Lecture at Atheneum Explores Evolution of West End Over Past Nearly 400 Years

For his sold-out lecture on Friday, Dec. 1, at the Boston Athenaeum, Bob Potenza, the curatorial manager for the West End Museum, will discuss how that neighborhood has changed and evolved over the course of the last nearly 400 years.

​In 1625, William Blaxton (surname alternately spelled ‘Blackstone’) first settled where the West End is located today. He was soon joined by Puritan settlers during their great migration to Boston, which took place roughly between 1630 and 1640, said Potenza ahead of his ‘The West End: 400 Years of Urban Development’ lecture.

Irene Shwachman, ‘The West End. 18th and 19th Century Buildings,’ 1959, courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

​As the Puritans took a closer look at the West End, however, they soon realized its geography, in close proximity to the three steep hills that then comprised the Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the Mill Cove, a tidal basin of the Charles River, was less than inviting. The Puritans subsequently opted to settle on the east side of the Shawmut Peninsula, near Boston Harbor and a supply of fresh water.

​“The West End became an industrial area because the Puritans thought it was like the outskirts of town,” said Potenza.

​Early industry in the West End started in 1643 with the damming of Mill Cove, which soon became home to two mills amid copper works; distilleries; and numerous ropewalks – specialized buildings where rope was manufactured.

​The West End was also “more spacious” in that the area could accommodate more space for buildings, said Potenza, so the area was transformed into an industrial zone with little settlement. And as several bridges across the Charles River were built, the West End opened up as a gateway to the city, especially along Cambridge Street, added Potenza.

​In 1807, the decision was made to fill in Mill Pond, said Potenza, since the mills had by then closed while the pond itself became a stagnant pool filled with industrial waste and discarded animal carcasses.

​It subsequently took around 20 years to fill in Mill Pond, said Potenza, with some of the fill coming from the lowering of Beacon Hill, which subsequently “flattened” the Hill so more homes could be built in that neighborhood.

​As a “chief alderman” for the City of Boston at that time, Charles Bulfinch was involved in  this process of infilling the West End, and as a pioneering architect, he would also design the new area which would become ‘Bulfinch Triangle,’ said Potenza.

​The West End would then go on to become what Potenza describes as one of the “largest and most diverse” immigrant neighborhoods of its time.

Tenement housing was “very important” to the evolving West End neighborhood, said Potenza, as “tenements eventually became a symbol of slums.” And this stigmatization of tenement housing subsequently helped pave the way for urban renewal in the neighborhood in the 1950s and ‘60s.

​While the West End was originally abandoned by the Puritans as an unfit place to live, its proximity to the Charles River and downtown Boston would make the neighborhood desirable place for living by the middle of the 20th century.

​Potenza’s discussion will additionally touch on the demolition of buildings and relocation of residents that came with urban renewal. He will recount how former West Enders organized to help “win” property back from Charles River Associates, the owner of Charles River Place, to get West End Place built. Potenza describes the construction of West End Place, which is now home to the West End Museum, as “really symbolic of old West Enders returning to the neighborhood.”

​“It was a big win for them getting a space for the museum in the early 1990s,” he said.

​Meanwhile, Potenza describes of the “underlying theme” of both his lecture and a new permanent exhibit that will be unveiled when the West End Museum reopens in March is to “create awareness that development is constant, and that people need to be aware of what’s happening in their community, if they want to have a say in what happens [there].”

In anticipation of Potenza’s lecture, Sebastian Belfanti, executive director of the West End Museum, wrote in an email: “WEM is very happy to collaborate with the Athenaeum on their ‘Developing Boston’ exhibit and to provide programs in support of it. It’s wonderful to have them giving West End history greater visibility.”

Potneza’s lecture is the latest of several programs offered by the Athenaeum in conjunction with its “Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman Photograph A Changing City” – an exhibit running now through Dec. 30 in the Athenaeum’s Calderwood Gallery. (Visit bostonatheneum.com for more information.)

During the mid-20th century, two photographers, Abbott and Shwachman, captured Boston’s developing landscape. Abbott, an acclaimed photographer, produced a 1934 photographic survey of Boston’s 19th-century buildings, and 25 years later, Shwachman, a lesser-known yet crucial city chronicler, began “The Boston Document” (1959–1968) – a self-directed photographic series that chronicled Boston’s redevelopment, according to Lauren Graves, curator of this exhibit, as well as the Athenaeum’s assistant curator.

“Photographing at different times in Boston’s history, Abbott and Shwachman’s series each explores ways of viewing, dissecting, and preserving Boston. ‘Developing Boston’ invites visitors to explore Boston’s past, present, and future, and find their place within the city,” wrote Graves.

Next up for programs offered in conjunction with the ongoing ‘Developing Boston’ exhibit is ‘Photographic Coordinates: The Geographies of Abbott and Shwachman’s Boston,’ set for Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 6 p.m. at the Athenaeum. At this time, Garrett Dash Nelson, president and head curator of the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, will “examine both how the sites captured by these photographers did (and did not) cover the various spatialities of midcentury Boston and share historic map collections, which put this moment of urban change into its geographic context,” wrote Graves.

The Athenaeum welcomes people of all abilities; email [email protected] with any questions.

To register for and to learn more about the Atheneum’s upcoming lecture, ‘Photographic Coordinates: The Geographies of Abbott and Shwachman’s Boston,’ visit https://community.bostonathenaeum.org/s/events?event=a2K8a0000077kVG..

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