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Leonard Nimoy: Commencement Wisdom And West End Memories

Leonard Nimoy after his convocation address at Boston University's College of Fine Arts. (Nate Goldman/WBUR)

Leonard Nimoy after his convocation address at Boston University's College of Fine Arts. (Nate Goldman/WBUR)

In Boston, references to a place called the “West End” often provoke quizzical looks. Where is it? What is it?

The West End, in a nutshell, is the area between Beacon Hill and North Station, near Mass. General Hospital and Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary. The streets are tangled, dominated by huge hospital buildings, residential towers, and parking lots.

It wasn’t always that way. There used to be a tight urban neighborhood there, much like the North End. But it fell victim to the 1950s “urban renewal” craze, when the Boston Redevelopment Authority leveled whole neighborhoods in favor of modern “super blocks,” like Government Center.

Today there are few people left who remember the working-class tenement buildings of the West End. But one of them, remarkably, is actor Leonard Nimoy.

Yes, the man who played Mr. Spock on Star Trek was born and raised in the West End and often speaks fondly of his Boston roots. That’s at least part of the reason why Boston University invited Nimoy to address graduates of the  College of Fine Arts on Saturday. Radio Boston‘s Adam Ragusea attended and spoke backstage with Nimoy.

Convocation Address

Nimoy’s take home message stressed the importance of balance:

“Our creativity walks on a razor’s edge, using both sides of the brain. The left side of the brain gives us logic and discipline. On the right side is instinctive, creative thinking. We as artists, we need booth. You fall to the left and you lose inspiration and originality. Fall too far to the right and we’re in danger of drifting into undisciplined chaos. The secret of a long healthy career in the arts is a successful walk on the razor’s edge.”

He also reflected on the deeper questions of art:

“If acting is to be considered an art, one needs to learn more than the superficial craft. This is true of any work in the arts. What is the work about? What does it say to a contemporary audience? What light does it cast on our lives and on the issues which concern us and connect us? Indeed, how does it help to heal the world?”

And Nimoy even shared how his Boston roots helped prime him to portray Spock:

“My folks came to the United States as immigrants, aliens, and they became citizens. I was born in Boston a citizen; I went to Hollywood, and I became an alien. Spock called for exactly the kind of work I was prepared to do. He was a character with a rich and dynamic inner life – half human, half Vulcan. He was the embodiment of the outsider, like the immigrants who surrounded me in my early years. How do you find your way as the alien in a foreign culture? Where does your identity and dignity come from? And how do you make a contribution?”

Backstage Interview: West End Memories

Nimoy recalled his childhood street in Boston’s West End:

“It was three and four story brick buildings, attached, walk up buildings. There was one building – oh, five or six buildings away from us – that had an elevator, and it was known as ‘the building with the elevator.’”

During urban renewal, the West End was often called a slum. But Nimoy didn’t agree with the label:

“There were some areas of it that were tired, but I would never call it a slum. I think that description was useful to people who wanted to tear it down and develop the area. But I don’t think it was fair or accurate.”

Despite the pressure, Nimoy’s parents tried to stick it out:

“They refused to leave, not until they had to vacate the building (it was being torn down around them)… They were very careful, low-profile, very quiet people, had come from a tough life in Russia where they had been subjected to oppression. They knew they were safe and peaceful in theWest End, so they wanted to stay there as long as they could.”

With the West End now completely changed, Nimoy mourned the loss of all that he knew and loved.

“I wish I could go back to my roots. I can’t. They’re gone. The buildings are all torn down. I try walking with my wife to show her where I lived, but it’s so difficult because the street configuration has changed so much that I feel it’s gone. I feel my roots are gone.”

Other stories from this show:

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  • http://twitter.com/PJProductivity Annie Sisk

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am one of millions who admire and respect Mr. Nimoy for his many diverse accomplishments – so wonderful to hear him share the many stories that made up a remarkable life-so-far. 

  • J__o__h__n

    I watched his speech earlier today:  http://www.bu.edu/buniverse/view/?v=1qpRGu11x  Unlike most graduation speeches, this one was interesting.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    I keep trying to tell people that Boston is the basis for Vulcan

    A guys, that was the theme to Star Trek Next Generation, Mr Nimoy was a member of Star Trek the Original Series.

    • Meghna Chakrabarti

      Well spotted, Jan. I suppose the lack of the “ahhhh ahhhhh” soprano should have been the giveaway. We make amends by offering this link to the original theme: 

      • http://twitter.com/LaurenEMorrill Lauren

        Actually, it’s the theme from Star Trek the motion picture, which was later rearranged for use with TNG

        • Meghna Chakrabarti

          I take this as a sign that my own Star Trek geekery does have limits… which I’ve decided is a good thing! 

