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New York Streets

by Alison Barnet
Contributor
Wednesday Aug 1, 2012
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People often say that the demolition of the West End in 1958 was the city’s first urban renewal project-even Old South Enders, who ought to know better. At a March 30 "Sharing Our Stories" event at the Tubman House, Joyce King, who grew up in the South End’s New York Streets, objected to the omission. The razing of her old neighborhood occurred in 1955, three years before the West End. The New York Streets project even predated the Boston Redevelopment Authority or BRA, which wasn’t created until 1957.

There are several reasons the demolition of the New York Streets falls under the radar screen. Nobody wrote about it, at least not sympathetically. All the newspapers backed it. There were no community meetings, no protest marches. No photographer took pictures of children in front of corner candy stores; instead, the prevailing shot was of Mayor Hynes looking up at a wrecking crane poised to begin destruction. There was no relocation program, no psychiatrist to do studies of the grief of those displaced. (Much of this was true in the West End too.)

There’s another reason: "We didn’t call it that." According to Gloria Ganno, who lived there in the Forties and Fifties and is one of the few to write about it, it was just "the South End" or "our neighborhood." It became "the New York Streets" around the time the Expressway was cut through in the Fifties.

The New York Streets, a twenty-four acre residential neighborhood, was bordered by Washington, Albany, Herald, and Dover (now East Berkeley) streets. The Herald plant is the usual landmark. Close to South Station, the names came from cities and towns in New York State-Oswego, Rochester. Some say railroad destinations, others Native American tribes-Oneida, Seneca.

The mix of people was remarkable. "The kids I played ball with were named Cohen, Finnegan, DeCicco, Kowalski and some were Chinese," recalled Mel King, who grew up on Florence and Seneca streets. "They were mostly the kids of immigrants." There were markets of all kinds, including one that sold only lamb; corner stores with character; Italian bakeries notable for big wheels of cheese. There were churches, synagogues, theatres, and houses of prostitution. The neighborhood was so tight-knit that, when Our Lady of Pompeii held reunions years later, Jews came too.

Mayor Hynes launched the "New Boston" in the late 1940s, a slum clearance program to foster development in a city that had seen little change for years. Light industrial and commercial use would replace the New York Streets.

When Mel King was in college, his mother sent him copies of the Herald Traveler’s series on the South End’s "Skid Row." "I was surprised," he said, "because I’d always called it home. But there it was, right in print. . . those articles helped reinforce the attitudes that allowed the city to come in and raze my family’s house" and became a motivating force in his life as a community activist.

"Do you know how they told us to get out? The streetlights went out," said Ganno, who was 15 when her family had to leave. "They turned off the electricity," confirmed Joyce King, 21: "When the neighborhood was closed, when everybody was gone, it was desolate. The settlement houses tried to help people, but the older people, especially the immigrants, didn’t want to move. They didn’t know where to go."

"What happened to the New York Streets was worse than the West End because there was no help," said Robert Glazier, who grew up on Albany Street. "There were women who had been there for years and years and years. Everyone knew each other." His grandmother never recovered.

Today, the Herald site is "Ink Block," Graybar Electric has been sold, and high-rise luxury condos and Whole Foods will follow. Soon, the only New York reference in the former New York Streets will be Manhattan-as in Manhattanization.

Historic plaques are in order. First, for the people mentioned above. Then for the author Mary Antin on Dover Street at the turn of the last century, and the artist Jack Levine, born on Rose Street in 1915, who was famous for his drawings of tough characters. Louis B. Mayer lived on Rochester Street in 1902, shortly before launching his film career, marrying the daughter of the kosher butcher across the street. Frances Slanger graduated from the City Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1937 and was the first American nurse to die at Normandy; her father was a fruit peddler at Oneida and Harrison. Annie McKay, Massachusetts’ first school nurse, cared for children at the Andrews and Way Street schools in the early 1900s. Last but not least, "Ellis The Rim Man" (Morris Ellis) was born in 1900 on Rochester Street.

Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.

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