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The West End: The Name and the Place

The City of Boise’s Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant winners have been recently announced, and among them are the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association, who received $16000 to create an interpretive trail through their neighborhood. This trail will wend its way through a part of the city I and others have taken to calling the West End.

What, you might wonder, is the West End? Everyone knows about the North End, and the East End has made its claim as a distinct historic place, but what is this West End and why am I calling it that?

23rd and State St. circa 1910

23rd and State Streets, looking west, circa 1910. (Photo courtesy Idaho State Historical Society)

 

The West End is Boise's lost historic neighborhood. Still there, still lived in, but forgotten and unrecognized as one of Boise's first suburban expansions during the city’s great boom of 1890-1915. The area which I and other historians call the West End are the neighborhoods bounded by State Street to the north, the Main/Fairview couplet to the south, 19th Street to the east and the Boise River to the west. Click here to see a .pdf map, with historic additions and sites. (The West End proper is the area filled in with color.)

Up until recently, the absence of a clear identity has been one of the primary characteristics of the area. Even for natives and long-time residents its definitive trait is the inability to define it. Take myself—I  had friends who lived over there, my sister attended Madison School for a year or two, I even lived there for a little while, but when asked to describe it I could only do so geographically: “You know, those neighborhoods south of State over by 27th.  That part of town sort of over where that concrete plant used to be, off of Fairview, there…” This is not to say, by any means, that these neighborhoods lack character, or a unique identity of their own. Anyone who's spent any time there can see and feel right away that this is a definite Place—somewhere singular and special and unlike any other part of town. All it lacks is a Name that indicates its geographic and historic role in the fabric of the city. From history we know that being named is essential to being remembered and preserved; from religion and myth we know that only from being named can something attain power and achieve its growth into full potential.

If that seems far too metaphysical, consider the names the area has received from planners over the decades. First, the Veteran's Park Neighborhood, which covers a broad stretch of neighborhoods that include the West End and under which it is subsumed. The name appears to fix the neighborhoods geographically, and for some of them it does. But the West End is at no point contiguous to Veterans Park at all. It is nearby, yes, but including it as part of the Veterans Park Neighborhood blurs its contours and absorbs its geographic and historic singularity into an amorphous whole.

 

Fairview Park, 23rd and Bannock Streets. (This photo and all following by Otto Kitsinger.)

 

So why did it come to be called the Veterans Park Neighborhood in the first place? Because the original plan for Veterans Park intended for it to extend from its current location all the way to Fairview—through the former Consolidated Concrete factory location that will soon be the Esther Simplot Park. A 1974 government study on the impact of the planned park on the adjacent neighborhoods coined the name. However, the owners of the land extending from the current park boundary south to Fairview refused to sell to the state. When the park was built in 1976 it fell short of the original plan, ending up with the size and shape it has today. So "Veterans Park Neighborhood" works for those neighborhoods around Clithero Street that are adjacent to the park, but for the West End is it not only geographically incorrect, but based on a plan that did not come to full fruition—a name rooted in incompletion.

Still, "Veterans Park Neighborhood" is a much nicer name than the perfectly accurate, though desolate, "30th Street Extension Impact Area." Aside from the fact that the impact area in question takes in parts of neighborhoods outside of the West End proper, it is, again, a planner's name—something imposed in reaction to outside forces acting upon the neighborhoods. In this case, a large road-building project being planned by the Ada Country Highway District to connect State Street to Fairview by converting Rose and 30th Streets into a four-lane arterial. Right now, these streets are residential dead ends that do not even connect to each other. Recently, the Statesman covered the impact on the residents of Rose Street and the City and County’s differences of opinion on how best to mitigate it. Fortunately, this flare-up is the only major conflict between City and County to arise so far. The City of Boise's planning department has up to now worked with ACHD to mitigate the negative impacts on the neighborhood and develop a corridor that incorporates housing, pedestrian-friendly access, and the Esther Simplot Park. To learn more about the plan, see ACHD's page here. For serious planning wonks, here's the City's dedicated document page that traces the evolution of the plan over the past four years.

To be perfectly fair, one of the intents of this project, besides moving large volumes of cars efficiently, is to relieve traffic on 27th and 23rd Streets. In fact, after the completion of the extension, 27th is slated to be converted down to a two-lane street zoned residential and commercial, giving residents to the east an easy crossing to the riverside neighborhoods and parks and hopefully enable a district akin to Hyde Park to grow around Jerry's Market. Also to be fair, the agencies involved aren't really using "30th Street Extension Impact Area" anymore—they’re just calling it the "30th Street Area," which is better, but not much of a name for a unique place like this.

