Commentaries

Life on the Corner: North Square, Part 1, Paul Revere & Banca Italiana

Here is a picture of Paul Revere’s house before it was restored. On the street level is a branch of the Banca Italiana and a cigar manufacturing business. The upper floor was divided into tenement flats. I think Paul would have liked his new neighbors.

When the Italian tsunami swept into the North End during the late 19th century Yankee Bostonians were aghast. Bad enough they had to deal with the Irish and the Jews but this new group was even more threatening. These Italians were a strange bunch. They were clannish and only socialized with their own kind, ate unpronounceable food that smelled of garlic, spoke strange languages and dialects and quickly formed secret societies and clubs. If that wasn’t bad enough, they lived in squalid, over crowded tenement flats in the oldest part of Boston, the very streets where John and Sam Adams, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty started the American Revolution.

In 1900 the historian and author, Francis Adams Drake, wrote a book about old Boston landmarks. It was essentially a walking tour of Boston, the city he loved, and here is how he described North Square;

“Nowhere in Boston has Father Time wrought such ruthless changes, as in this once highly respectable quarter, now swarming with Italians in every dirty nook and corner. In truth, it is hard to believe the evidence of our own senses, though the fumes of garlic are sufficiently convincing. Past and Present confront each other here in a stare of blank amazement, in the humble Revere homestead, on one side, and the pretentious Hotel Italy (Rome) on the other; nor do those among us , who recall something of its vanished prestige, feel at all at home in a place where our own mother- tongue no longer serves us.”

Well, that does it. I’m not inviting Mr. Drake or any of his friends to my daughter’s wedding. They can eat cold roast beef at the Somerset Club.

The United States for its entire early history had essentially open borders. The country was expanding westward and needed strong arms and backs to build new cities and railroads. The ruling elite of Europe were happy to get rid of their unruly under classes and foist the problems on the upstart Americans. It was only when the European rulers needed cannon fodder for their armies that they began to reassess their enthusiasm for sending their poor abroad.

There is a story that when the President of Italy visited a small town south of Naples he noticed only a few old women were there. Assuming the young people were out in the fields, he asked the mayor when he would be able to meet them. The mayor responded that if he wanted to see the young citizens of that town he would have to travel to New York or Boston.

Between 1900 and 1924 over 4 million Italians emigrated to the United States mostly to the large eastern cities but many went all the way to California. Anti immigration fervor reached a peak in the latter years of the 19th century with the rise of nativist groups like the Know Nothing Party. The Republican Senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, a Boston Brahmin whose attitudes concerning race and ethnicity would make Donald Trump blush, was the spokesman for the Immigration Restriction League and was instrumental in getting the Immigration Reform Bill of 1924 passed. This bill specified which groups were to be given favored immigration preference. Northern Europeans like Germans and British were allowed in much greater numbers than the undesirable Southern Europeans (Italians and Sicilians) or Eastern Europeans (Russian and Polish Jews).

Demonizing immigrants is an old and time honored tradition in this country, as American as apple pie. The anti immigrant rhetoric we are hearing today is alarmingly similar to an 1880 editorial in the New York Times entitled, “Undesirable Emigrants“. In it, the author condemned the, “promiscuous immigration of the filthy, wretched, lazy, criminal dregs of the meanest sectors of Italy”. Hateful words, but they reflect a commonly held attitude among the upper classes that borders on Eugenics, and we know where that led.

When you go into the voting booth this year and are tempted to “Make America Great Again” please remember that one hundred years ago other xenophobic demagogues were using the same invectives against your grandparents and great grandparents.

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

41 Replies to “Life on the Corner: North Square, Part 1, Paul Revere & Banca Italiana

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Kristine. Details like that really add a lot to our history.
      Do you know why the children are there? I hope they aren’t buying cigars.

  1. Nick you nailed it! Incredibly insightful article about the prejudice and ignorance our ancestors faced and the current immigrants now have to deal with . Thanks.

  2. Nick, your article made me proud to be Italian and from The North End. Love your articles. you are the North End historion’

  3. There is a difference between my Italian Grandparents that came here LEGALLY. They did NOT take all kinds of Benefits from the American People. They were fisherman that settle in the North end and they helped each other. They came to make a better life for themselves and their family. They didn’t break the laws to get here, they had to have a sponsor or family, again did NOT take from the Government of their new home land. Stop comparing Legal immigration with ILLEGAL immigration. We can not have a Sovereign Nation when we do NOT control Our Borders. By the way if a American jumps the border to Mexico, you get 10 yrs in Jail, No medical, welfare, food stamps or a Mexican Government trying to hide you.

  4. Wonderful article–like all the articles in this series. And I love the ending–am with you 100% in terms of xenophobia and immigration.

