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5 Good Reasons to Visit the West End in Boston, and 1 Bad One

Dominique is the author of Walk in Boston & Walk in NYC, two sites with 18 self-guided tours to visit Boston or New York on foot.

Welcome to the West End

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An introduction

Let's say you are in Boston or plan to go there and you found on a map that there's a part of Boston called the West End.

It surprises you because you know there's a South End, the artsy neighborhood, and a North End, the Italian district. They are both packed with good restaurants and a lively crowd.

But a West End, you've never heard of it!

And an East End neither as it would be in the sea !

So, should you go there?

People you'll ask will surely say, what for, there's nothing to see. Yet, as the title of this article suggests, there are at least 5 good reasons to go and only 1 bad one.

Let's start with the bad one. If your reason to go is to meet tourists and find attractions intended for them, forget it. The West End isn't a tourist attraction, period.

So what are the 5 good reasons to go there?

This is not a tourist destination so things will be quiet. It is not a tourist destination because it is an example of urban renewal in the 1960s; a living legacy of an intend. It's also an open book of mid-20th century architecture. Yet you'll find quite interesting historical remains. Finally and you have understood it now, it's a visit off the beaten track!

Modern architecture in the West End

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History of the West End

To fully understand the specificity of the West End, a little history is needed.

Until the end of the 18th century, the West End was a small bay at the mouth of the Charles River. The North End and the Waterfront were the places where the population had settled.

Yet space was becoming scare so the wealthiest decided to move somewhere else. The bay had to be filled to make place for houses.

Charles Bulfinch, the first American architect born in the USA, the one to whom we owe the dome of the Capitol in Washington, was responsible for overseeing the work. He built many buildings in the neighborhood and established rules for water drainage and public lighting.

Well-off families therefore settled in the area around the beginning of the 19th century. They did not stay long, though, and migrated to Beacon Hill next door.

Immigrants replaced them in several waves of different nationalities, colors and religions and over about a hundred years. At the height of its urban density, the West End had about 23,000 inhabitants.

In the 1930s, people that were living outside the area began to think it was a slum. Its residents, though, believed it was "the greatest neighborhood on this side of heaven" thanks to its close-knit community.

It is then that the Federal State passed three acts that eventually spelled the end of the West End. The Housing Acts of 1934 then of 1949, both aimed to replace slums with low-rent housing. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 encouraging cities to build roads to relieve congestion in centers.

The West End had small streets, was considered a fire hazard, was overpopulated.

The buildings were razed and modern towers or administrative buildings were built in different architectural styles. Its inhabitants were promised housing once the project was finished but it never happened, there were not enough apartments for everyone.

To see this new West End, Boston Citywalks has a self-guided tour that covers it quite well.

A clash of styles

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What you'll see

Called Walk in Boston # 1, the forgotten West End, it starts in front of North Station in an area called the Bulfinch Triangle.

This is what remains of the oldest part of the West End and there you can see typical Bulfinch federalist style buildings.

You then pass by buildings of a much more contemporary style to reach the West End Museum.

If it is open, go inside, you'll see how the neighborhood was before its demolition. You can also talk to the volunteers who run it and are people who lived there at the time.

Opposite, the last surviving building of this area, "The Last Tenement House", a 4 floor brownstone that escaped demolition for quite unknown reasons.

It now belongs to the city but at one time, the local mafia had its quarters there in order to racket the nearby stores.

It is said it inspired the movie "Up" and if you look around you will understand why: you are surrounded by towers of apartment buildings in a style typical of the 1960s.

A little further, you'll find a pretty Catholic Church, also a survivor, then further and on the edge of Beacon Hill, a federal style church, the Old West Church. This is where the phrase "no taxation without representation" has been coined during the American Revolution.

You then move on to the most architecturally interesting part of the walk; first with an example of brutalist architecture, the Charles Hurley building, then the Edward Brooke Courthouse, a modernist white stones building.

In Bowdoin Square, there's a postmodernist building called One Bowdoin Square and next to it, an art deco one now occupied by Verizon.

At Pemberton Square down the path you'll then see the impressive John Adams Courthouse and its Classical Revival style built in 1885; across the street, the Plaza Center built in the 1960s and said to look like a skyscraper posed horizontally.

Finally, the highlight of the walk once you are in City Hall Square, City Hall itself, another example of Brutalist architecture built in 1968.

It has been said to be either one of the 10 best architectural achievements in the United States or one of the 10 worst.

To better get a sense of it, go inside, local artists works are often on display on the walls.

After that, it will be time to sit down in the plaza in front of the Kennedy Federal building, another example of Modernist architecture, and ask yourself if all these buildings warranted the demolition of the previous West End.

In fact, this urban renewal enterprise is considered a failure: it destroyed a lively district which today would undoubtedly be extremely touristy, and it has become the typical example of what not to do when planning a new city.

Which was well worth a walk to see it by yourself, don't you think?

Inside City Hall

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