A Walk Down West Roxbury's Centre Street

Note: All historic photos on this page are property of the West Roxbury Historical Society unless otherwise noted. 

A Walk Down Centre Street

Now in its fifth century of existence, West Roxbury's Centre Street remains the main street of a vibrant Boston neighborhood. It is the center of a suburbia within a city. 

Through the years, the street has gone through many phases. Once a tree-lined country road adorned with substantial estate houses, today it is a business district serving locals through shops, banks and restaurants.  

Centre Street, like the neighborhood it serves, is in a period of transition. Thirty years ago, this was a middle-class Irish Catholic enclave. It was also older and whiter than the rest of the city (95.1% white and 22% seniors in 1990). Today the area is experiencing at least a partial gentrification and multi-cultural influx. Long-time businesses like Blanchard's and the Corrib Pub and Restaurant now compete with Vietnamese take-out and used bookstores, appealing to a rather different clientele. One wonders what the street may look like twenty years from now.

 

Tucked away along Centre Street by the tracks of the commuter rail, one discovers a truly ancient part of Boston history at the Westerly Burying Ground.  Laid out in 1635, the Burying Ground contains the tombstones of many old West Roxbury families  including familiar local names such as Billings and Draper. 

Billings Field off LaGrange Street serves as a central patch of green for West Roxbury.  It is home to youth baseball, softball leagues, outdoor tennis, pick up basketball, and the YMCA --- as well as serving as the annual starting point for the Corrib Classic 5K Roadrace.  The Billings name in town traces back to Lemuel Billings and his family. The Milton man fought in the Revolutionary War and eventually married Hannah Whitling, a member of the family that owned the Whitling Tavern on Centre Street.  They settled in West Roxbury and the family name now belongs to the neighborhood's main field, once known as Speare Field. Billings Field itself was named after Joe Billings, who owned the nearby Billings Sheepskin Factory. 

For decades, West Roxbury had the reputation of being a kind of middle-class step-up from lower-class Southie.  The area has always had a high proportion of cops, firefighters and other public service officers.  Somewhat cut off from the rest of Boston without a T connection, West Roxbury has long had a provincial attitude — and at least to some, perhaps an exclusionary tendency as well. Largely Irish-Catholic, many South Boston residents made the move up to the single family homes of "Westie," and sometimes brought their prejudices with them.  

Today West Roxbury seems to be in transition. Centre Street reflects the transfomation of the neighborhood, as the main drag has a far more diverse feel than it did two or three decades ago. While Deno's Subs, Anna's Coffee, Parkway Printing and other longtime establishments remain, the street has been dotted in the past ten years with new cuisines and establishments once hard-to-find in old Westie. In this photo, Thai Spice and Amigos Mexican Food display the new cosmopolitan feel.

Gentrification has also occurred on some level in West Roxbury as well, although that process has taken place in fits and starts.  Starbucks has arrived and three Centre Street used bookstores lend the neighborhood an increasingly hipster feel.  A sparkling new Roche Bros. is decidedly 21st Century while a bright new CVS has taken the ground formerly occupied by the old version of Roche Bros. (Were supermarkets really ever that small?) But many Joe six pack establishments remain such as Family Dollar, as well as two prominent long-time liquor stores: Macy's and Blanchard's.  Ads for low-priced cigarettes seem to be everywhere, along with the discount stores that perhaps lend the street the undesirable --- and increasingly unfair nickname --- the Golden Ghetto.

Whether these trends continue or the street heads in a new direction is anybody's guess.

 Above: Irish pride has long been present in the West Roxbury and the "Parkway" area.  Old Boston is still well-represented along Centre Street.

 

The current West Roxbury Public Library has stood on Centre Street near Mount Vernon Street since the 1870s.  The older library wing, built in 1922, stands to the right of this photo while the expansion wing was added in 1988.  The original West Roxbury Free Library stood on the grounds of the older building as part of Westerly Hall at the turn of the century while the West Roxbury Congregational Church once occupied the near ground. Today the branch is part of the larger Boston Public Library system.

Right: The West Roxbury Congregational Church is seen next to Westerly Hall around 1910.

Left: Westerly Hall as seen in 1878.  Students went to school on the second floor while the first floor housed the West Roxbury Free Library. The building stood on the site of the older wing of today's West Roxbury Public Library. 

The Theodore Parker Church at Corey and Centre is named after the famed American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian Church. An abolitionist and opponent of the Fugitive Slave Act, Parker is remembered with a statue sculpted by Robert Kraus in the courtyard of the church. The statue was intended for the Boston Public Gardens but the Boston Arts Commission felt it was not a good likeness.

Holy Name Parish anchors the northern end of West Roxbury's Centre Street. 4,000 persons witnessed the groundbreaking of the church in April 1929 by Rev. William McNamara.  The Rhenish Romanesque structure was named Holy Name due to McNamara's well-known interest in the Holy Name Society.

The Romanesque Revival West Roxbury Firehouse has been a pillar along Centre Street since 1898.   Today it is home to Engine 30 and Ladder 25. 

Left:  Old and new West Roxbury stands side-by-side here as Christo's Pizzeria competes for hungry locals against Vietnamese cuisine. 

Below: Anna's Donuts, a long-time resident of the neighborhood. 

Below: A final look, then & now, up Centre Street just north of Lagrange Street. 

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