  5. How do the Germans, the French, the English-in short most Europeans feel about the influx of so many Muslims into their countries today? To draw a close comparison between the 19th century influx of Italians, Jews, Irish, etc with the threat posed by ISIS and other “radical” muslims is insulting. When Trump spoke out against permitting more people from the Middle East he was making the comment to highlight the fact that our national government agencies that are responsible for for vetting these people have admitted that they cannot do so. Until and unless a strong policy to do so is established, we need to be vigilent. Yes, for every 100 good people we let in or who just come in, (ps: over 500,000 have overstayed their visas just last year) there may only be 5-10 :bad guys”. How many :bad guys” brought down the towers? Wake up and see the world for what it is not what you wish it were. I like the history you present but please keep your politcal commentary to yourself.

    1. Vincent, what makes this country great is the fact people can express their opinion & their political comments as long as they are respectful toward one another .Your right is that you can disagree, but you can’t sensor or stifle comments because you don’t agree with them.As for Trump’s comments what is his plan? To ask people if their Muslims & if they answer no we let them in ? I suggest you read what was done to Japanese Americans [who were born here] after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

      1. I object not to the fact that one has the right to express opinions but rather that they are placed into other commentary-esp those related to History. If one wants to make an editorial comment-fine. To make a political comment in the midst of an excellent historical article is unwarrented. As far as trump is concerned, what has been the Obama plan? Why are we even discussing the issue if all was well? We are facing many threats to our freedom-some internal but most of external nature. I know what happened to the Japanese and the Italians during WWII. Both of my parents were immigrants and I was the first in my family born in the USA. The question is about vetting those who wish to enter. We are being attacked on many fronts. Don’t raise issues that go beyond the security and common sense issues that we need to address. I don’t care what a person’s race, religion, sex, or whatever other crirerion they have. I want to know Who they are, where are they coming from, how do they expect to support themselves, are they will to assimulate, will they take the oath of allegence to our country and reject allegence to all others? Why are we we expected to just accept anyone who comes here without question? How many times do we need to see our citizens killed and/or demeaned around the world before we stand up for our own sovereignty? The Japanese Americans and the Italian Americans were hurt by policies of the Roosevelt administration (Democratic and very liberal) because we were at war. Both groups showed through the blood of their best that they were to be trusted. Their leaders pledged allegence to this country countless times. Now we are at war again. Many of the best in the Muslin community have proved themselves by serving in our armies. However many others have gone over to the enemy. You can not have already forgotten the Marathon bombings or the killings in California, France and elsewhere? I don’t think so but you choose to see a different lesson to be learned. Perhaps if we just gave them better jobs they would love us more. So comment all you want but please do not politicize your historical stories they way you did on this insight to early Boston.

  6. Kudos L.Giardiello. Every foreigner wants to come to the U.S. because we give them everything for
    free. Why wouldn’t they? This is only one of the major reasons the country is in this position. These
    people know the system better than we could ever know it. Some of them have various names with
    different addresses & collect checks at each of these addresses. I would think with all the
    technology we have this could never happen, but it does exist. Who the hell knows who is coming
    into the country, we made it far too easy to come in and they took advantage of it. Our citizens are
    living with poor water conditions in some parts of the country, student loans are over the top, our
    VETS, have it the worst. They lose their body parts to defend this country & they are told to go to
    a V.A. Hospital, what a joke. These people should go to any hospital they want, like Congress,
    and all other White House affiliates do. How dare they tell these poor men & women they can only
    get medical attention at a V.A. It is a Disgrace, and it doesn’t add up to me.

  7. Nick Thank you, I guess what goes around comes around. It is a shame how this country is now. Being Irish I understand.” Irish need not apply” I might add I Love the North End. My wife and I are there often.

  8. This is the most intelligent article I’ve ever read on this website. Nick Dello Russo, your ancestors would be proud of you.

  9. Least we forget about a modern day “immigrant group” called the “yuppies”. They moved in the N.E. In the 80’s. They bought real estate and modernized the buildings and settled in. All I heard from relatives was”they don’t belong here,”they are taking over”. What about those xenophobiacs?

    1. Actually, Joyce, the Yuppies saved the North End because they invested money and upgraded the buildings. That increased the tax base and made it more difficult for the BRA to impose “urban renewal” on the North End.
      The West End was lost because the old buildings weren’t generating enough tax revenue and it was more expedient to raze them than to renovate them.

  10. I totally agree Nick. I have nothing against the “yuppies”. My family made a lot of money when they sold their property in the North End. I was quoting my relatives and friends who made that comment, not me.

    1. to Vincent Caristo: Nicholas’ article was excellent and obviously enjoyed by all. Many readers do not understand why you took this ‘stand’ in response to an informative historical piece. Perhaps you are just thinking aloud ?

