Dear Constant Reader,
Another book review from the archives! I originally wrote this review years ago on another platform. I should get back to my current books to review, but this was low-hanging fruit, so to speak.
Always Something Doing: Boston’s Infamous Scollay Square by David Kruh (1999).
Boston has a reputation (rightly so) for being full of Puritans and blue-noses. And, right in the heart of the city was a hotbed of low past-times and pursuits. Always Something Doing (the motto of the Old Howard) is a history of Scollay Square from its very beginnings to the 20th century. Although the square as a location existed before the American Revolution, it didn’t get its famous name until 1838. The Charlestown trolley line that stopped in front of the Scollay’s Building had been using that as the unofficial name of the area.
Although Scollay Square is remembered for seedy entertainment (think of it as the Times Square of Boston), it was a respectable and ritzy area until the mid-19th century when the Brahmans fled for the newly created Back Bay and the Square became more commercial and affordable for the majority of Bostonians, including the influx of Irish immigrants. Besides being a major shopping district, it was full of restaurants and entertainment, including the famed Howard Atheneum. Despite hosting the first American performance of Giselle and other highbrow performances, by the end of the Civil War the Old Howard was presenting more popular entertainment at lower ticket prices.
By the 1920’s Scollay Square was well known as a haven for burlesque. Many of the biggest names, including Ann Corio and Georgia Sothern, played the Old Howard and Sally Keith, tassel twirling queen, was a standard at the Crawford House. Boston had such a great history of burlesque and I’m proud to be a part of that now.
But there’s more than just burlesque to Scollay Square. The book is full of vintage photographs and anecdotes from those who remember the Square well. I was particularly amused by the poor sailor who woke up after a drunken night in the Square to discover a pink elephant tattooed on his butt. Boston has never had another haven for sailors since the Square was demolished.
Scollay Square fell pray to urban renewal when it and the entire West End of Boston were razed in the early 1960’s to make way for the new City Hall and other government buildings. This plan had the side effect of creating the much deplored Combat Zone.
It’s clear the author’s sympathies are with the long-gone lively, sleazy neighborhood of cheap eats, burlesque theatres, tattoo parlors, and photo studios, than with the stark, soulless Government Center that replaced it