Friday, August 15, 2014
Interview: Author Anthony Sammarco finds the ‘Lost Boston’
By Doug Holder
Writer Anthony Sammarco is a walking archive of the lost Boston. He has written a plethora of history/ photography books about the various neighborhoods in Boston, as well about that beloved, defunct, fried clam-- totting franchise Howard Johnson’s, that was founded in the Bay State. His latest pictorial history book is titled Lost Boston… a book that traces the long vanished landmarks and institutions in the city of Boston. Sammarco brings all of these back to the collective consciousness.
I had the privilege to interview Sammarco on my Somerville Public TV show: Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer. I asked Sammarco if this book was a lament for things past, he responded: “I lament the lost institutions, and buildings in Boston. I understand though that Boston is in a constant state of change, and some of the buildings must be destroyed by the advancement of the city, fires, natural causes, etc…But I hope people reading and viewing the book will realize the importance of preservation. The city always reinvents itself, every generation. Boston and the surrounding suburbs are now very different than the they were 25 to 50 years ago.”
Sammarco pointed out that Boston has a rich overlay of the 17th and 18th century and a strong connection to its historical past. In the past 25 years the city has been built up a great deal, with a strong emphasis on the downtown and the waterfront. Sammarco reflected: “I was on the waterfront recently looking for shops and bars that I remembered and patronized. For the most part they are gone. The hotels and restaurants that are there now attract people who would never go there in the past. And so this new development becomes an integral part of the city.” Sammarco continued: “There are neighborhoods that remain frozen in time, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay. This has happened because of preservation interests, historical commissions, etc… But I always remember that the city is going to change, and that is probably for the best.”
As Sammarco talked my mind drifted back to Ken’s Deli in Copley Square in the 70s. I used to hang out there after a night of the theatre at the Colonial, a movie at the old Exeter Theater, or after hanging out in bars, or clubs. It was a wonderful place, with a great cast of characters: drag queens, eccentric old ladies who lived with a brood of cats, surly waitresses who would call you “honey ” through gritted teeth, people who got off their night shift jobs, theater people, entertainers, all nursing a sandwich and a cup of coffee or tea, and perhaps a pastry, after a night of working or partying. The Deli closed a long time ago but I asked Sammarco about it: He recalled, “I remember frequenting it in the 70s and 80s, to get my favorite turkey club. I used to ogle the people who were in the place. During Halloween for instance you would see a variety of Dorothy-- costumed people , as if they were from the cast of the Wizard of Oz, waiting online to get in. They served great food with copious servings. There was no drinking; you had that at the clubs before you came. During the day there were businessmen, or ladies who lunched, but at night it really came alive.” Although Ken’s is part of the lost Boston, Sammarco is philosophical about it, he said: “As the city evolves you begin to realize that younger people have different interpretations of our city. A place like Ken’s—coffee and sandwiches—a place to chat, may seem like some quaint, archaic things to folks now.”
And being, well…a, sort of man of letters… I have been a longtime denizen of the Boston Public Library. I worked on my thesis there at the Bates Reading Room, with the dour bust of Henry James peering over me. He probably spotted typos. I wanted Sammarco to fill me in on the history of this great public institution. Sammarco was more than willing, he said: “Well…you know at the time of the Civil War the Boston Public Library was a very important institution. There was a sign over the door there that stated: ' Free to all.' " According to Sammarco Boston had private libraries like the Boston Athenaeum, but nothing really for the public at large. A bunch of people came together and donated their private libraries to benefit all the people of Boston. The Copley Square building was completed in 1895. The old Boston library was down the block on Boylston St. across from the Boston Common. The Colonial Theater now resides there. The Bates Reading Room, which I spent many a long hour in, was according to Sammarco, named after a benefactor of the library Joshua Bates, an international financier born in Weymouth, Mass. In 1852 he founded the old library near the Common by giving 50,000 dollars for that purpose. He also gave 30,000 volumes to the library.
I also remember the elevated tracks in the South End. I used to love the train that lifted me above the city in a sort of transcendent state, to see a panoramic view of the crowds, the buildings, the ebb and flow. Sammarco again filled in the details: “The elevated tracks were started in the late 19th Century. They were in reaction to the city streets that were jammed with pedestrians, carriages and wagons. The elevated tracks provided a quick way to get around Boston for the working class citizens and others from 5:30AM to 12AM.”
I told Sammarco my favorite bus line was the Dudley line. I took that bus from the Back Bay ( Where I lived at the time) to my teaching job at Dr. Solomon Carter Mental Health Center. The route traverses quite a cross section of the city: from Harvard University to the heart of Roxbury. Sammarco said: “The Dudley Bus is quite dramatic. I also enjoy the downtown bus that goes to City Point in Southie.”
At the end of our discussion, Lost Boston was found, at least for me. I was glad Sammarco so skillfully facilitated this… here, in the Paris of New England.