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Book looks back at old Hyde Park

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  September 1, 2011 02:59 PM

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(Arcadia Publishing)

As Hyde Park approaches the centenary of its annexation by the City of Boston, a new book gives residents a chance to look back on the neighborhood as it was in generations past.

“Hyde Park Then & Now” is the latest work by prolific local historian Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, who has published more than 50 books on Boston’s neighborhoods and institutions. Sammarco, 53, will mark the publication with lectures and book signings at the Hyde Park Branch Library on Sept. 19 and Oct. 6, and another in Dorchester on Sept. 29.

The author, who lives in Brighton and has visited Hyde Park often, thinks the book will surprise even those who know the neighborhood well.

“It’s the type of a book where people will see what it looks like now, and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I know that,’ ” Sammarco said. “And then they’ll [see the historic photographs and] go, ‘I can’t believe that was there originally.’ ”

Founded as an independent town in 1868 from parts of Dedham, Dorchester, and Milton, Hyde Park quickly became a desirable place to live because it was accessible from downtown Boston by streetcar and commuter rail but maintained a suburban feel, with many single-family houses on large lots with tree-lined streets. By the turn of the 20th century, its population had grown to around 15,000, and in 1912, it became the last of the outlying towns annexed by Boston.

Sammarco said that even he learned a great deal about the neighborhood while researching the book. To assemble the historic images, he relied on his personal collection, the Hyde Park Historical Society, the branch library, and photos submitted by residents in response to an announcement in the Hyde Park Bulletin.

His personal image collection is always growing, he said, thanks in part to frequent visits to the on-line auction site eBay.

“You wouldn’t believe the things I bought,” he said, recalling one of his most extravagant purchases: a circa-1900 postcard of the American Tool & Machine Company, now the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, that he got for a cool $75. It was worth it, he said, because the historic image created a contrast to the recent photo he took of the structure.

“So while I was doing the book and taking the ‘now’ photographs, they had almost just finished [renovations for the school], before it opened,” he said. “So it’s kind of a nice juxtaposition of a place where hundreds of people worked in a factory and now hundreds of children are being educated.”

Sammarco said similar changes have happened with many of the neighborhood’s structures that have been here for a century or more and have been adapted over time to new uses.

“When you say ‘then and now,’ it’s not necessarily being used in the same vein as it was 100 years ago, but it’s still part of the community,” he said. “I think a lot of times people don’t realize that even in our grandparents’ time, what was there has changed sometimes two times, even three times. So some of the buildings that I show in the book are the original things from the 1860s and ’70s, and then they were replaced by the time of World War I, so it’s a fascinating glimpse into this neighborhood.”

Sammarco said the research for a chapter on the Readville section of Hyde Park was among the most interesting. Though the neighborhood is justly famous as the former site of Camp Meigs, where free black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry trained during the Civil War, few remember that it was also the site of the Readville Trotting Park, a horse racing track that attracted thousands.

“I think Readville was a fascinating glimpse into something that has changed profoundly,” he said.

Another little-known fact, Sammarco said, is that the Kennedy’s Department Store that once stood beside Filene’s in Downtown Crossing was previously located in Cleary Square, in a “magnificent, three-story, beautiful building” that has since been torn down. He said residents 50 and older probably remember the downtown Kennedy’s but don’t realize the store got its start in Hyde Park.

“Kennedy’s was the place for gentlemen to buy suits and hats,” he said. “His claim to fame was if you went there to purchase a suit from him … he would pay your nickel car fare.”

While some former landmarks have gone, Sammarco said he was pleased to see how the community has remained in many ways what it always has been.

Looking at the immigrant families who settled the neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he saw many parallels with immigrants who come to Hyde Park today, some of whom have been students in his local history course at the Urban College of Boston.

“You know, 100 years ago, it was the emerging middle class of Italians and Irish and Polish — those were the primary ethnic groups [in Hyde Park],” he said. “And today, 100 years later, it’s the emerging middle class of Haitians, Jamaicans, Bahamians, and Latinos. And … the same things that they want, the people wanted 100 years ago.”

Copies of Hyde Park: Then & Now are available at the website of Arcadia Publishing, at Amazon.com and at bookstores carrying Arcadia books on local history. Sammarco will speak on the history of the neighborhood and sign copies of the book at the Hyde Park Branch Library, 35 Harvard St. in Hyde Park, on Monday, Sept. 19, and Thursday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m., and at Cedar Grove Gardens, 911 Adams St. in Dorchester, on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox. Follow Hyde Park on Twitter: @HydeParkInfo.

hp kennedy's.jpg

(Arcadia Publishing)

This photograph shows the former location of Kennedy’s Department Store at the corner of Hyde Park Avenue and River Street in Cleary Square.

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