THINKING ABOUT THE OLD SOUTH END
I found myself recently over at the “new” South End Branch Library on Tremont Street on Feb. 27 to attend the latest The South End Writes/ The Library Invites author series. Oh, by the way, I called the library new because I remember the old one on West Brookline and Shawmut Avenue next to the Bath House. It was in the basement of a yellow-brick building and super large and quiet, too.
Okay, back on ranch, the author invited was Lauren Prescott, the executive director of the South End Historic Society, about her new book, “Boston’s End,” a neighborhood history in postcards, based on the historic society’s collection.
The community room was packed with an overflow crowd outside near the staircase downstairs. The diversity of the group was clear to the eye. There were many new folk there who love today’s South End and simply wished to know more about the rich history of their neighborhood. There were also many folks like myself who grew up there back in the ’50s and ’60s, some of whom never left and others like myself who moved away but held on to their South End roots.
The talk by Lauren was a great overview of the South End, how it began, how it grew and how over time its demographics were continuing changing. Here’s a short history lesson. Once there was no South End, it was basically water, then they filled it in, they built housing, then it turned wealthy, then it turned poor and now it has turned well off once again.
The audience this evening many who grew up there back in the ’50s and ’60s remembering loving the place and we all seemed to have overlooked the struggles our parents face and actually appreciate the South End of today minus of course the housing prices and rents.
Every neighborhood deserves a good historic society to show the historic vitality of where they live or lived. My South End started in 1948 when I was born there and my parents lived on East Canton Street. A few years later, it was on to East Springfield Street where I spent much of my growing years.
I remember the two First Nationals and Folsom’s up by Northampton Station. I remembered that dented-can supermarket near West Concord Street almost directly across from the Diary Queen by East Concord Street. We got our ice cream there, but never bought our milk at the dented-can supermarket. We had a great hardware store on Washington Street called Seigals (I think this is the correct spelling of the store)?
The center of my South End was Boston City Hospital on Harrison. I had two Catholic churches to go to and where I was an altar boy. There was the Immaculate Conception, and there was also St. Philip’s Church up on Harrison Avenue by East Lenox Street. St. Philip’s also had a second church building called Old St. Pat’s, it was one of the oldest Catholic churches in Boston serving the very large Irish immigrant population in the area.
My piece of the South End was attached at the hip to Lower Roxbury up by Blanchard’s and the Green Shoe Factory. We never exactly knew the actual border between both, but we always thought it might be Johnny Corey’s that had the longest curved bar in Boston.
While on one side of Mass. Ave was a little United Nations, the other side pretty much Italian American. I enjoyed those long ago days in both the South End and Lower Roxbury. We all went to the Puritan Theatre on Washington Street for 20 cents on Saturdays for those double features and where the manager knew you by name and your parents, too. So you didn’t mess up there.
We had lots of barrooms. There was Smith & Sheehan’s, aka The Bucket of Blood, a gentrified drinking hole today. There was the 12 O’Clock Lounge, a condo building today. There was the Cafe Rendezvous where you know who “rendezvoued” there. Plenty of coffee shops and drugstores.
I worked at the City Spa Cafeteria in Worcester Square between 1966-72. It paid my college tuition, too. You learn lots about people waiting on them at the counter. Next-door was Sidney’s Hospital Pharmacy. Across the street was the Colonial ands next to that was Bernstein’s where everyone drank their lunches.
At the library talk, old timers talked about the good old days like when the horse stable on West Canton caught fire killing a number of horses, burning down the place (1961). We reminisced about the Franklin Square House, and I reminded everyone of that ugly in-fill house that the government put up on an East Springfield Street about 1962. This was the government’s then answer to housing for the poor, but it was so ugly the idea died on the street. Ironically, today it is an Airbnb for rich people who can have this old relic.
I will be assisting the South End Historic Society soon because remember I am not getting any younger. We all have an obligation to impact the past to the future. See you at the next author’s night at the “new” library. I could say “small,” too.