Months after the flood, the reopening of the West End Museum is in sight

“We’re ready to go, it’s just a matter of where,” Belfanti told The Globe. “It will probably take two months from when I know I can move into something to when I can put up an exhibit there.”

On a visit this week, water stains were visible on the ceiling and walls. Furniture was stacked in the middle of the main exhibition hall, where piles of water-damaged billboards shared a corner with a collection of rusting bicycles – the remnants of a shortened exhibition, still waiting to be brought back to the Quincy Historical Society, Belfanti said.

In the other room, which housed “The Last Tenement” – the museum’s long-running permanent exhibit – holes in the drywall marked where pictures and information boards hung. Other than a few antique ladders still bolted to the walls, the space was empty.

The museum commemorates a once bustling immigrant community, which was nestled approximately between Cambridge Street and North Station, surrounding what is now the Massachusetts General Hospital complex. Over 60 years ago, the area was demolished by the city to make way for luxury apartments.

In the late 1950s, the city seized properties in the neighborhood through eminent domain and began demolitions in the name of urban renewal, forcing thousands of residents from their family homes. Scollay Square and parts of the South End and Roxbury were also demolished in the 1950s and 1960s.

Nick Juravich, assistant professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the West End project is “a really dramatic piece of a larger story of constant urban renewal.”

“For people who know this city and have been here for some time, the memories of the West End and its almost complete demolition are important,” Juravich said. “It’s a scale on which I don’t think we see the city transforming today.”

Since the museum closed this year, Belfanti said, he has seen an outpouring of support from the community. Through private donations alone, he raised more than $20,000 in the two weeks after the flood, he said, and larger donations continue to come in.

“[Donations] came quickly and made sure we were safe for a few months,” he said. “It was very encouraging.”

For the most part, the museum’s collection escaped safely. Of the several dozen archival pieces damaged by the flood, only about five photos were without duplicates and lost forever. Documents from the on-site archive were already kept in plastic bins to avoid potential humidity, Belfanti said.

He said the flooding happened about a week after the museum’s board approved renovation plans, which would have created a more open gallery centered on a new permanent exhibit about the Winchell School – one of three remaining West End structures to be demolished. in the context of a mass. General expansion.

“We were planning to install a section of the Winchell School floor, blackboards and things like that in an immersive space,” Belfanti said. “That was the plan in this layout, but now we don’t really know what layout we’re going to end up with.”

He said the museum was “talking to a few people” about potential new locations in the West End in case the current space cannot be repaired. In the meantime, Belfanti favors visibility, visits neighborhood meetings and offers walking tours of the old neighborhood. He said interest in tours was strong from April to June – around 400 visitors according to Belfanti estimates – but he said it had waned with the summer heat.

In October, the West End Museum aims to hire three full-time staff and release an updated website, which will include digital access to some of its archives, Belfanti said.

No matter where it ends up, Belfanti said, the museum will continue to tell the story of the destruction of the West End, even after the death of all who lived through it.

“Our goal is to preserve a story, not a specific structure,” Belfanti said. “This story had to start being told to people who didn’t remember it.”

Juravich, of UMass Boston, said his students generally haven’t heard of the West End unless they have family in Boston — the concept is familiar, but the scale is shocking. Today, only a handful of the West End’s original buildings are standing, and he said it can be difficult to convey the feeling of the old quarter.

“It’s easy to see the pictures, to see the maps,” Juravich said. “The value of museums and institutions is that you can get that tactile, on-the-ground quality that is ultimately very important in understanding how it has changed the city.”

Daniel Kool can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dekool01.

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