Remembering the man who destroyed the West End – Universal Hub

A neighborhood of 7,500 people bulldozed. From Boston City Archives.
Jerome Rappaport died the other day, and the Globe had a glowing obituary, complete with a quote from the mayor, about his decades of philanthropy and as a builder who helped shape the Boston of today.
But as CommonWealth Magazine alerts us, they really glossed over the thing Rappaport is perhaps best known for, something that to this day serves as a cautionary tale for urban planners across the country: How he replaced the West End with those “If You Lived Here” towers.
West End Museum.

Moooooooooo – before there was Devin Nunes’ Cow …
7500 people was a medium sized regional city where I spent much of my childhood. When a rural city is wiped off the map it makes headlines – displacement of just as many lower income city dwellers? Not so much.
Thank you for posting this. I was half way through the obituary before I remembered why I knew is name. These two essays should be run in the Globe as a correction. Rappaport’s legacy does indeed endure, but in the worst possible way.
wThe fact that this guy Rappoport destroyed Boston’s West End on the pretense that he was going to renovate the housing for the people to live in, but displaced them instead, and replaced the housing with these really huge, unattractive high-rise buildings was rather disgusting–and an atrocity.
Moreover, along with other things such as the blockbusting of Mattapan, which was a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, thus displacing people and creating a ghetto in its place, the destruction of the West End helped lead to the horrific resistance of white working class people in Boston to outsiders, and integrating Boston’s public schools through mandatory school busing, as well as other badly-thought out urban renewal policies.
Do you even know the meaning of the word?
I challenge you to drive through Mattapan. True, some properties may be ‘distressed’ as in many of Boston’s neighborhoods, but for the most part, Mattapan is a solid working- and middle-class neighborhood with triple deckers and stately single-family homes. All constructed with solid bones and beautiful woodwork.
~ Great-grandaughter of man who helped construct much of Mattapan and Dorchester.
POINT: Stop referring to places you don’t even know as a ‘ghetto’ just because white folks don’t live there.
Driving through Mattapan today (which I do quite regularly; it is, as you describe, for the most part a solid neighborhood) doesn’t tell you very much about what Mattapan was like in 1970, which is the period to which the poster was referring. Developers, brokers, banks, and others did real damage to Mattapan in the late 1960s, to the extent that calling 1970 Mattapan, “a ghetto” isn’t way out of line.
Yes, destroying residential neighborhoods and displacing people in favor of massive development is unfortunate.
But white people choosing to leave neighborhoods because they don’t want Black neighbors is not white people being victimized.
… into selling up by real estate investors. Particularly the elderly and not so affluent Jews. It’s well documented.
“The Death of an American Jewish Community” by Hillel Levine. Available at the BPL. A good read.
…and do some reading on how the term “ghetto” was applied to Jewish neighborhoods at times in history.
for correctly reporting this asshole’s monstrously destructive impact on his city
if he even lived here
probably lived in the burbs
a pox upon his heirs, for eternity
…. his son attended Beacon Hill Nursery School with me in the Old West Church while he tore down the West End around us.
They may have been on South Russell for a bit.
His son was my friend but a real wimp. Just being his father’s son was pox enough.
Live Long and Prosper. The great Leonard Nemoy of our West End. And let’s not forget Olmstead and Norm Levenson who also left a legacy of beautiful things in our city for everyone to cherish for years well after their death.
Joseph E. Levine, Sumner Redstone.
Nearly hurled while reading it – they made it sound like destroying a vibrant neighborhood was a good thing. I was an Urban Studies major across the river in the late 1970s and, yes, the West End was major topic in several of my courses.
Not sure but as I recall, the West End demolition came about because of Federal Urban Renewal dollars. Mayor Hynes (like many mayors of the day) took advantage of that money to try and jump start development and reinvestment in the city when suburban sprawl and white flight, block busting, etc. was draining people and money from older cities. The city took the land by eminent domain, raised the buildings and put the redevelopment out to bid. Rappaport and his company was the winning bid. He did not demolish the West End, although that would complete the morality play narrative, in actuality he built Charles River Park, what on paper was supposed to be replacement housing for the displaced West Enders, an urban village with modern housing, open space and amenities. But by the time it was done, the West Enders were scattered to the four winds, a similar thing happened in many other urban renewal cities, NYC for example (I suspect there wasn’t really a meaningful effort by the City to bring them back), MGH workers snapped up the housing and it became the enclave it is today. I don’t think Rappaport was the villain here so much as another idealistic planner/city builder who thought he could save a dying city and build a lasting legacy that would be widely celebrated. There are plenty of case studies and books on this out there and I’ve read a number of them and this is what I came away with, not so much a good vs evil, but shades of grey and mostly well-intentioned people (although there are a few cads as well) a little too confident in their ideas to see the downsides. idk?
Yes. Many were fearful that Boston was in free fall and no one had really encountered urban decay on such a large scale. The city and state didn’t know what to do. They had this crazy idea that they just had to cut out what they believed was necrotic tissue to save the body. In hindsight it’s truly horrifying, especially knowing the North End was the next on the chopping block. I read a quote somewhere that a planner wished a massive earthquake would level the city so they could build it anew. I honestly believe they thought they were saving the city but man, they fucking botched it. Even Hynes admitted it before he left office.
Yes, despite Rappaport’s role, it was not a one-man job. There were plenty of other people whose signatures were on the contracts that made the West End demolition and rebuilding happen.
in actuality he built Charles River Park, what on paper was supposed to be replacement housing for the displaced West Enders, an urban village with modern housing, open space and amenities. But by the time it was done, the West Enders were scattered to the four winds,
In actuality, Rappaport’s team was allowed to revise their original proposal, to dedicate 1000 housing units as affordable for displaced West End residents. Instead they built the entire project as luxury housing. West Enders “scattered” because there was no place for them to live.
