Time Period: 20th Century
Topic: Remaking Urban Space
For my project I chose to research the Urban Renewal project in the West End neighborhood of Boston in the 1950’s. The American Housing Act of 1949 was passed as part of Harry Truman’s Fair Deal which was an expansion of the federal government’s role in mortgage insurance and the construction of public housing. This act also expanded the financing powers of US government agencies such as the Federal Housing Agency (FHA) which gave private sectors credit to expand housing for the upper and middle classes. The Urban Renewal plan for the West End was originally proposed in the 1930’s shortly after the National Housing Act of 1934 was passed. Boston’s elite were in favor of this plan because they deemed the West End a slum even though they did not live there nor did they have anything to do with it directly. However, at the time, Urban Renewal was not politically feasible.
By the 1950’s, Boston’s West End had turned into a working poor residential area. The working class, largely Italian and Jewish communities, had strong ties to the neighborhood. Many residents agreed that the West End was a good place to live and that area was in the process of “deslumming”. However, the Housing Act of 1949 gave the City of Boston the authority for Urban Renewal in the West End. With this authority came the establishment of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) by Boston City Council. The Boston Redevelopment Authority was the municipal planning and development agency for Boston working on both housing and commercial developments. The West End demolition was one of the first projects that the BRA took on, uprooting the working poor communities. The BRA began the project with the demolition of Scollay Square. Buildings around Scollay Square were torn down to make room for the new government center known today as Boston City Hall. The BRA legitimized this demolition by pointing out that Scollay Square had evolved into a burlesque area and they wanted to get rid of it as quickly was possible. Boston’s most famous theater, The Old Howard, was where the burlesque shows took place. Opened in 1846, it was converted into a theater from a church and it evolved from legitimate theater to vaudeville to burlesque and finally to striptease. The Old Howard was closed in 1953 pending the demolition of Scollay Square. A committee was formed to try and save the Old Howard and turn it into a national theater museum, but a “mysterious fire” gutted it and it was torn down.
Not all urban development was positively received. Many considered the finished Government Center to not be aesthetically pleasing and it was described as an uncomfortable place to be because of all the large, brick high rise buildings. Large groups of working poor were displaced and forced into more expensive housing because of this redevelopment.