West End

The old West End was isolated by the extensive destruction resulting from the widening of Cambridge Street in the 1920s. In 1958, the Boston Redevelopment Authority seized the area by eminent domain, displacing its 7,500 residents, and leveled the area to launch one of the first federal urban renewal projects. Writers at the time compared the scope of destruction to Boston's 1872 fire.

Few remnants survive of the old West End's teeming street life and intimate lanes lined by three and four-story brick row houses and tenements. It was a neighborhood that, like the North End, was the first American home for countless families of immigrants. The West End Museum provides exhibits on the history and architecture of the area.

A generation of sociologists studied the impact of the redevelopment on the people who were forced to relocate, and much social-planning theory has its roots here. Sociologist Herb Gans lived here during the renewal and wrote: “The West End was not a charming neighborhood of ‘noble peasants’ living in an exotic fashion, resisting the mass-produced homogeneity of American culture and overflowing with a cohesive sense of community. It was a run-down area of people struggling with the problems of low income, poor education and related difficulties. Even so, it was by and large a good place to live.”

Questions about the proper role and authority of the BRA are ongoing: Can urban renewal powers — infamous for harming neighborhoods and their most vulnerable residents — 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 Or are they outdated, still prone to abuse, and likely to give powerful bureaucracies a way to perpetuate themselves? See https://nextcity.org/features/view/boston-city-hall-urban-renewal-redevelopment-authority to learn more.