The home neighborhood of my protagonist Miriam Levine was the West End of Boston, where she was born to Jewish Russian immigrants in 1900. I was looking for a community that was densely populated, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Having lived in the Boston area since I graduated from college, I was familiar with the old West End from architecture and city planning circles. I visited the West End Museum and learned about the history of the neighborhood before I began interviewing people who lived there or knew people who had.
What I found was an amazing array of people of all nationalities whose memory of the place was variously wistful, nostalgic, enthusiastic, mournful. To a person, they had fond memories and stories of how well the different ethnic groups mixed and supported one another. It was anything but a slum. There were Italians, Jews, Romanians. Irish, African Americans and all manner of other nationalities that came in droves in the early part of the 20th century.
Miriam’s family was one of these. All groups gathered at the Elizabeth Peabody Settlement house for activities for children and adults. No one remembered any fights based on ethnic or cultural differences.
Then in 1949 federal money for “urban renewal” came into the coffers of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who determined that the West End was a slum. Within a few years in the 50s, the entire community was razed to the ground, making way for high-rise, hi-rent apartments and displacing a whole neighborhood of working class people who cherished their community. It was a travesty and tragedy, but city planners have since learned something from this gross error.
Miriam’s inclusivity and lack of prejudice likely was informed by her early years in the West End and enabled her development into a “person of substance,” by the end of the 2nd novel, Becoming a Woman of Substance, published in October of 2021.