Finding Government Center: Looking West

| March 17, 2014 | 2 Comments

“If You Lived Here… You’d Be Home Now”

That’s what the billboard said anyway, and they had a point.

Looking at the sign while sitting in rush hour traffic really did make you want to live there, wherever there was. I was probably only 10 or 11 when I first saw that sign, but to the thousands of people passing it by at an inches-per-hour velocity it must have seemed like a rather cruel reminder of just how long they had been sitting in their cars. If you were from Boston, however, the billboard was a cruel reminder of something else entirely.

The first problem had already been solved.

Kane Simonian, Chief of Urban Renewal at the Boston Housing Authority looked out across an empty expanse of dirt and broken timber.Before the demolition, this place would have looked a lot like those tangled streets of the North End. Brick buildings, the crisp chatter of young Italian families, even a prominent Jewish synagogue (and not a few Irish pubs) all adding to the cosmopolitan, almost European sense of place. But a slum was a slum, and what became of this particular slum was the first test of Simonian’s new organization, the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

On ground West End

If you’re having trouble orienting yourself you’re not alone. Try using the Custom’s House (back left) as a marker.
Photo taken by Kevin Lynch and registered with MIT Libraries

In 1953 the BHA had a sweeping vision of what the West End – a poorly understood neighborhood wedged between affluent Beacon Hill and fellow slum the North End - could be. Modeled on the ideals of what a proper city should look like, their master plan called for the development of fifty percent of the area into high-rent apartments in an effort to attract the wealthy back into the city. Eight percent of the West End’s housing stock was to be maintained “as is” for low rent families and two new schools were to be built, with an existing parochial school given clear license to expand its facilities. Five acres were set aside for light manufacturing, and MGH was given space for expansion in the future. A retail site would round out the 30+ acre redevelopment plot. The goals were simple. Priority one was to stop the massive emigration of the city’s wealthy inhabitants towards the suburbs with a second priority being the rehabilitation of the slum populace into model urban citizens.

In 1957 that particular brand of Boston idealism met with the technocratic vision of  urban planning. The first map of the new West End made an appearance. It was Kane Simonian’s job to make the map a reality.

West End 1957

From the 1957 BRA Report, “West End Redevelopment Plan: Declaration of Findings”. Found using the Internet Archive.

Make it a reality he did.  The first act of the newly established BRA was the complete demolition of The West End. The 1957 master plan for the West End made its 1953 counterpart sound nearly progressive. Twenty roads into three was the new BRA math. Complex algorithms indicating the proper ratio of building height to sidewalk easement became major organization-wide guiding principles. In a process that was replicated all across the country, the cold language of technocrats dictated, very literally, the fate of entire neighborhoods.

West End aerial

For reference their were six census tracts for the West End in 1950. In 1960 there was one.
Photo registered with the City of Boston Archives.

Looking out at the broken timber of the last few West End tenements being torn down Mr. Simonian had mixed feelings. Only a year after the 1957 report had come out, and the demolition had been started, a national backlash faced his new organization. Projects in Sommerville and the South End had been fought off by angry residents organized into neighborhood civic associations. The development of a comprehensive vision of Boston, dependent on a “spine” of skyscrapers running down the middle of the city, had needed the full administrative weight of the city to pass muster. Already the BRA was losing control of the West End. In 1961 the cold math of the BRA was replaced by a terse, two page financial statement detailing the West End’s final conversion into a private development known as Charles River Park.

Federal Grant: $11,300,000.00

A. State Share: 2,700,000.00

B. City Share: 2,700,000.00

Private Investment: $60,000,000.00

Mr. Simonian glanced at the new billboard atop Storrow Drive and sighed. The sentiment “If You Lived Here… You’d Be Home Now” was particularly unsettling given the expanse of empty space that stretched out before him. The latest report to bear his name, a summary of future projects in Boston, emphasized the need for a more comprehensive approach to planning. It was a lesson, he thought, that the BRA needed to learn well. In the same executive summary there was a brief mention of a proposed project called Government Center. For the BRA it was a chance to put the West End behind them.

scar as far-reaching as the West End, however, would not be so easily ignored.

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Category: Boston, East by West by T, featured, Food and Travel

Will Carbery

About the Author ()

Will Carbery studies Chemistry in CAS and is expected (we all hope) to graduate in 2014. When he's not exploring Boston for his series "East by West by T" Will can usually be found fencing or watching Bollywood films, although not usually at the same time.

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  1. Finding Government Center: Closing Down | Culture Shock | March 24, 2014
  1. Tino Bratbo says:

    I still maintain that you should compile your urban planning posts into a book. Or just write a book, period.

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