The Rappaports promised displaced residents that they would have housing in the development, and backed out of that?
The West End was far from an idyll to be certain, but it was clearly a land grab meant to enrich a few at the expense of the poor. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Why are government-approved projects based on verbal promises? What was promised, by whom, and how was it supposed to be enforced?…
When Boston was an urban oasis.
Actually, Boston was very much a dying city that was experiencing massive disinvestment, and population loss. I once had a loan officer from a local bank offer 5 abandoned properties in a block in Dorchester for $20 thousand, total. I watched what I thought was construction activity from my porch. They were stripping the pipes and wiring from a 3 decker. Arson was a regular activity.
Businesses and people were scrambling to leave.
This was the situation faced by Hynes, Logue, Rappaport and others.
I won’t defend the errors that were made, and there were many, but it is helpful to understand the problems Boston faced at the time that explains some of the decisions made and actions taken.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Excellent point. Boston could of ended up like 1970s New York burroughs. Or Detroit. Or Oakland, CA. Maybe it IS good to be the city of no drinking and riding train after 10 PM but a place of super smart people who are confident enough to not dress well but rather stack in their bank account.
City employees are required to be Boston residents (with certain exceptions). Requiring residency for City employees was a way to keep part of the middle class from fleeing the City in those days. Now it’s a bit outdated what with housing affordability and gentrification being key concerns.
FWIW that’s also why city leaders were fine with so many students living off campus until recent years — demand from students for off-campus housing also helped to stabilize Fenway/Kenmore, Allston/Brighton, Mission Hill, and even Beacon Hill and the Back Bay.
The actual reason for the residency policy is that City employment is a transactional relationship, in which you get a job in return for you and your extended family supporting the mayor’s re-election. People who don’t live and vote in Boston are unable to hold up their side of the bargain and are therefore obviously ineligible for employment by the City.
Ah, Universal Hub as a blunt instrument.
This is a really interesting discussion. I remember when “urban renewal” was universally considered a good thing, but also TV coverage of the people who were being moved out, who were in despair and furious. Property owners may have compensation but, as far as I know, the renters got nothing.
I also remember when Boston felt like it was bleeding out, so I can maybe see why Hynes and others were so eager to tear things down.
Urban renewal was great for different people. It gave local politicians the opportunity to feed their developer comrades. It fed into the stereotype that urban = bad (the suburbs would never have organized crime or strip clubs, would they?). Urban renewal permitted gutting cities, to make them even more ineffective. The massive projects of urban renewal was to sacrifice urban areas for the benefit of the new way of living, the suburbs.
Imagine JP today if the highway had gone through? That would have left a huge scar on JP and probably resulted in creating a new impoverished area. How long would people want to continue living near a highway that effectively slices a neighborhood in half?
Baltimore’s versions of urban renewal included stabbing a giant knife in the oldest part of the city. Sacrificing a neighborhood that in some ways has a richer and more interesting history than wealthier neighborhoods. That attempt at city homocide failed thank goodness. And ironically that neighborhood (Fell’s Point) and east of Fell’s Point have actually increased in value.
The scar of I83 did a great job of carving a swath of dead asphalt from north to south. Made getting out of downtown easier (until it became another parking lot during rush hour). But again this was a highway not built for the benefit of the city but for the benefit of people who worked downtown and then disappeared in the evening for the burbs.
Finally the beauty marks of Robert Moses. Had Moses with his vision of urban renewal not stopped he would have sliced Manhattan in half. He already tried to slice The Bronx. Why not do the same with Manhattan?
When I’ve walked through the current West End I am always impressed by thin sense of life in the area. Tall buildings, public areas that look fairly clean and well tended. I am sure lots of people live in the buildings. Yet the area seems abandoned even at high noon. A lively dynamic neighborhood is like a body. The organs are the buildings, the veins and arteries are the streets. The blood that flows and nourishes the vitality of the neighborhood are the people on the street, visiting local stores, chats with neighbors, just being present on the street level. Street and stoop life.
In spite of an architecture that heavily favors developers the Seaport was at least designed to realize that a lot of tall buildings, without street life equals a dead area. Whether the Seaport can be a neighborhood for families, for creating local neighborly culture is another question. But at least its street life is alive instead of feeling like an area that was put in suspended animation as does the West End areas of big buildings and little to no street and stoop life.
A vow to never let it happen again. And that’s why we don’t have a superhighway tearing through the heart of neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Roslindale, JP, Roxbury – and Cambridge and Somerville: Residents rose and fought the planned inner-belt highway network and the governor at the time stopped construction (although not until after large swaths of Roxbury and JP were destroyed – and some of those empty parcels remain empty to this day).
Gov. Sargent didn’t stop them from finishing 93 through Somerville (though he did stop the Inner Belt).
Many are now have housing. I can think of 3 off the top of my head. The green areas that (I believe) can not be built upon (they’re above the tracks) are another silver lining to the destruction already wrecked upon JP.
So Mayor Collins could tear THAT down in his bid for the 1964 World’s Fair.
Oversimplified but true
The large building at top left of the photo – near the North Station RR tracks and the future location of Nashua Street Jail – I see that in some of the old atlases as Massachusetts Department of Public Works.
I’m assuming this was the pre-Mass Highway DPW. It looks enormous for an area office (which one of my older neighbors was over on D Street), and 2002 Sanborn calls it State DPW offices. Was this a pre-Park Plaza headquarters?
and it stayed around much longer than the West End did.
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