“My grandmother was originally from the West End,” said Gabriel Distler. “They had a bakery on Allen Street.”
Distler was among a group of Brandeis graduates who had planned to visit the West End Museum in Boston one Friday in August, but did not know that it was a reunion for former residents of the storied urban neighborhood with a significant Jewish population that became a victim of urban renewal in the 1950s.
“Of course, I knew the bakery,” said former West Ender and current Brookline resident Joe Greenberg. “Just walking by it, the smells were good enough.”
Distler, a 2013 graduate with a degree in urban studies and history (who has just written an academic paper on urban renewal in Roxbury during the 1960s), had readily agreed to join the group visit.
“I was recently walking by, and I just like museums,” said Marcie Lieberman, a Lake Worth, Fla., native who teaches history in the Lowell public schools. “I told Gabriel about this place.” Friends Rebecca Cohn and Scott Finkelstein were also invited.
“It is a great lesson in local history,” said Finkelstein.
All except Distler are preparing to sign a lease on an apartment in Allston in September. Cohn, from Fairfax, Va., will be teaching high school in Revere. Finkelstein, a Newton native whose family is not from the West End that he knows of, but who may have some roots in the Mystic River area, will be looking for positions in public health and biostatistics.
“You’re looking at a 63-year friendship,” said Bob Andrews, pointing to longtime pal Greenberg on his right. Greenberg grew up on Charles Street next to the Elizabeth Peabody House; Andrews lived on Auburn Street.
“Normally I was found at the ‘Bucket of Blood,’ also known as the Riverside Tavern, at Auburn and Leverett Streets in the old West End,” reminisced Andrews, now of Brighton, and a Museum volunteer who serves on its advisory board. He said his family relocated to Dorchester in 1955.
Were they warned about the urban renewal project?
“Everybody knew,” said Greenberg, whose family moved to Revere in 1956. “Two people from the Boston Redevelopment Authority came to our apartment and offered us money to leave.” In fact, they went to everyone’s homes, with no luck. “It didn’t matter how much money they offered,” said Greenberg. “Nobody wanted to leave. This was our home. That’s why they had to go to eminent domain.”
Andrews concurred. “It was the best neighborhood this side of heaven,” he said, recalling that the Jewish demographic was the most prominent in the West End until the 1920s, when Italians moved in and became the majority. “But that didn’t make a difference,” he pointed out, “because there were no Jews, no Poles, no Lithuanians, no Italians in the West End. We were all West Enders,” he said.
“There was a common denominator of poverty,” added Greenberg. “It held people together.”
Demolition began in 1958.
Now the big question. Did either of them know Leonard Nimoy? “Both of us,” they responded. “My father was his basketball coach,” said Greenberg.
“Several years ago at a West End House reunion in Newton, Nimoy said that one of the things that children did have in the West End were terrific mentors,” Greenberg explained. “Then Nimoy said, ‘For me, the best was Buddo Greenberg.’ When he said that, I started to cry.”
Greenberg approached Nimoy afterwards. “My name is Joe Greenberg; my father was Buddo Greenberg,” he said. “And then Lenny started to cry,” he recalled. After that, the two kept in touch.
Greenberg saw Nimoy shortly before he died, when he narrated “Out of this World,” a May 23, 2014, Boston Pops program featuring celestially-themed music at Symphony Hall. “He had announced that it would be his last public appearance. And it was, because he died shortly thereafter,” he said.
Before the event began, the two shared lots of pictures. “I could tell that he was wheezing a lot,” Greenberg remembered. “But he must have taken some medication, because his narration was flawless.”
Museum Curator Duane Lucia, a former West Ender who lived by the Vilna Shul, said that at Nimoy’s June 2013 visit to the Museum, he looked well, but at a private meeting just prior to the visit, Nimoy needed an oxygen tank. Nimoy arrived with his director son Adam and a full film crew in tow. (The recollections and videography that they put together can be seen on YouTube.)
Andrews said he did not know Nimoy very well, but his father cut Nimoy’s father’s hair for 22 years. “That’s how I mainly followed his career, through his father, Max,” he said.
Lucia said that during the state’s Jewish Heritage Month next May, the museum will host an exhibit and program honoring Nimoy and Fanny Goldstein, who was the librarian at the West End Branch library and started the National Jewish Book Week program. Other Jewish honorees will be announced. Next summer, another Museum program will showcase Nimoy’s photography. Of the recent Brandeis graduates, Distler most felt that the visit would serve an academic or career purpose. “I want to know more about the neighborhood that I heard my grandmother, her sister and brother-in-law talking about my whole life,” he said.
“And I would like to work to ensure that we don’t make the same mistake twice as was made in the West End,” he added.
“Don’t count on it,” said Andrews and Greenberg in unison.
The West End Museum is located at 150 Staniford St. in Boston. Visit thewestendmuseum.org.