When tourists visit the North End today they almost always come for the food. Is there a tourist who leaves the North End without a pastry box from Mike’s, Modern or Maria’s? We have some of the best restaurants, coffee and pastry shops and bakeries in the city, but this tourist trade is a fairly recent development. For most of the twentieth century North End shops were geared towards selling food and merchandise that would appeal to Italian Americans especially those who lived in the neighborhood and those who had moved on to the streetcar suburbs of Somerville, Medford, et al.
The three main shopping streets in the North End were always Salem, Hanover and Endicott. You might think that Hanover Street had the most shops but Salem Street actually had more, though they were smaller and more food oriented.
Endicott Street today is almost completely residential but I remember when it had an active street life with grocery stores, meat markets, barbershops and even a pharmacy.
By mid century, Salem Street had become the main local shopping street with a mix of butchers, fruit & vegetable shops, grocery stores, small dry goods stores like Sheldon’s, Meyer’s and Etta’s, and a few neighborhood luncheonettes; a nice mix of merchants who catered to local needs and tastes. The butcher shops were region specific, people whose family came from Abruzzi would patronize Abrusseze butchers because they would make regional delicacies like special sausages. Old North Enders will remember the trays of honeycomb tripe in the windows and the lamb skins hanging outside at Easter. Fridays and Saturdays were the busiest days on Salem Street because that was when the out of town Italians came back to do their shopping and keep up with neighborhood news.
Hanover Street had a completely different feel and had the larger dry goods stores, restaurants, coffee and pastry shops. It was always the busiest street in the North End. You could find activity there twenty four hours a day.
Today, I am starting a three part series, a walk down Hanover Street in the late 1940’s. I hope these pictures will give you a sense of what life in the North End was like at that time. There are two other photos that will follow over the next week or two, so stay tuned.
This first photo shows a part of Hanover Street that was demolished to build the Central Artery and is now part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The photographer was standing on Blackstone St. looking towards Cross St. and, at the corner of Cross, you can see the building where Mother Anna’s restaurant is still located.
On the right side of the photo are two long gone but much loved North End restaurants, Venice and Freda’s. All the wise guys hung out at Freda’s and my father worked there as a bartender when he mustered out of the Army in 1945.
On the other side of the street are several dry goods stores, a shoe store on the corner, Savage & Sons, Ida’s Bridal Shoppe, Barden’s and Emil’s. No need to go to malls, which didn’t exist, when you had these great stores right in your neighborhood. In the distance you can see Arthur’s, which I mentioned in a previous post, and beyond that the twin stacks of the Lincoln Wharf power station.
Hanover Street used to extend all the way from Commercial Street to Scollay Square. The further you got towards Scollay Square the seedier the shops became. Beyond Blackstone street there were joke shops, Army & Navy stores and some scuzzy bars but what a great urban environment it was.
People used to think the North End was a dangerous place. My wife’s parents warned her never to go there but does it look scary to you? There are children walking beside the shoe store, well dressed men and women on the sidewalks and the overall impression is one of a vibrant, inner city neighborhood. These types of urban neighborhoods are common in Europe but rare in the United States and visitors from Europe always comment on how European Boston feels.
Street life and public spaces are what define livable cities. In the North End, we not only have the Prado but many winding pathways and hidden spaces that visitors love discovering.
For years everyone wanted to leave the North End, now it seems everyone wants to live here. The city has run out of space, land is expensive and developers want to build bigger and higher. But as this photo illustrates, the human scale of a city is what makes it interesting and livable. Does the North End / Waterfront really need any more vertical, high rise gated communities?
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.