What was Boston like in the [recent] past?

KriterionBOS

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Originally Posted by kmp1284
Tallest outside of NYC within North America. Tall building don't make for great cities in and of themselves. Boston was a cesspool in the 1960s. A hundred Prudential Towers wouldn't have changed that at the time.
This is from a different thread, but I was wondering. What exactly made Boston a "cesspool" in the 1960s? Was it organized crime? Poverty? Poor economic times?

Also I was born in Fenway in 1983 (well we lived in Fenway but I was born at the Brigham). What was Boston like in the early 1980s? Whats better now? Is anything worse?
 

vanshnookenraggen

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The thing you gotta understand is that the Great Depression hit Boston in the 1920s and lasted until the early 1960s. It was in the 1920s when the Irish finally took hold of power in the city and the Brahmin basically packed up and fled to the suburbs taking their taxes and investment with them. After WW2 and the rise of the highways the suburbs sucked out even more of the tax base. This happened all across the country but what helped Boston bounce back was the fact that you still had these solid institutions of higher learning left. It wasn't until the 1960s when the Irish political machines' powers began to wane when you had new thinkers come in. The reason there are so many Brutalist building in the city is a direct result of this new wave wanting to try something new and, to use a modern idea, brand Boston as cutting edge. Urban renewal did a lot of terrible things but it did have the desired effect of getting private companies to start investing back in the city. (This is the very quick and dirty history lesson).

Was Boston worse in the 1980s? Well consider that the BRA was basically giving brownstones away for $1 in the South End to anyone willing to move there for a year. Things were terrible but also this wasn't unique. Most large American cities had had so much of their tax base drain into the suburbs by the 1980s that most inner cities were completely dilapidated. It took a new generation, starting in the 1960s and 70s, to gentrify these areas. There are very good reasons why neighborhoods have nicknames like Stab-en Kill or Mission Kill. I don't know any old timers in Boston anymore but the ones I talk to in NYC, ex cops and whatnot, have nothing good to say about what inner cities were like.
 

Beton Brut

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Please read this book. I won’t tell you it contains any answers to your question, but it may inspire more questions about Boston and the wider world.
 

Charlie_mta

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I'm 68 and remember Boston of the late 1960's very well. I used to work summers while in high school at the old 125 High Street Travelers Insurance Building at Cabot Corporation, a program that Cabot Corp had established to help kids from low income families.

I remember vividly the feeling in Boston in the 1960's; a feeling of hope driven by a courageous vision for the future, a palpable excitement in the air. The vast urban renewal West End and Government Center projects, the construction of the elevated Central Artery prior to that, the Mass Pike Extension, the Pru Center; all were intentional shocks to revive a city savaged by white flight to the suburbs and the increasing loss of heavy industry to the South and third world.

Of course, in hindsight the urban renewal was overreaching, but I'm sure that the vital Boston we have today is largely a result of these life-saving measures in the 50's and 60's that shocked the city back to life.
 

statler

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What was the did people think of the North End back in those days? Was it a slum? Did people think they were crazy for resisting urban renewal?
 

Justin7

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I'm sure that the vital Boston we have today is largely a result of these life-saving measures in the 50's and 60's that shocked the city back to life.
Is there any evidence supporting this? It has been my impression that cities have crawled their way back despite these measures, rather than because of them.
 

JeffDowntown

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What was the did people think of the North End back in those days? Was it a slum? Did people think they were crazy for resisting urban renewal?
The North End was certainly run down, but I think a number of the neighborhoods avoided urban renewal because they were run by strong mob families, specifically:

North End
South Boston
Charlestown
 

JeffDowntown

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Is there any evidence supporting this? It has been my impression that cities have crawled their way back despite these measures, rather than because of them.
I don't believe that most of the urban renewal was helpful, but some parts clearly jump started Boston's revival, making it "investable" again.

