...continued from South End History, Part I: The “New” South End
|Image courtesy of Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.|
Most of the rowhouses in the South End did not remain single-family homes for long. A few major events occurred that were partly responsible for a major demographic change in the South End. In 1872, the Great Fire of Boston tore through much of the city’s commercial and warehouse district in what is today’s Financial District (and Boston’s “old” South End). Many merchants, South Enders included, lost their warehouse stock and business locations in this fire. In addition, the Financial Panic of 1873 struck the United States, causing widespread bank failures. By this time, some Bostonians were ruined, some wanted to move to the newly filled and developed Back Bay to the north and northwest of the South End, and some wanted to take advantage of improved commuter transportation to live further outside of the city.
So what happened in the South End?
Many families left the neighborhood and property values in the area decreased as demand for rowhouses decreased. Tens of thousands of immigrants entered Boston in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and took advantage of the abundance of housing becoming available in the South End. In addition, many young men and women and young married couples from the suburbs or the countryside moved in to the city looking for employment. To supply this demand, many rowhouses were converted to rooming houses, sheltering several families or individuals instead of one family. By 1900, 85% of the rowhouses in the South End were being used as rooming houses, most of which remained rooming houses until well into the mid-twentieth century.
Who was living in the South End?
By the late nineteenth century, the South End housed people from all over the world. Americans, British and British Canadians, Irish immigrants, Jews, Blacks, Germans, and Italians appear on Robert Woods’ map (at left) of ethnic enclaves in the South End in his 1898 study A City Wilderness. By the early twentieth century, large groups of Lebanese, Eastern Europeans, Polish, and Puerto Rican immigrants had also moved into the South End. E.C Dorion’s 1915 study, The Redemption of the South End, states that:
“The largest single factor of the population is Irish, with the Jews second. There are also a large number of British-Americans and Negroes. Side by side with these live, in lesser numbers, but in no insignificant groups by any means, English, German, Scotch, Italian, Greek, Syrian, Scandinavian, French, Austrian, and Armenian. The section also has its Chinatown. In some of the schools every European nation is represented.”
The Boston Daily Globe ran an article in 1907 featuring places in the city where immigrants could go to learn. The article, at right, featured two South End institutions: the Free Trade School for Girls on Massachusetts Avenue and the Boston English High and Latin Schools on Montgomery Street. The McKinley School stands at the English High and Latin site today.
Many immigrant families and poor South Enders needed charitable assistance and could visit places like the Union Rescue at 1-3 Dover Street (renamed East Berkeley Street in the mid-1960s). Settlement houses in the South End also provided assistance and neighborhood services for South End families. They ran many community programs, including boys’ and girls’ clubs, summer camps, arts and crafts classes, English classes, and music classes. The first South End settlement house was founded by Robert Woods in 1891 and several others opened in the last nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1950s, the remaining settlement houses united to form South End Settlements and in 1960 became United South End Settlements, which still exists today.
Where might a South Ender go for entertainment?
They might visit the Gettysburg or Bunker Hill Cycloramas in the late nineteenth century, or one of several theaters, like the Columbia Theater on the corner of Washington and Motte (Herald today) Streets, Castle Square Theater (where the Animal Rescue League stands today), the National Theater (where the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion stands today), or the Puritan Theater near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street.
In the mid-twentieth century, they could also visit one of many Big Band or Jazz clubs in the South End like the Hi-Hat on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday were among the many to perform here. This building burned down in 1959. The Harriet Tubman House stands there today and houses United South End Settlements. Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X, used to hang out outside the Savoy Club, near the present day Massachusetts Avenue Orange Line MBTA stop and currently occupied by a barbershop. Wally’s Café was also a popular club. Founded in 1947 by Barbadian immigrant Joseph Walcott, this club is the only mid-twentieth century jazz club remaining in the South End. Wally, as Joseph Walcott was known, died in 1998 at the age of 101. His daughter and grandchildren operate the club today.
In the 1950s, Boston started to investigate the possibility of rehabilitating certain districts that they thought were run-down with the intention of redeveloping those areas for commercial and residential space. Several potential sites were located in the South End. An urban renewal effort was going on all over the country and was encouraged by both the federal and local governments in many major cities.
Coming soon: South End History, Part III: Urban Renewal...