Egleston Square Memories as told by Dennis Gately

Egleston Theatre, 1939.  Courtesy Boston Public Library.

Egleston Theatre, 1939.  Courtesy Boston Public Library.

It was wonderful to read the stories of the old neighborhood in and around Egleston Square. As I read those stories I couldn’t help wondering how many of you I may have met during the years my family was there.

Well, a little history of my family may help, so I’ll start when we arrived in Egleston Square in 1949, from Attleboro, Mass. We lived across the street from the Egleston Theatre. It was the only private home in the Square proper. There were five children in the family, Bruce, Beth, Barry, Dennis, and the youngest, Denise. At the time, Bruce was fighting a war in Korea, which back then was called a “Police Action.” Barry was at a private school in Providence RI. Beth was at Boston Latin while I was attending the George Putman School and Denise had a year to go before starting school. Dad was commuting to Quincy, and Mom was a Pharmacist.

We were delighted and fascinated with Egleston Square. There were streetcars (trolleys) that ran all the way from Forest Hills, through Egleston Square, to downtown Boston. Above us was the Egleston Square Elevated Railway train station that covered the intersection of Washington Street, Seaver Street and Columbus Avenue. (We old-timers considered Seaver Street to be an extension of Columbus Avenue.) The price was right (five cents) for riding either the surface or elevated transit systems. You could receive a Transfer if changing trains or trolleys going in the same direction.

The Egleston Square neighborhood for us kids was bordered by Columbus Avenue up to Walnut Avenue (adjacent to Franklin Park), then to School Street, down to Arcadia Street, north to Atherton Place out to Columbus Avenue and back up to Walnut Avenue. Washington Street, the main thoroughfare, was in the center of the neighborhood.

The most fascinating thing about Egleston Square was the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood. There were Greeks, Italians, Germans, Poles, and Armenians. There were more groups, but you get the idea. Oh yeah, Irish and Scotch were there too! Today, Egleston Square is mostly Latino, Mexican, African American and Vietnamese.

Egleston Square from the late 1940s to 1961 was a neighborhood made up of close- knit families where everyone knew everyone, or knew of them. You would think there was a language barrier but we kids took care of that problem. You see, most of the parents were widows who lost their husbands during the war and these mothers brought with them their culinary arts! … Us kids started to learn some of the language basics by keeping it simple. We soon knew how to say “thank you” and it wasn’t long before we were being invited to different homes to have supper! Mmmmmm! Well, in no time, our mothers would be sharing recipes and now you can see how the language barrier wasn’t too much of a problem.

Another way the neighborhood became close was the Fourth of July celebration. Everyone would walk to Jamaica Pond to watch the wonderful fireworks that would last until midnight and of course you would introduce your friend’s Mom to your Mom and you would interpret as best as you could, but in the end it didn’t matter because they would become friends and they would have fun learning from each other and us kids would become connoisseurs of foreign foods … (well, just enough to eat!)

One thing us kids learned around the neighborhood was respect … respect of other people was foremost. It didn’t matter if they came from a different country. Yes, a lot of families were displaced from their homes because of the war but you never reminded them of that; you just helped them out, being ever mindful of their pride and what they had been through. Some of our new friends had tattoos from concentration camps. Our dads who saw these things during the war would tell us what they went through … and to be respectful of their silence unless they wanted us to know.

Egleston Square had a very eclectic group of grocery stores that included the A&P, the First National and Lodgen’s Market located beside the Egleston Theatre, across the street from our home. During the early mornings, Egleston Square would come to life as the aroma of the bakery would float gently through the Square. Do you “Eggies” out there remember the mocha cakes? Mmmmmm!

The Square also hosted a “genuine” shoe repair shop whose owner was from Italy. His name was Mr. Busa and most of Egleston Square and the surrounding neighborhood would come to have their shoes resoled or to have metal taps put on the heels to keep them from wearing out. Back then shoes were made from real leather and they were fabricated in the USA, as were most other things we bought. Mr Busa allowed me to work in his shop, as he was busy most of the day. I was the shoeshine boy. He was kind enough to teach me how to repair shoes and to operate the stitching machine that attached the soles to the bodies of the shoes!

Yes, Egleston Square was a close community, but that was the norm in most communities then. Sure we had parents but it was the community as a whole that taught us how to cope with the necessities of life. Making friends in and around the “Square” was easy and sometimes there were surprises about friends that you made. Take for instance Mr. McGinnis, who was the proprietor of the Egleston Package Store, which sold liquor. My Dad and he were friends. Us kids would visit Mr. (Joe) McGinnis after school and during the summer months and he’d smile and laugh with us and always ask “were we doing good in school?” Then after giving us some snacks he’d send us on our way telling us to “watch out for the trolley cars.” He was a kind man to us kids in the neighborhood. I remember him letting Dad borrow his car so we could drive up to New Hampshire. Then, there he was in the newspaper … something about the Brinks robbery and some of Joe’s friends who we knew were in there also.

Yes, Egleston Square does have a unique history. Though it’s been over fifty years, the sounds of the “Square” are still with me. I still hear the ice wagon pulled by horses clattering over the trolley tracks and their hooves on the cobblestones, Peabody coal trucks, The Rag Man and his cart, elevated trains coming into the station, Air Raid Drills and the testing of the sirens, Tony’s barbershop, Mr. Joseph Busa and the pleasant aroma of leather and shoe polish and George, the manager of the A&P grocery store who allowed us kids to learn about ethics. Yes, Egleston Square and its surrounding neighborhoods: Forest Hills, Green Street, Franklin Park, Mattapan, and last but not least, Jamaica Plain and its wonderful pond. They have raised us well. When time seems to slip by my thoughts return to Egleston Square where it is held at bay for a short while. The sights and sounds drift by and I hear the laughter of the old gang that once was and … I’m home again for a short time.

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