  11. Having been born and raised in the north end when it was still 99% Italian, I find some of the comments in here from the younger generation to be ill informed. Comments such as comparing Italian immigrants with the illegal immigrants of today, comments such as the yuppies saved the north end. I knew if no Italian immigrant in the 50’s or 60’s abusing our welfare system. And all the yuppies did was to force long time Italian Americans out of their homes because they had money and political pull and the politicians wanted the waterfront. Smarten up.

    1. the comment by someone comparing the yuppies to the discrimination ,bigotry & prejudice that the Italians,Jews ,Irish & others faced is totally laughable.

    2. Way to go J.Regnetta. I just want to add to your comment. One of the major developers who
      started condos was an original No. Ender. He got involved in one of the first developments, which
      referred to as the “BARN”, which is on No. Margin St. across from the parking lot. People left the
      No. End at the time because they thought the grass was greener, which it was, the No, End was
      considered a “Slum”. North Enders left and they went to Somerville, Everett, Revere & other
      surrounding cities. The conditions in the No. End at that time included some bathrooms in the
      hallways, heating systems were gas stoves, people went to what is now called the Nazzaro Center
      to take baths. The living conditions were & some still are deplorable. The developers who had the
      money came in, fixed up the property & rented & sold to those who could AFFORD IT. Did they
      beautify the North End, absolutely, did the class of people that came in (NOT YUPPIES) change
      the neighborhood as we knew, Definitely. Was it for the better, absolutely not. The value of
      property went up, but most of the people, NOT ALL, are responsible for our filthy streets, noise
      that keep children & elderly up, trash put on our streets improperly. Who is responsible for this?
      The Absentee Landlord & the City, who does not Enforce these rules & regulations. These people
      put their trash out before 5 and on any given day they want. They have no Pride in the Neighborhood
      because they are only living here for convenience and then they move out & go on with their lives.
      All these developers are building like crazy, NOT one built any for those over 55yrs. & older to be
      able to afford. The choices are very few Section 8 and then they jump up to beyond affordable
      housing. The Mayor mentioned by 2030 there should be more affordable housing for those who
      are considered Middle Income, are not eligible for Section 8 and certainly can’t afford to live in
      these High Risers they are building all around the No. End. I am not talking Senior Housing, I am
      talking affordable housing for those who are in between being Poor & Rich. Why should we have
      to wait until 2030? The answer is the same & always will be, “Greed”.

      1. The young professionals helped to augment the value of the North End. They are not known as ‘yuppies’, but rather well-educated men and women who take their lives and dwelling places seriously. Each day I see them parade off to work, and I truly cannot see them throwing garbage around or dancing around the street causing chaos. Time marches on and all things get better, and thanks to the newcomers, the BRA is held in abeyance in terms of urban renewal.

        1. In general, they do take their dwelling places seriously, but I don’t think that they take any PRIDE in anything beyond their unit’s hallway door or get involved in the neighborhood and community around them. Do they “throw garbage around”? No. But they do put it out when it suits them, in loose paper bags or any format that also suits them and I don’t see them picking up trash, shoveling snow or sweeping their sidewalks very often. I don’t think they are evil or anything. They just don’t feel the community ties, pride or concern that other generations and demographic groups have.

          1. on the flip side, some of the generational families here feel entitled and view any outsiders with disdain. that isn’t exactly community building either. the fact is there are good and bad old residents and new residents. my building is all new residents and there are no issues. i credit a lot of it to my landlord (yes, an italian gentlemen) with foregoing a few additional dollars in rental income to secure and maintain good tenants.

            1. True the animosity cuts both ways. However many of the newcomers refused to accept the customs & values of the original North Enders including you who left a post implying that NE residents use fraudulent Handicap placards , have the city put up a Handicap sign in front of their residence & place a cone & vandalize cars that park in their space.On this site I’ve read of “old timers”curmudgeons” disturbing people because the congregate on Hanover St. on Sunday & [God forbid} speak in Italian.I”ve read on this site people proposing doing away with traditions that date back over a hundred years{the Italian Festivals/Feasts} because someone is annoyed that on 4 weekends a year a few fireworks are shot off & the Roma band plays music”too loud” While the rest of us have to endure parties & drunks every weekend.

              1. michael – who exactly do you think are original north enders? the north end dates back to the 17th century. i have a feeling you think the neighborhood did not start until the italians arrived, but the fact is that it british, jews, irish and others were here first.

              2. Michael to me, the original No. Enders are those that I saw growing up as a
                Child. I am fully aware of those who came here before the Italians, and I remember
                the stores on Salem St., which were basically Jewish Owned, and know the
                Irish were here as well. I also remember there was no prejudice against any of
                these people, we all got along extremely well. I don’t think there were any
                people that thought it was a Generation of Entitlement. Do you remember those
                days? I will never forget them. I hope I answered your question.

