Corner of Spring and Chambers Streets in Boston’s West End, 1910. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library.
Once an outlying rural peninsula, the West End became one of Boston’s legendary immigrant districts at the turn of the twentieth century. Expanded through landfill in the early 19th century, the construction of the railroad and accompanying industries attracted thousands of immigrant workers and residents, including Irish, Jews, Italians, and Poles. When its population declined after World War II, the West End became the site of the city’s first major urban renewal project, one that razed and ultimately transformed the neighborhood beyond recognition.
During the colonial era, the West End was an outlying rural peninsula separated from the more populated North End by Mill Pond. Its residents were mainly farmers, but also included operators of gristmills, ropewalks, and distilleries. The development of Beacon Hill and the West Boston (Longfellow) Bridge attracted affluent Yankee residents in the early 19th century, as well as a small population of black Bostonians who settled on the adjoining north slope of Beacon Hill after the state outlawed slavery in 1789.
In the 1810s and 1820s, the city launched it first major landfill project, filling in Mill Pond and adding fifty acres to Boston’s downtown and West End. In the 1840s, a railroad terminus was built on the site (North Station), which soon attracted dozens of smaller industries and new workers. These developments coincided with a surge of Irish immigration driven by the Great Famine, and Irish newcomers soon poured into both the North and West Ends. Looking to maximize profits, local landowners subdivided older family homes into tenements and boarding houses. By 1850, the Irish made up a majority of the West End’s population, and their numbers continued to grow for the next thirty years.
Population pressures increased after 1880 as newer Jewish, Italian and other immigrants moved into the neighborhood, displacing many of the older Irish and black residents. Jews from Russia, Poland and other parts of eastern Europe were the largest new group. By 1910, they made up roughly a quarter of the population of the West End and supported more than ten synagogues. Southern Italians and Polish Catholics were also well represented, along with smaller groups from Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Hungary. During these peak migration years, the West End became a crowded district as landowners tore down old wooden homes and replaced them with four and five-story brick tenements. New construction filled up nearly all available land, giving the West End the second highest population density in the city.
After World War I, Jewish West Enders began to disperse to the more suburban districts of Roxbury and Dorchester while the Italian population grew. By the 1950s, the neighborhood was predominantly Italian-American, but its population declined as the younger generation moved to East Boston and adjoining northern suburbs.
During these years, the city targeted the West End as one of the first of many federally funded urban renewal projects designed to eliminate “slums” and revitalize the downtown economy. Facing relatively little organized resistance, the city began demolition in 1958, displacing 12,000 people from the 48-acre site. Most of the West End’s working-class residents left the area permanently, unable to afford rents at the new luxury highrises of Charles River Park. Today the foreign born are among those who live in this transformed West End, but they are more educated and highly skilled than earlier West Enders. Many come from Asia, particularly India, and work in the nearby Massachusetts General Hospital medical complex.
Fisher, Sean M. and Carolyn Hughes, eds. The Last Tenement: Confronting Community and Urban Renewal in Boston’s West End. Boston: The Bostonian Society, 1992.
Sarna, Jonathan D. and Ellen Smith. The Jews of Boston. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2005.
Woods, Robert A. Americans in Process: A Settlement Study. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902.
See also: The West End Museum at 150 Saniford Street in Boston, which has extensive collections and exhibits on the history and culture of the city’s old West End neighborhood.