate that would loop around Boston and Cambridge, as an expressway connecting parts of the city, with branches then extending out to other cities nearby, one of those being the Southwest Expressway. This expressway would have been a direct link from southern Boston to downtown, and to do so a large number of houses were bulldozed to make the space. This caused a huge controversy and a large protest from the communities of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. These protests led to the project being halted, and eventually canceled entirely. In the expressway’s place, the MBTA’s Orange Line was moved to follow the path and a park called the Southwest Corridor, was built alongside it. A large difference between the West End and the plans for this expressway were the way the community surrounding it handled it and the eventual outcome. Many West Enders have been quoted with not completely understanding the project that was going to happen in their neighborhood. They saw these issues that the city was citing but there was an assumption that the area would be fixed or brought up to code and then they would be allowed to come back to their neighborhood. This, tied with their lack of political power, led to the West End community not realizing the end product of the project until it was too late. The Roxbury and Jamaica Plain communities had slightly more of a political voice, and in general, the expressway was effecting a larger community than the small West End.

The clearance of the West End opened up space to fix a transportation issue that was jamming Boston. At this edge of Boston, many roads and connection points converged and by freeing up the land they were able to dig down, up and out to make the roads go in the directions needed. The hospitals were able to expand to fit their growing needs and developers were able to offer grand, river views from tall high rise apartments. While there were benefits for the Boston Community (of mostly higher wealth) at large, the urban renewal left the West End as a no longer connected community that no former residents could still afford.


West End Museum
Otis House Museum
West Ender Newsletter
Sammarco, Anthony Mitchell. Boston's West End. Arcadia, 1998.
Fisher, Sean M., et al. The Last Tenement: Confronting Community and Urban Renewal in Boston's West End. Bostonian Society, 1992.
Fisher, Sean M., et al. The Last Tenement: Confronting Community and Urban Renewal in Boston's West End. Bostonian Society, 1992.