        2. Jamison, The only people I am thankful to are those that move in the Neighborhood and
          comply with the rules, and don’t consider the North End just a pit stop along the
          way.
          I, too, have witnessed people going to work in the morning, but don’t tell me
          because they are responsible workers, they are not capable of trashing the Neighborhood;
          one thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

          The Absentee Landlord buildings are one of the No. End’s biggest problems, intelligence,
          does not come into play when they throw their trash out whenever they feel like it. I am
          not blind and I may not have the educational background that these people you talk about
          do, but most of them, NOT ALL, feel they are a Generation of Entitlement. There are people bringing
          up their Children & Elderly (some of which are original No. Enders) and they don’t like
          the idea of the Neighborhood looking like the City Dump. I was on Newbury St. and I happen
          to notice their Handy Cap Ramps, far superior than the No. End. They are made out of
          Concrete, not Tar, coming from the street and connecting to the Sidewalk. Very Tacky,
          Cheap way the City did this project, and Jamison there wasn’t any Trash on the streets,
          like we have. Are there original No. End people throwing Trash out when they want, if so,
          the Young Intelligent Professionals that you speak of OUT number the original No.Enders.
          The Bottom Line: People only get away with what you Allow Them To Get Away With.
          Once again, the City should make it Mandatory for every Landlord to have Cameras
          outside their Buildings, especially the ones with the Ongoing Trash Problems.
          Jamison, once again, we are not on the same page, and I don’t think we will ever be.
          I can’t look thru Rose Color Glasses & tell myself things got better, because the Trash is
          still a Major Issue in the Neighborhood, along with the Drunks that wake up Families &
          Individuals that have to go to work the next day, and they do live in these No. End Apts. These are my beliefs, and seeing is Believing.

  12. “Demonizing immigrants is an old and time honored tradition in this country, as American as apple pie.” It’s true. If you have parent(s) who immigrated here, you know it’s true. However, it’s not a tradition only here, in some countries immigration is almost impossible. Despite everything they chose to stay; They had children who fought our wars. They saved our freedom and traditions. All the stuff we take for granted today. They or some of use learned that freedom isn’t for free. Sometimes you have to earn it.

    This isn’t coming to you from Canada.

  13. JOAN OF ARC I Consider “original” No Enders to be people born & raised in the area in my lifetime not the residents of the 17th century.I remember Izzy’s on Prince St,Etta’s dress shop on the cornor of Prince & Salem,Sheldon”s clothing store on Salem as well as many other Jewish owned shops & meat stores on Salem St. In my opinion the warmth & the charm of the residents & the neighborhood are long gone replaced by the greed to try & turn the NE into New York, Beacon Hill or the Back Bay.I would trade the old NE [warts & all} over this version in a heartbeat.

    1. Michael, I am with you. There was a closeness & respect that does NOT exist any longer.

      I walked around the No. End yesterday with such disgust. Our gutters are gross & the weather
      has basically held up pretty well & the City gets another free ride & they just leave this filth and
      make no attempt of removing it. What a shame. These gutters are basically filled with Trash
      that was improperly bagged, and once again, these are Absentee Landlords. I know the
      Trash Pickers are also a problem, but the Trash that I have seen around the streets, don’t
      bag Trash properly, they could careless. Prince St. from Salem up to Hanover, Cooper St.,
      Endicott St., Charter St., Foster St., Sheafe St. parts of Commercial. The rats are loving
      every minute of it, look how easy it is for them.

      There are landlords that live in the No. End, own various properties and they don’t even know
      that their tenants are renting their apts. out to AIRBNBs. I realize that many Property Owners
      have Management Companies overseeing their properties, but as a Property Owner, shouldn’t
      the Landlord get more involved & know who the Management Co. is dealing with? This is
      where Cameras come into play, no Landlord should be without one.

      Isn’t it amazing how everyone forgot 911 and 1 of those Terrorist lived in Longfellow Place on
      the 23rd Floor. How do I know this? My friend lived across the hall from him. Landlords
      have to stop thinking of just the Money, they have to probe into the background of these people
      they are renting to, for safety sake. We had a Neo-Nazi on Salem St., who went thru a
      Real Estate Agency, and wanted to Blow Up the Zakim Bridge, thank God the FBI got him
      before he succeeded. Michael those days of feeling Safe are gone. The Mayor is looking to
      extend Liquor Licenses because our Poor City just isn’t making enough Revenue, what a Joke.

  14. Michael, nice memories of Sheldon’s. I loved his Hebrew accent. I remember my mother taking me to Etta’s for an Easter outfit.

    1. I loved Etta, she was one tough lady. We had some of the best shop lifters in the city in the North End and every so often someone would try boosting a dress at Etta’s. I once saw her chase a teenager who had grabbed a dress down Prince Street. Etta caught her and retrieved the dress. Etta was wearing high heels. Quite a feat.
      I think her last name was Leibowitz but maybe someone knows better.

Comments are closed.