    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      Hey Jan, forgive the hurried reply I had my wife post below while I was driving! Just wanted to clarify (since Star Trek is the most important thing in the world): The music we played today was the original Jerry Goldsmith theme from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) which, of course, starred Leonard Nimoy. Gene Roddenberry loved that theme so much that he used a re-arranged version of it for The Next Generation series. I probably would have gone with the TOS theme by Alexander Courage, but I couldn’t find a Boston Pops recording of that one. Besides, I love love love the original version of the Goldsmith theme, especially the introduction, which sounds so epic, and was replaced with an homage to the Courage theme in the TNG version.

      • J__o__h__n

        Sadly, I knew this.  I wonder if Gene Roddenberry added lyrics to this version too so he could claim royalties like he did for the orginal theme. 

      • Meghna Chakrabarti

        That’s why Adam makes us proud. Great producer AND card-carrying Star Trek nerd. Though, we have yet to see the card. 

      • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

        Star Trek is the most important thing in the world, finally Adam some thing we both agree on!  Every thing from watching TOS as a family to my spouse and my career choice, Star Trek has been a part of my life.

  • Jbastianini

    There is a small West End museum http://thewestendmuseum.org/
    It’s staffed by old timers from the neighborhood.  It would be great to spread the word to others like Mr. Nimoy who can at least find a place where some memories are celebrated.

  • http://twitter.com/LaurenEMorrill Lauren

     BTW, that was from Adam :)

  • Fobcelt


  • Roger Fink

    Another West End notable: Movie producer (and family friend when I was growing up) Joseph E. Levine  (The Graduate,  Carnal Knowledge, Two Women, many others, all listed in Wikipedia). 

  • NadineHouston

    And thanks Leonard for sharing your thoughts on the West End as we who did grow up there lost a lot of valuable rooted friendships and our homes. It was a very difficult time but we were lucky enough to have lived there even for a whle, and we may not see the same streets anymore but we have our memories…………..That’s about all the BRA left us with! From 36 Allen St….Well wishes!!!

    • Arlene Katz

       What a wonderful graduation speech, and a wonderful remembering of the West End.  Thank you, Mr Nimoy.
      Nadine, I grew up at 37 Allen Street.  I was ten when the West End was ‘condemned’ and did indeed lose valuable friendships and community.  We moved away when I was 15 so although I loved my childhood in the West End, most of my memories involve the destruction of the buildings and difficulties in the lives of my neighbors.
      What year did you move from Allen Street?  Were you able to remain in contact with any of your neighbors?  Did you stay in the Boston area?

      • Nadiine Houston

        Hi Arlene-I guess we were neighbor’s.my family names were Barry & Freddy Shulman (uncles) and Tootsie & Louie were my grandparents. My mother was Norma (Shulman) Wallace. I was about 8 when we moved from Allen St. to Brookline. ………I still am in touch with a few of the old West-Enders and I am living in the Boston area. I am on FB if you want to exchange information!!! Great chatting-Please let me know if you remember us!!!!

  • guest

    Thank you for sharing this version of the West End! My grandfather, an italian, grew up there and his stories of family and community made the place seem magical.  Later, my mother would go to nursing school at MGH.  Her degree was the highest in our family at the time, and the irony has never been lost on me.  His home was “shrunk” so her school could be built.

  • Sandra (WEKER) Block

    Mr. Nimoy-  What a wonderful graduation speech, as mentioned below…  I am also from a Jewish home in the West End (Charlesbank Homes/ on Charles Streets & Poplar., not far from the Peabody House).  From your description of where you lived on Chamber St., I am visualizing  the beauty shop of “Mrs. Bass”.  Across the street was the Hebrew School I attended on Poplar Sts. and Chamber. It was kittycorner from the Chamber St. Shul.  Small building with a classroom upstairs. I am wondering if you also attended this Hebrew School?

    My memories of the time lived there are strong and, with my mind’s eye, I can clearly “see” the streets, “see the people”, and hear the loud talking.  I believe that this environment gave us compassion in dealing with people.  We were mostly all in the same “economic boat” and helped each other….

    Knowing that you were from the West End for years, I always felt proud of your success on the screen.

    My aunt Zelda Bachcofsky knew your parents and, I believe, they lived in an apartment building where she lived in Brighton?
    Arlene Katz (below):  I remember you.  You knew my cousin, Carol Downs of 63 Allen St., who was a member of the Boat Club.  I believe that a sister of yours was friendly with Carol.  Carol would write articles to the West Ender.   I remember your quiet demeanor, your low -speaking voice and your sophistication.  I believe that you were/are a school teacher???

    This has been a wonderful “community board” to be able to express ourselves/memories of the West End.

    Sandra (WEKER) Block
    Scottsdale, Arizona

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