Romanticism or clear vision?
Romanticism or clear vision?
by Alison Barnet
Friday May 14, 2010
I subscribe to The West Ender, a newsletter put out by Jim Campano, a former West Ender now living in Somerville. For him, it’s a labor of love. I admire Campano’s dedication and energy, keeping history and anger alive - and the parallels to South End history are hardly lost on me. Start with the militant words of its motto: "Printed in the Spirit of the Mid-Town Journal and Dedicated to Being the Collective Conscience of Urban Renewal and Eminent Domain in the City of Boston" - not just the West End but the City of Boston. The Mid-Town Journal, published 1938-1966, was put out by Fred Shibley, a South Ender.
While nearly everyone recognizes the huge mistake made in the West End, few talk about the job done on the South End. The demolition of the South End’s residential New York Streets (now an industrial wasteland, anchored by the Herald) was the city’s first urban renewal project, occurring before the demolition of the West End. Castle Square came under the wrecking ball soon after; Urban Renewal took its toll; and then gentrification pretty much finished off the Old South End.
The West Ender makes the past the present. Letter writers inquire if anyone knows what happened to so-and-so with whom they went to second grade at the Winchell School; others ask for information about an old friend whose "heart never left the West End." Every issue carries obituaries of people who may have lived in Maryland, Michigan, or Malden for the last half century but are forever "formerly of the West End."
The most recent issue, full of photos of people who lived in the West End in the Forties and Fifties-people, not buildings-calls it "the most interesting newspaper in the country," pointing out that it manages to connect people without the internet.
In the South End, by comparison, it’s become difficult to find out about old friends. It’s a matter of chance, of running into the right person at the right time. Our numbers have become small, and the lines of communication have grown weak. In February, I was shaken to find out that my friend Peter had died in August. How could that have happened? How could I not have known? Lack of resolution or "closure" with people I’ve seen around for years, knew and liked, makes me grieve, not only for them but for the neighborhood.
The Old South End may have occasional reunions, but, unlike the Old West End, it has no newsletter, no museum, and no annual religious service to which all displaced persons are invited. Does that mean the Old South End has no grief and anger? No collective memory?
The Globe recently ran an article about the West End, the thrust of which was that the numbers of the "old guard" are dwindling, all those obituaries a sure sign. It reported that subscriptions to the newsletter, once 4,400, have dropped to 800, and it questions whether younger people will pick up the story of the destruction of the Old West End with equal passion. I was unhappily surprised to read the remarks of sociologist and author Herbert Gans, who lived in the West End for a year before the bulldozers moved in and is a contributor to The West Ender. "I think anger became an institution," he’s quoted as saying. "It became a neighborhood after it was attacked ... became a romanticized community ... after they left."
Ouch! Is that all the efforts of Jim Campano and his colleagues are about? Have they naively whitewashed the poverty, the hardships, and the divisions between racial and ethnic groups for a romanticized purpose?
Or has Gans lost sight of the significance of intensity and tragedy in bringing people together, especially when outsiders prefer it dead and buried? Isn’t it more likely that, once those who were there are gone, the story of the destruction of the Old West End will be considerably romanticized?
"The displacement of life-long West Enders without any provisions for those forced out still fuels my lasting inner rage," writes "Bomber," a frequent correspondent to The West Ender. "For city hall, the developers and wreckers it was all about money. Our generation were a people who cared less about money than a way of life." A woman who attended the first Old West Ender brunch writes, "It brought back a part of our lives that should not have been taken away for the sake of progress, greed and wealth."
"It’s one thing," writes another, "to leave your old neighborhood, to move on, so to speak. But to be forced out, to have a time and place and space, more than a half century, plucked out of existence, erased like chalk on a blackboard, forever lost, left all of those neighbors living in a kind of irreconcilable time warp of haunting memories and hurt."