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Tiny Story: Memories from the South End

Memories from former South End residents Judith Nee and Isabel O’Hara
Images from Neil Kadey and Judith Nee
Written by Judith Nee and Ava Yokanovich

*Personal stories and pictures depicted here were done for the explicit use of the Boston Preservation Alliance website article as of August 5, 2021. Any further use must be done with permission from Judith Nee and/or Neil Kadey or their executors*

 

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Above photo from Neil Kadey

We sat down with Judith Nee and her mother Isabel O’Hara, who grew up in the South End. Isabel lived there from when she was born in 1936 and moved when she got married in 1952. She shared with us memories of her and her family’s time there, which began in the 22 acre section known as the New York Streets. Oral histories like this one are valuable for remembering the ways in which the built environment once functioned and looked.

Judy explains, “The New York Streets — Oneida, Oswego, Seneca, Genesee, Rochester, Troy — were named for the destinations of the trains situated at the nearby depot on Kneeland Street. These trains would play a role in my family’s livelihood as time went by.” In the 1950s, the New York Streets and tenements were demolished for urban renewal by the Boston Housing Authority. The New York Streets neighborhood is now the site of the Ink Block development, and once spanned from the train tracks at Albany Street to East Berkeley.

 

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Above photo from Neil Kadey

Judy’s great grandfather worked as a painter and painted the Old South Church around 1910. Shortly thereafter, he passed away, of what was much later determined to be lead paint poisoning. Isabella was left penniless with five boys under the age of twelve. With no social service agencies available to help at the time, the boys had to drop out of school to spend their days along the train tracks that ran nearby in hopes of salvaging coal for heat. Neighbors on the New York Streets took care of her as best they could. Generations later, Judy is still friends with descendants of these neighbors. Judy shared the picture above, saying “Stacey and Debbie are on the right, sisters and great granddaughters of the family that helped my great grandmother survive many years ago.” It is clear that there is long-lasting camaraderie among these prior residents – an indication of a lively neighborhood. Judy explained how their families have been intertwined for decades, saying, “We are still friends with these people generations later. One was my mother’s maid of honor when she remarried in the ‘90’s; I vacationed recently with a great-great grandson and his family.”

Judy explained what happened next, saying, “Somehow, through the beneficence of neighbors and the strength of five sons, within the decade Isabella was able to purchase a building at 2 Acton Street, a small angled street that ran from Washington to Bradford Street between Dover (now East Berkeley) and Waltham streets. They said goodbye to the New York Streets but not their neighbors, as the family that they had known from their village back in Italy and who helped them through their family crises, also bought a home on Acton Street. Things were looking up in the world for these one time mountain peasants. The ‘House’ as it was called became the central station for all things family, food, fights, and friends.”

 

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Left: Family members in front of “the House.” Photo from Judith Nee
Right: Family members inside “the House.” Photo from Judith Nee

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Left: Acton Street in 1938. Image from Atlascope Boston
Right: Acton Street today. Image from Google Maps

The whole family referred to Isabella’s home at 2 Acton Street as “the House,” and it was the place where they would meet up. These images show family members in front of and inside “the House.” It is now the site of Wilkes Condos. Judy’s grandfather and his brothers were able to purchase four buildings in total on Acton Street where they all raised their families. However, by the late 1960s, a second wave of urban renewal started after the destruction of the New York Streets and more buildings would be torn down each week. This was when their family homes on Acton Street were taken by eminent domain. Isabel’s grandmother and great aunts had to be escorted out of the buildings as the wrecking ball waited to tear them down. Later, they picked through the rubble and saved some of the bricks. The bricks that were salvaged from Acton Street were used on the frontage of a family building later purchased on Hudson Street. 

 

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Left: Buildings at the end of Bradford Street near Shawmut Avenue. Photo from Judith Nee
Right: Bradford Street today. Photo from Ava Yokanovich

Eventually, protesters put a stop to the destruction but it was too late for Isabel’s family. Isabel explained that they were paid practically nothing for the buildings, and expressed sorrow for the people who lived, worked, and invested in the community for decades and were left with nothing to show for their efforts. When their homes on Acton Street were knocked down, thankfully Isabella was able to buy a building on Bradford Street. 