A lot of the most important investments were infrastructure related (spanning the 60's, 70's and 80's):

Turnpike Extension into Boston
Prudential Center (rail and Turnpike decking, healing a huge gash in the urban fabric, the old Back Bay Freight Yards).
Red Line northern and southern extensions
Orange Line northern and southern relocation, including Southwest Corridor Park decking
Copley Place (rail and Turnpike interchange decking, healing another big urban fabric gash).
Harbor Cleanup (Deer Island Treatment Facility, stormwater intercepts throughout the region).

And more recently the Big Dig, healing the harbor -- downtown connection and opening up the Seaport area as well as dramatic improvement of Logan Airport access.
 

tobyjug

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Being of similar vintage to Charlie, Boston of that era is a living memory rather than something in a book. His description is accurate.

To Statler's question, the North End was a living ethnic enclave, just another neighborhood where my Italian school chums happened to live, just like my Irish ones lived in Charlestown. Mobs? Yeah, you heard about it, but most of the kids in school who progressed up the criminal chart (e.g. sold firecrackers in 9th grade, betting cards in 10th, pot in 11th, hard drugs on the corner thereafter) weren't from there. The kids from Southie were too mental to be pals.

Anyway, watch the old Prince Spaghetti ad on Youtube, and that's about it.
 

statler

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I guess my question would be, had the West End been left to it's own devices would it have become the same kind of trendy neighborhood that the North End is today, or would it have remained a slum?

Were the two neighborhoods just fundamentally different or was the poor West End just never given a chance to reinvent itself like it's neighbor?
 

tobyjug

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If it went its own way, maybe you'd have had a core of a downtown Jewish neighborhood the way you've got the core of an Italian one in the North End. (Old school Blue Hill Ave, Morton St, Allston...too far out to be analogous.)

That would have been cool. But who knows, it might have ended up being a few token old time bagel, blintz and blini joints surrounded by hipster hangouts.
 

Charlie_mta

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Were the two neighborhoods just fundamentally different or was the poor West End just never given a chance to reinvent itself like it's neighbor?
I remember reading articles in the Boston Globe at the time the old West End was being replaced by Charles River Park in the mid 1960's. Charles River Park's intent was to bring back suburbanites, by creating a suburban neighborhood in the city.

As I recall, the old West End was in worse shape than the North End. Thus, the West End was vulnerable to being cleared out for an urban renewal project.
 

Justin7

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I don't believe that most of the urban renewal was helpful, but some parts clearly jump started Boston's revival, making it "investable" again.

A lot of the most important investments were infrastructure related (spanning the 60's, 70's and 80's):

Turnpike Extension into Boston
Prudential Center (rail and Turnpike decking, healing a huge gash in the urban fabric, the old Back Bay Freight Yards).
Red Line northern and southern extensions
Orange Line northern and southern relocation, including Southwest Corridor Park decking
Copley Place (rail and Turnpike interchange decking, healing another big urban fabric gash).
Harbor Cleanup (Deer Island Treatment Facility, stormwater intercepts throughout the region).

And more recently the Big Dig, healing the harbor -- downtown connection and opening up the Seaport area as well as dramatic improvement of Logan Airport access.
I will grudgingly admit that the mass pike possibly did help to jump start reinvestment.

I wouldn't really consider anything else you listed to be "urban renewal." This all just standard growth and development, no? I'm thinking more along the lines of Government Center, the west end, and not the Big Dig but the elevated central artery it replaced. I guess this is more of a semantic discussion, but doesn't urban renewal imply destruction?
 

JeffDowntown

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I will grudgingly admit that the mass pike possibly did help to jump start reinvestment.

I wouldn't really consider anything else you listed to be "urban renewal." This all just standard growth and development, no? I'm thinking more along the lines of Government Center, the west end, and not the Big Dig but the elevated central artery it replaced. I guess this is more of a semantic discussion, but doesn't urban renewal imply destruction?
The usual definition of urban renewal is the removal of "blight." (I think it is literally in the legal empowerment.)

Things like empty rail yards, open air highway interchanges, rail lines that cut off neighborhoods certainly qualify as blight.
 

