By Richard Heath
Special to the Gazette
Joe Monahan has been the barber of White City in Jamaica Plain since the Eisenhower administration.
For those who don’t know, White City is that edge of Forest Hills which takes its name from a row of five white stucco apartment buildings, built on Hyde Park Avenue between Southbourne and Northbourne roads in 1912; they were razed in 1977 for Woodbourne Apartments.
They were built as part of the Woodbourne development and in 1913 a row of 15 brick storefronts were built on Hyde Park Avenue to serve the new neighborhood.
Monahan opened his barbershop at one, 262 Hyde Park Ave., on the corner of Eldridge Road in March of 1959. Now 86 years old, he’s retiring today, Sept. 14.
“I just wanted to get on my horse, wave my cowboy hat and ride into the sunset,” Monahan said last week, “but people won’t let me. I had the Patriot Ledger here the other day.”
Monahan is 86, but his hands are rock steady and his eyes still sharp as this writer knows after many visits in Joe’s barber chair. Still, he had to admit that recent illness and his wife Rosaslie’s health forced him to make the decision he didn’t want to make.
“Saturday was always my busiest day,” Monahan said. “Friday and Saturday. I was busy with so many kids in the neighborhood.”
“It was a nice neighborhood, still is,” he said. “Everyone had children. Three or four kids and they all came here. Probably 500. I had a part-time barber. We had three schools; Parkman, Seaver, and St. Andrews.
“Day before school kids would stand in line outside the door, sit on the mailboxes outside or play stickball on Eldridge waiting their turn. Fathers and sons came here.”
Monahan is from Twin Mountain, New Hampshire, near Cannon Mountain.
“I grew up in the mountains,” Monahan said. “That’s why I moved to Canton, to be near the mountains of the Blue Hills.”
Monahan came to Boston in 1951 to attend the Massachusetts School of Barbering, then on Washington Street near the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
“I had to do something,” Monahan said. “I didn’t want to go to college. I wasn’t cut out for college. I had a friend who was a barber, so I came down here for that.”
Monahan roomed with another barber on Gainsborough Street until he got his apprentice license, then took a job at Maurice’s Barber Shop on Corinth Street in Roslindale. He got his master license two years later.
“I was there two, three years,” Monahan said. “Bill and Jack Cuddy sold donuts in Roslindale Square and they told me about a barber shop next to White City Donuts on Hyde Park Avenue, so I opened my own business. Mike Ballasalle owned the building. It was always a barber shop; before me there were Italians. One died in the shop.”
In 1957, Monahan married a Dorchester girl from St. Mark’s Parish, and after a few years living in Dorchester, he and Rosalie moved to Canton in 1960.
“My wife was horrified,” said Monahan. “She was a city girl. She thought we were going to the wilderness.”
“The eight-mile commute wasn’t bad then,” he said. “I had a ’55 red-and-beige Chevy. Best car I ever had. But the 15 minute commute now takes an hour.”
Joe and Rosalie had nine children; all raised on his barber shop earnings.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I was always busy. Fifty cent haircuts then for kids. Not many vacations. I had rent and overhead and a mortgage, but I’ve always lived simply.”
Monahan still has the first dollar he ever made from his first customer cased in plastic in a drawer below the razors: wrapped in a note that reads “Jack Woodburn. March 10, 1959.”
Monahan talked about the business district then: White City Cleaners, Cuddy’s Donuts, the Liggett Rexall drugstore, the grocer and shoe repair shop.
“Brewster Ambulance used to be a curtain factory,” he said. “They’d sell retail from a store next to the factory on Saturdays. There was a pharmacy near Southbourne where the auto parts store is now.”
“There was always a grocery store here where J+G’s is now. But for a while it was Elias Maroun’s tailor shop. He got burned out of the North End, but the tailoring got too much for him, so he sold it to two brothers who opened White City Market.”
“A lot of police lived in the neighborhood,” said Monahan. “That was when cops had to live in the city.”
“I had three or four priests from St. Andrews,” Monahan said. “Some of them were great.”
Business slowed in the late ‘60s.
“Long hair came in,” said Monahan. “The hippie movement. The Beatles. Nobody got a haircut. They let it grow long and cut it themselves. Hundreds of barber shops closed. It was a tough seven, eight years. But business picked up.”
“I used to do a lot of kids but I stopped about ten years ago,” Monahan said. “I couldn’t put up with all the moving around and crying.”
Today more families are moving back to Woodbourne, he admits, but his business has changed. Many of his customers are from the old neighborhood who moved away, but come back for a haircut.
Steve Hughes stopped in while Monahan was talking. Hughes lived next door on Eldridge Road; his family moved in 1971. Retired now, he lives in Pembroke, but was in the neighborhood doing some part-time signal work for the MBTA.
Businesses come and go in Jamaica Plain: Freddy’s Market, Doughboy Donuts. Pearls Candies, Hailers Pharmacy, Barry’s Deli, Kennedy’s Butter and Egg; one day soon it will be others.
They all had loyal customers, but Joe Monahan has friends.
“I’m going to miss all these people,” Monahan said. “Thirty, forty years. Every day I see a friend. These aren’t my customers, they’re my friends. We love each other. It’s very hard for me.”
One customer complained that he has to find a new barber.
“You’re losing a barber? I’m losing 500 friends,” said Joe Monahan.