Open up any page in Alison Barnet’s newest book ‘Once Upon a Neighborhood,’ and one will be amazed at the snippets of South End history contained in small vignettes on each page – sometime inconvenient pieces of history telling of how rich the South End community was even in the times that people often call the “bad days.”
Barnet’s book is the fourth in her writing career – not counting the many years she spent writing articles and columns for the South End News – but is one of the most unique books she has come out with so far. Staring in the 1600s, she progresses with a timeline that includes rich and interesting facts that go from pirate hangings to mafia hits to tenant strikes to the closing of the last bathhouse.
Some of the entries include one from June 4, 1956 where six years after the Brink’s robbery, agents acting on a tip enter Wimpy Bennett’s key shop at 617 Tremont St. and tear away a piece of the wall to find a green cooler with more than $50,000 in it.
Then, on July 10, 1976, there is an entry about Peters Park being dedicated to the memory of George and Sadie Peters. Their son, Jimmy Peters, owner of Union Park Spa on Shawmut Avenue says it’s the first park in the U.S. named for Lebanese immigrants.
And those are just two of thousands of gems in the book, which goes up to 2015.
“This book is extremely different in a way because it’s completely by time,” she said. “I don’t go into my history about the Franklin Square House. You could say this is impersonal – just the facts, ma’am…You can open any page and see something very interesting you didn’t know before. It’s pretty amazing to read these anecdotes of what the South End used to be. I don’t think a lot of people really want to know this stuff, but it’s documented. I documented it.”
She said she stopped in 2015 because there isn’t much of interest that happened afterward.
“The book starts in the 1600s and people ask me all the time where I start,” she said. “I started there because it’s as far back as I could go and I ended at 2015. It probably shouldn’t even go that far because after that it’s just all the same – luxury condo after luxury condo.”
Part of the mission of the book is to set the record straight, Barnet said in no uncertain terms.
“I am passionate about the history of the South End,” she said. “It’s a personal insult when people say the neighborhood was terrible until they arrived. I hate it when they call it a slum and skid row and it couldn’t have been nice until they arrived. That offends me. This was a wonderful neighborhood in the `30s, `40s, `50s and `60s.
“There is also the full-circle theory that needs to be dispelled,” she continued. “A lot of the new people think that in the 1850s and 1860s the South End was built by wealthy white people and then it went into a slump for decades. Now, that they’re here, it’s coming back to what it was. That’s nonsense. They think everything was terrible until the came on the scene.”
It was with that in mind that Barnet and some friends at the South End Library got together four or five years ago and began assembling little stories in chronological order. After a little while, Barnet took all of the pieces and began putting them in a form to read. Then she realized she needed to fact-check them.
Then she realized she had created a project.
“I became obsessed,” she said. “I said that there’s a lot more to this. The group was supportive of me throughout. They did some editing for me and were very supportive of it.”
Now that she’s completed the book, she said – with a laugh – that she has a lot of time on her hands and not much to do. That will surely change soon, but she does keep occupied with book talks throughout the neighborhood.
Since releasing the book three months ago, she’s had several appearances, including two jam-packed talks at the South End Library before it closed for renovations.
“It was a on overflow crowd and there were people who couldn’t get in at all,” she said. “It seems to be received really well.”