 

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Left: Alleyway running between Bradford Street and Shawmut Avenue in the 1950s. Photo from Judith Nee 
Right: Alleyway today. Photo from Ava Yokanovich

These images show the alleyway running between Bradford Street and Shawmut Avenue in the 1950s and today. The kids would cut down the alleyway to go down to the ‘House’ from the back, relocated from Acton to Bradford Street in the ‘70s. Isabel expressed how nice of an area Bradford Street was in her childhood and through the ‘80s, with kids gathering to play while adults would line the sidewalks to mingle and watch their kids. She explained, “games of kick the can and stick ball would go on for hours on Bradford Street.” Isabel’s family was part of this close-knit neighborhood, with her aunt and cousin living in 34 and 36 Bradford Street. Isabel also recalled pleasant memories of the rivalry between kids who lived on Bradford Street against kids who lived on Hanson Street, saying they would have big snowball fights. 

Isabella’s family continued to live, work, go to school, and raise their own families in the South End right up until the late ‘90s when the last 95 year old great aunt passed away. Family property was sold to finance nursing home bills while younger family members moved out. Fewer and fewer familiar faces populated the streets and blocks that her family had inhabited for nearly one hundred years. Social service agencies existed to help those in need but the neighborhood network of social and emotional support no longer did. While Isabella’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren created their own cache of memories unique to those lucky enough to grow up in close, urban quarters among multi-generational groups, her bloodline has come to an end in the South End. 

 

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Left: Corner of Shawmut Avenue and Union Park Street, now the site of Kava
Right: In between a Lebanese club and candy store, now both the South End Buttery
Photos from Neil Kadey

The Union Park Spa, referred to as “the Spa,” was a popular hangout spot that functioned as a coffee shop and a pizza place. Judy shared details of the candy store, saying that it had a copper cash register and that a cat sat near the window.

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The South End Buttery today
Images from Google Maps

 

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Last days of the Checker Smoker coffee shop
Photo from Neil Kadey 

The Checker Smoker coffee shop, which closed in the 1970s, was located on the corner of Dover and Washington. Judy explained how it was a neighborhood gathering spot for coffee and gossip. In the late 1960s, they were going to raze the entire Washington Street area but only got as far as the present site of Peters Park. 

 

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The Cyclorama and Calderwood Arts Pavilion today
Photos from Ava Yokanovich 

What is now the Calderwood Arts Pavilion was once the National Theatre. It was a popular hangout spot and was referred to as the “Hash House.” Isabel explained that the theatre would change their feature movie 3-4 times per week, so Isabel, her sister, and friends would go 3-4 times per week!

 

Acknowledgements:
 
Special thanks to Judith Nee and Isabel O’Hara for sharing their stories with us. Judith and Isabel remain close to the city, living in Winthrop. Without their valuable insights and generosity this story would not be possible. 

*Personal stories and pictures depicted here were done for the explicit use of the Boston Preservation Alliance website article as of August 5, 2021. Any further use must be done with permission from Judith Nee and/or Neil Kadey or their executors*
 
Thanks to Neil Kadey, who shared these valuable photos with us. You can see more of Neil Kadey’s work at NeilfKadey.com. He is a recent resident of Shawmut Avenue with family roots to the area since 1915.
 
Work in Progress:
“The ‘House’ — A Cookbook of Food, Family, & Friends: 
A taste of the old South End and all its flavors!”
Email: judithnee@comcast.net for further info
 
Further Reading:
New York Streets Exhibition at the West End Museum
 
BPA Advocacy Projects in the South End:
One Cumberland (220 Huntington Avenue) 
85 West Newton Street (Villa Victoria Center for the Arts)
Shawmut Design and Construction Headquarters, Office Renovation
316 Shawmut Avenue
Alexandra Hotel

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