From Landladies Who'd Evict You for Having Sex with a Dog ("No Dogs Allowed") to the 1871 Art Heist of Fragonard Paintings and the BRA's 1952 Destruction of Chester Square, Local Historian Russ Lopez's Tales Captivated the SE Library's Crowd

russ lIn another evening of historical tales and reminiscences reflecting Southenders' unflagging love and appreciation for their unique and infinitely varied neighborhood, local historian Russ Lopez entertained a large library audience last week with the details he unearthed researching his latest book, Boston's South End, the Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood. He didn't set out to do this work, he said, but kind of stumbled into it 35 years ago when invited to a party on Tremont Street and seeing so many burnt out buildings. He wondered why. "I was not streetwise," the California native said, "more like a naif." He fell in love in the South End, and with the South End, and stayed. "There are a lot of misconceptions about the South End," Lopez said, "and I am interested in how we think about things and come up with explanations." He is bemused by people telling him over and over again that the South End's "dark ages" always seemed to end about five years before they moved here, and disputes their severity. "This was a place where people chose to move," he noted. "Many Southern blacks found homes here when they could not do so elsewhere. There were social services, settlement houses, charities. Gays were accepted, so were lesbians, and there were many evangelicals." He pointed to Moody's Tabernacle on the corner of Tremont and Clarendon Streets where up to seven thousand people a night would come to listen to Chicago preacher D. L. Moody in large-scale revival meetings, and to Henry Morgan's Church of All Nations on Harrison Avenue, the locust of virulent anti-Catholic sermons at the time, which also had a large following (it has since become the beloved Morgan Memorial charitable institution). The earliest Boston art heist likely was of the "The History of Love" paintings by Jean Honore Fragonard. They used to hang in the Deacon House on Washington Street, now demolished, and the paintings have been lost since 1871.

And then there were the landladies, Lopez recounted. They were able to monetize their buildings with rentals; some of them owned eight or more. Strict rules might prevail: Two separate tenants were discovered in bed with a dog, violating house rules. They were evicted. No dogs allowed.

Chester Square at Mass Ave and Tremont St before its destruction to connect I-93 with the Back Bay.

What's the story behind the destruction of Chester Square, one listener wanted to know? Lopez described it as a brutal example of how the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) contributed to the decline of the South End by taking land for highways and other urban renewal plans, without public input. Built as one of the grandest South End squares with traffic lanes constructed around it, Chester Park, as it was then called, was completed in the 1870s. In the 1950s, when highway construction was in high gear, the BRA decided the new Southeast Expressway needed a fast road to connect it to the Back Bay and beyond. There was no public participation in these plans: In the spring of 1952, residents at a Chester Square neighborhood meeting were not told that their park would be destroyed to make way for a four-lane highway. Instead, they were informed of a public meeting on the subject four days after the hearing had been held. The new road opened in 1954. It was called Massachusetts Avenue...