“Maverick Street Kids” (1979). Photo by Arnie Jarmak

Lost Chelsea, revisited

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Lost Chelsea, revisited

“Maverick Street Kids” (1979). Photo by Arnie Jarmak
“Maverick Street Kids” (1979). Photo by Arnie Jarmak

JULY 19, 2018 – On a recent hazy afternoon, Arnie Jarmak stood on Broadway in downtown Chelsea and looked at the people and buildings that have helped define much of his life over the last 40 years.

“To me, this is the place where I’ve always wanted to be,” said Jarmak, who these days buys and sells reclaimed lumber. A Marblehead native, he showed up 41 years ago in this hardscrabble city with a Nikon camera and took a job as a news photographer for the Chelsea Record.

Recently, he pulled out his trove of tens of thousands of black and white negatives from that era and chose 10 of his favorite shots. Those photos, which capture everyday life from boys on a stoop to old-timers gabbing on Broadway – will be on display in an exhibit, “Photographs of Chelsea in the 1970s and 1980s,” at Gallery 456, 456 Broadway, until Sept. 7.

Photographer Arnie Jarmak. Photo by Steven A. Rosenberg

The exhibit peels back a city that seemed left behind at the time. While cranes were erecting office towers just across the Tobin Bridge in Boston during a building boom in the late 1970s, Jarmak’s images of Chelsea reveal a lost culture in a city that was among the poorest communities in the state. Jarmak’s Chelsea includes snapshots of adolescent girls playing jump rope in the projects; hand-painted mom-and-pop signs; wrinkled, tired faces of immigrants; and portraits of working stiffs like “Richie,” a busboy who worked in a Broadway deli.

As he recorded the last vestiges of a vanishing culture, Chelsea was changing. In the 1920s, it was second to New York as the most densely Jewish city in America. A center of Jewish scholarship, for locals it was known as the “Jerusalem of America.” Hard by the Mystic River, tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews crowded in its cold water flats in the 1920s and hoped for a better life in a new land.

But by the 1980s, nearly all of Chelsea’s Jews and its Jewish-owned businesses had left, and nearly all of the city’s 21 synagogues had closed. At the time, Broadway’s once proud mom-and-pop stores were largely shuttered, and corruption was commonplace in City Hall. The state eventually took control of the city after it went bankrupt in 1991. By then, four former mayors had been sent to jail or were under house arrest. Around that time, Jarmak set out for a new career in construction that led him to work with reclaimed wood. But he’s never put away his camera.

“Jumping Rope” (1979). Photo by Arnie Jarmak

Jarmak’s path to Chelsea began at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where he discovered the works of Walker Evans and Lewis Hine, photographers who documented the lives of child laborers and the Great Depression. After college, he briefly joined his father’s construction business, but found his calling after taking a photography course at Northern Essex Community College. Jarmak hopped a ride on a fishing boat from Gloucester to Honduras in 1974 and took photos of the crew during the voyage. When he returned to the North Shore, he knew he had found his passion.

“Chelsea had a reputation of being a run-down, dirty city that people couldn’t wait to get out of, and I came here and saw a lot of beauty. And my greatest joy was capturing it and sharing it with others,” said Jarmak, who has lived in the same townhouse in the city for decades. Every day he set out with a police radio and found a mix of working class people to photograph. They included politicians, cops and firemen, teachers, holy men, drunks, bookies, and newly arrived immigrants.

“It was where working people lived and it was the place I wanted to be,” he said. “It was a black and white photographer’s heaven. The images let me portray a part of life that most people didn’t want to see. And I wanted to tell a story what the world was really like: struggle and survival.”

Jarmak’s “Photo­graphs of Chelsea in the 1970s and 1980s,” at Gallery 456, 456 Broadway, Chelsea, will run until Sept. 7. 

10 Responses

  1. I was born above my fathers grocery store corner Chester ave and Shawmut st 1922
    Served in WW 11 enlisted with 2 Chelsea buddies
    operated, junk business on Third ST then to Second ST
    Retail tire business on Everett ave next to RR tracks
    Than on 99 Everett ave
    Built the Baron Building on 99 Fourth St
    Met with Senator John Kerry in Washington to acquire funding as part of the Renewal program
    Senator Markey broke ground for the Baron Building
    Governor Dukakis cut the ribbon for the building opening
    Proud of my background in Chelsea
    Now living in Az
    My cousin Dr David Barron, also lives here, great Chelsea Basketball player
    Many fond memories

  2. I was born at the Chelsea Memorial Hospital in 1945. My 1st home was at 107 Clark Ave. Moved to 85 Clark Ave. Lived on Marlboro St. and Cary Ave.My father was born in the Ukraine. There was a shul across the old high school. I spent much time at the Y.M.H.A. I taught in Chelsea for 36 yrs. Was Pres. of the Teachers’ Union. Want to drive around and see what’s going on. My children won’t take me. They’re afraid!!!

    1. hi ferna

      i’ll take you around Chelsea if you want

      there is also a walking tour of Jewish Chelsea by Ellen Rovner

      you can find them online

      maybe you would enjoy that

  3. Thanks, Arnie! I want to add that your exhibit is stunning and compelling–it’s a must see before it’s gone. I am also a Chelsea native and I find the city today a wonderful place to walk around. Chelsea’s 1.8 sq. miles contain so much history and so many cultural layers. In my experience, Chelsea is vibrant, colorful, and safe! Join us on a tour or wander on your own. You’ll love it.

  4. Hi,

    I grew up in Chelsea, born in 1955 and graduated CHS in 73. Loved the city. My dad Louis worked at the post office in Bellingham Sq. and at Kirshon’s Paint. He always told jokes, people loved him, and he loved making them laugh.

  5. I lived at 33 John St…… went to Carter School and when I was 12 my parents moved my sister Judi and myself to Milwaukee Wisconsin….it was like another country to us…….we visited Chelsea many times walking the streets and stopping for coffee on Cary Square….we shared memories with everyone we met………..Yes, the city had changed….new faces of immigrants and new store fronts………but our house still looked good and the owners let us come in to see it…..we went to the Cary House like we used to once a month when we were little girls…….we went to Revere Beach and although everything was different there was still the best hot dog stand to have with our root beer…….No matter how Chelsea changes…..it will always have a special part of my heart….and whoever I meet from there feels the same…….we were poor and we didn’t know it….it was and still is a love affair…..Good Luck Chelsea……….Barbara Weiner Kruck

  6. What I read was great. If you wrote a book I want it !!!!!! There are many of those who down Chelsea, it is a poor city but rich with those of us who grew up there and got good educations, went to good colleges and made something of themselves. And I feel that those who have resettled there will do as well as we have, but it does take lots of work. Barbara Schultz Rothman, CHS Class of 1961
    Barbara schultz Rothmans

  7. LlI am the son of. Rabbi kalman lichtenstein rabbi of walnut st synagogue from 1950-1980 and am interested in hearing from those people who knew my parents

  8. My father owned the Prattville Pharmacy in Prattville. I worked there through my high school years. If you have any photos of that area or a book showing Chelsea through the 70s, I’d be excited to see them.

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