Always Something Doing, Boston's infamous Scollay Square
By David Kruh with forward by Thomas H. O'Connor
I feel a little sad, Boston lover that I am, to have never seen Scollay Square. For all I know about this legendary place is a length of is a length of tile at the very end of the Government Center Blue line platform. Fitting perhaps for as I have discovered blue is a perfect description for Scollay Square.
The book starts on a sad note, with the death of a grand old lady, the Old Howard theater. Then in the gentlest way, he introduces us to the building in her prime. Before she was Old, and before she was the Howard, all the way back to Cotton Hill. Of greatest help is the map on page three, where the outlines of the old neighborhood are superimposed over the new. New roads are in gray, a most fitting choice if you ask me.
The book introduces us to the family who gave the square it's name. John Scollay was a patriot, no not that kind, a member of the Son's of Liberty. But, since this book is about the area and not the man, our visit is all to brief. The book is full of delightful pictures of the growing square. Taking pictures of buildings was apparently as popular in the during the squares heyday as taking pictures of children today. Then these buildings are in a way their children, and our mighty ancestors. We also get a chance to hear from the people who made Scollay square famous. For the author has done his research. Remembrances from the performers who stepped out on the many stages that surrounded the Square. The slightly upscale Crawford, to the all night Star Theater, later renamed Rialto in the hope to loose the monicker “Scratch House” It did not work, the name stuck, and the picture shows how lovely the theater was in it's own way. I had not heard of Sally Keith or her amazing twirling tassels, until I read this book. Now I have to start searching for more information on this Boston legend.
We honor the sailors who spread stories of the Square throughout the world. My favorite in the chapter about Joe & Nemo's tells how an American infantry man was able to cross into the Allied camp by proving he was from Boston, via his knowledge of Scollay Square and especially Joe & Nemo's. What a shame the restaurant is not longer in operation, for now I have a craving for a hot dog I never ate.
The book becomes a little less funny as the Square starts to fail, and urban “renewal” takes hold. You can hear the sorrow as building after building falls to the wrecking ball. Pictures once again take the reader around what is left of the Square and how the new buildings grow from the ashes of the old. I found great humor in the story of George Gloss and his Brattle Book Shop. Each time urban renewal come to the building his store was in he would offer a book give away. What ever you could carry after five minutes in the shop you could keep for free.
The epilogue takes a look at what has been done to bring some of the flavor of Scollay Square back to Government Center. He lists the many different ideas that have been floated to change the brick porch into some thing more welcoming. While the area is used on a frequent basis for festivals, green markets, and celebrations of champions the space still goes quiet once the work day ends. I always wondered why Government Center always felt like it had a hidden energy a party just seconds from starting. Now I know what I was feeling, it was the ghosts of Scollay Square, just waiting for a chance to start the party once again. The next time I walk through Scollay Square I will remember the past I never knew and hope for the future I would love to see.