 

First Congregationalist UCC at 23rd and Pleasanton

First Congregational United Church of Christ, 23rd and Pleasanton Streets.

 

Besides being a unique and important historic neighborhood, the West End is the topic of my Master's thesis, and three years of intensive study. I came to the subject in summer 2007 when city planner Kathleen Lacey sent out a query to a group of local historians asking if anyone knew of the history and historical character of the neighborhoods in the impact area. At that time, I had just begun my Masters program, and as the incoming City Historian, I was included in the group, despite being far from a proper historian at that point. Yet as it was, I knew as much as anyone else, which was nothing. Everyone knew of the neighborhoods, but otherwise, it was just as I described above—“where” was all we knew.

This question—What is the history of this area?—presented itself as the perfect subject for a thesis project. Not only did it fill the requirements of the City Historian fellowship to research a topic of current and civic importance, it also offered a rare opportunity for a historian: the chance to cover entirely new ground, to build a history where none had yet been written. To do that, of course, is incredibly difficult. Especially in a city like Boise where the historical record is sparse and primary sources are hard to find. Beyond the challenge of finding sources and determining the best research methods, I quickly realized that one of the first things I’d need in order to properly write about the area was a name.

 

Whittier School

Whittier School, at 29th and Bannock Streets

 

I did not coin the name “West End.” That honor falls to professor Todd Shallat, and although he tossed it out rather casually and now claims not to remember doing it, the idea is his. “I don’t know, call it the West End!” is how I remember him blurting it out, and despite the flippancy of his delivery, as I worked on my research over the next few years, the name made more and more sense, seeming, even, inevitable. For the neighborhoods I call the West End were, for a long stretch of the city’s history, the literal west end of Boise, just as the North and East Ends marked out the city limits in those directions. One look at a current city map makes apparent that the North End is no longer the northern limit, and Boise now extends well east of the East End. Yet both of these neighborhoods retain their pride of place, their honorifics of being the Ends. “End” in this sense is no longer a geographic marker, but a historic one. Over time, we’ve remembered and recognized two of Boise’s historic Ends, and forgotten that there is a third. Through the reclamation process that is historical research and the writing of history, I’ve tried to restore this lost End to its proper place alongside its contemporaries to the north and east.

 

Jerry's Market, at 27th and Stewart Streets

 

The walking trail project funded by the reinvestment grant will go a long way toward restoring this missing history. Conceived and spearheaded by Jeff Anderson of the VPNA, the trail will consist of interpretive signs and sidewalk markers installed throughout the West End neighborhoods. More details, and a map of the possible route, are available at the VPNA website.

At this point, you may be expecting me to recount the history, but here I’ll defer to work I’ve already done. At the VPNA website linked above, there is a link to an article I have written on the history of the West End. A version of that article is also included in the new book “Growing Closer: Density and Sprawl in the Boise Valley”  recently published by Boise State University and edited by Professor Shallat and my colleague and successor as City Historian, Brandi Burns. Further, you can watch me live at City Hall, presenting my research to the Mayor and Council last January. (Click on the “Daytime Boise City Council Meeting” for January 25, 2011, and open the video link.) I am also working with the VPNA to present a workshop on the area’s history, and will be giving a tour of the lower West End as a Preservation Idaho Arch Walk this year. (The date is not set, but check this page for details. As you can see, last year I toured the West End, as well.)

 

Former Synagogue and Greek Orthodox Church

The former Ahavath Israel Synagogue and the Saint Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church at Bannock and 27th Streets.

 

For the purposes of further research and historical description, I and other historians will continue to use “West End” to describe this part of the city. But what it is called contemporarily, be it West End, Veterans Park, or something entirely new, is entirely up to the residents. That is, it is entirely up to them if they wish—a large part of the reason that the North and East Ends are still so-called is because the people who live there embraced those names and seized and defined for themselves the identity that they connotate. The ambition and success of the VPNA in obtaining their grant and beginning the process of self-definition indicates that the residents of the West End are ready to take back control of their identity from the planners and, if necessary, the historians, too. The conferring of a Name grants legitimacy, but the self-assignation of one brings authority.

Comments

Appreciate your work Tully

Tully - thanks for all your work on behalf of the "west end" neighborhood. The Veterans Park Neighborhood Association is excited to break new ground by creating the neighborhood trail you mentioned. Hopefully the trail will help west end residents and the rest of the city see our area's culture, architecture and history in a new light. The area offers so much! Thanks for sparking my interest in its history. Please know that without your work the idea for the trail would not exist. Its my hope that through the trail we build community and strengthen our sense of place. If anyone is interested in helping with the trail please contact me at: vpnatrail@gmail.com

Jeff Anderson

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