Beton Brut

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What was the did people think of the North End back in those days? Was it a slum? Did people think they were crazy for resisting urban renewal?
Though I **haven't read this book, here's one account from a Harvard fellow, circa 1943.

** "Willfully avoided" is closer to the truth.

Jane Jacobs' take in Death & Life... (via Wikipedia):

...in 1959 the North End's "streets were alive with children playing, people shopping, people strolling, people talking. Had it not been a cold January day, there would surely have been people sitting. The general street atmosphere of buoyancy, friendliness, and good health was so infectious that I began asking directions of people just for the fun of getting in on some talk."

Being of similar vintage to Charlie, Boston of that era is a living memory rather than something in a book. His description is accurate.
Alas, I was a kindergartner at the in the era dominated by Judge Garrity's ruling. I certainly experienced its echos throughout my six years at Boston Latin School. I grew up in a dispossessed neighborhood of an angry, fearful, and deeply bigoted city. I had to leave to understand it. I returned to make a life here, and so many of my personal decisions revolve around making Boston better than how it's remembered.

Things like empty rail yards, open air highway interchanges, rail lines that cut off neighborhoods certainly qualify as blight.
Not blight, but an invitation to blight. The same could be said about the growth of Logan Airport and its effects on East Boston and the surrounding communities.
 
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FK4

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Please read this book. I won’t tell you it contains any answers to your question, but it may inspire more questions about Boston and the wider world.
I started Common Ground, but it was one of those books I started just before some busy period so I put it down and had to plan to return at a later date. The first 20 or so pages were excellent and it's in the massive stack of 'to be read'.

I had made a thread a while back about books on Boston, so anyone who wants to chime in should do so there as well. I would just say here, though, that Building a New Boston gets meticulously into how the city was struggling in the 1940s.

There really isn't any simple answer to the past or the present (or future): there's absolutely no question the city was in bad shape before urban renewal and we need to be careful to not romanticize poverty and disinvestment, nor ignore the fact that many urban projects were probably indispensable in getting money flowing back here. I don't find it helpful to judge the decisions of the past; it's pointless, and you can never fully judge another's actions, anyway. The best we can do is try to figure out what's best now, which is always a moving target... and to not be too rigid about our beliefs.

Romantic or not, if you want a truly delightful loveletter to the city, this book is marvelous... and it talks about what was great about the old city, without romanticizing anything that would now be considered verboten, naive, or result in the usual blacklisting that occurs these days with alarming alacrity.
 

CSTH

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I guess my question would be, had the West End been left to it's own devices would it have become the same kind of trendy neighborhood that the North End is today, or would it have remained a slum?

Were the two neighborhoods just fundamentally different or was the poor West End just never given a chance to reinvent itself like it's neighbor?
It can be argued that the north slope of Beacon Hill (between Cambridge St and Pinckney) was really the southern half of the old West End neighborhood.

Remember that all the mansions and stately homes that we associate with the Beacon Hill aristocracy are on the South Slope, closer to the Common - but the North Slope is an entirely different environment, a warren of small apartments and pedestrian-scale alleyways, with a number of huge multi-story bump-outs looming over the sidewalks and many corner-post entreways to ground floor bodegas, laundromats, etc.

There are also of course some vestiges of the old jewish community there too - notably the Vilna Shul temple on Phillips St. And remember that before Cambridge St was widened in the 1920s, it would not have felt like obvious dividing line between two different neighborhoods like it does today - instead it was just the main drag at the heart of a neighborhood, sort of like Hanover St is in the North End.

So.. clearly there were many many factors at play over the decades - but if the narrow question is, "could the actual built environment of the West End have been rehabilitated to be a trendy high-rent neighborhood with a lot of character and a very high quality of life?" .... then the answer is definitely yes, because ... that's what actually happened between Cambridge St and Pickney....
 

curcuas

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If the West End were less renewed, I'd imagine it would end up like the core of the lower east side in NYC - some Jewish institutions remaining with more until rather recently and the rest becoming an immigrant neighborhood.
 

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