We live in an era, and in a country, where the government provides a wide range of social and educational services for its citizens. Newly arrived immigrants can obtain housing, food, a monthly stipend and even an education in their native language all paid for by the Federal and State governments. But imagine you were someone coming to America a hundred or so years ago. The only safety net our grandparents had was their family, friends (paesani) and their ability to do the back breaking work relegated to poor immigrants. Health insurance and welfare were unknown in the North End. My parents never had health insurance nor did I until I started college. I remember how strange it felt knowing that if I got sick someone else would pay for it.
Back then public charities were funded by wealthy private citizens who had a social conscience. We in the North End were very fortunate to have a settlement house/social services agency founded by one of the greatest of Boston philanthropists, Pauline Agassiz Shaw. That institution was the North Bennet Street Industrial School.
Pauline Agassiz was the daughter of the noted Harvard Naturalist, Louis Agassiz. When she married Quincy Adams Shaw at the age of nineteen, she became one of the wealthiest women in America. She used her resources to help the poor people of Boston, especially children. For several years, she personally funded 31 free kindergartens. Mrs. Shaw’s portrait hung in the main lobby of the NBSIS, no doubt keeping a watchful eye on all the people who benefited from her gift to the North End.
As a child I spent most of my time at the North End Union because it was right around the corner from my parent’s flat and my mother was secretary to the director, Mr. Frank L. Havey. I joined the NBSIS when I was about eleven years old because my pal Bernie Bamonte was a member and he told me how great it was. Boy, was Bernie right.
Both the North End Union and the NBSIS had after school play groups. At the NEU the play group was held in Hubbard Hall and was ruled over by Mrs. Martha Blum. Mrs. Blum broached no nonsense and children were expected to act with proper decorum. Shaw house at the NBSIS was very different. The head social worker there was John T. Dexter, Mr “D”, aided by Mario DeLeo and later Sam Rimini. Mr.”D” was a classic, taciturn Yankee and he led Shaw house not by intimidation but by example. Always a gentleman and impeccably dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and Glen plaid suit, “D” treated all us boys with calmness and respect. He taught us to communicate with each other not with our fists but with words. Who knew?
Along with Bernie Bamonte and Anthony Cortese I spent a weekend at D’s farm in Wolcott, Vermont where we learned that electric cow fences really packed a wallop, skunks liked out houses and pasture patties were slippery. We couldn’t wait to get back to the safety of the North End.
Pauline Shaw started the after school play group, named Shaw House, to give children a safe place to go while their parents were still at work. Being out on the streets after school was dangerous (but fun) and it supposedly kept us out of the pool halls and gambling clubs so common in the North End. Several generations of North End boys literally grew up in Shaw House and much of the success any of us achieved was due to the vision and generosity of this remarkable woman and the wonderful social workers who oversaw Shaw House, Mr. “D”, Mario, Sammy and, of course, “Uncle Fred” Carangelo.
Sadly, Shaw House no longer exists. The children’s program was transferred to the old bath house (Nazzaro Center) where Pauline Shaw’s work is still being carried out by Patty Tanzo, John Romano and Carl Ameno. North End children are still in good hands.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.