In our grandparents time the three main shopping streets in the North End were Salem, Hanover and Endicott, in that order, but the business center of the North End was always North Square.
It would be difficult to over emphasize the importance of North Square in the day to day lives of the early Italian immigrants. North Square was the center of their lives. When they disembarked from the steam ships the first place they would go was North Square because it had all the essential services they needed. There were at least two Italian hotels in North Square, the Hotel Rome pictured here and the Angelo Hotel. There were other hotels located on the surrounding streets, the Piscopo Hotel, for example, was at 28 Fleet Street where La Summa restaurant is now located. If an immigrant didn’t have a friend or relative with whom he could stay, the hotels offered inexpensive shelter until they could get settled. Many would only stay a few days until they could get a train to another city where family, paesani or a job awaited. The coal mines of Pennsylvania and rural farms were common destinations for Italian men looking for work. Tony Trio, who owned a wonderful and greatly missed pasta shop on Hanover Street, worked as a coal miner for many years before returning to the North End with his wife Genevieve. The Marini family own a large farm in Ipswich where they grow native fruits and vegetables for the local markets.
North Square was also lined with tenement buildings, rooming houses, food shops and restaurants. The most influential Italian newspaper, the Post Gazette, was on short Prince Street but, by far, the most important institutions were the Italian banks. These banks provided essential services for the emerging immigrant population. They accepted deposits and usually gave slightly higher rates of interest than conventional banks. They also issued money orders, sent telegrams and sold steam ship tickets. Oftentimes banks would help padroni loan money to poor Italian men for passage to l’America. Since these banks were privately owned they could and did speculate with depositor’s money. Abuses were rampant and some banks had mysterious robberies late at night with no witnesses. These Italian banks all went out of business during the Great Depression. Some were absorbed by larger banks and others simply filed for bankruptcy leaving depositors penniless.
The most famous Italian bank was the Stabile, pronounced STAH-bi-lay, Bank. Founded by Francisco Stabile in 1875 on Mulberry Street in New York it soon became the premier bank for Italian immigrants. Ten years later his younger brother, Gabriele, opened a branch in North Square. The bank prospered and moved to a much more impressive office at the corner of Hanover and Cross Streets. In 1932 the Stabile Bank closed because of the Great Depression and was absorbed by a larger bank. It still exists today and remains on Hanover Street as the Stabile branch of the Santander Bank. The Stabile family is very proud that, unlike other Italian banks, no depositor ever lost a penny in their bank.
In the days before ATM machines, electronic fund transfers, Bitcoins and other financial alchemy, runs on banks were a regular occurrence. Rumors would spread that a particular bank was short of cash and depositors would line up to withdraw their money. When one such crash was imminent, Gabriele Stabile told his tellers to gather all the cash from the vault and put it in the window facing North Square. He hoped this would convince depositors the bank had adequate cash reserves and, apparently, it worked.
You can still visit the original Stabile Bank in New York City. A non profit group bought it from the Stabile family and transformed it into the Museum of Italian American History. Chinese shops have taken over the area and Little Italy, now called Little Chitaly, is an island of oregano in a sea of Chop Suey but it is certainly worth a visit for no other reason than to make you appreciate what we still have in the North End.
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.