It’s a misty day on Hanover Street during the late 1940’s. The street was still paved with cobblestones at that time and don’t those old cars look terrific? They give the scene a noir feel which seems right in character. This photo was taken from the corner of Cross Street looking North towards the Coast Guard base.
The buildings are essentially the same as today but the mix of shops is very different. On the left is the European restaurant, a North End institution for a generation. The food was red sauce Italian but surprisingly good. The prices were always moderate and where else in the city, other than Chinatown, could a party of eight without a reservation be seated immediately?
When you walked in the door you were greeted by Chuck the severe, unsmiling maitre d’ who always wore a pastel tuxedo. If Chuck liked you he would seat you on the first floor, if he didn’t you were banished to the cavernous upstairs room. They held a wake at City Hall when the European closed.
Two department stores are visible, Arthur’s on the right and Newman’s on the left. Right under the Arthur’s sign is a smaller sign for the Cafe Roma, a wonderful coffee and pastry shop, and one of many on Hanover Street.
When we look at these old photos we are naturally drawn to the street activity but if you divert your attention to the second floor windows you will see that many of them have signs. That was because in addition to retail shops the North End also had many white collar professionals, doctors, lawyers, dentists and accountants, who catered to the needs of Italian Americans. When this photo was taken there must have been ten physicians in the North End, all general practitioners, and a truly remarkable group of men. At a time when no one had health insurance they treated North End people with kindness and compassion and they never refused a patient for lack of money. I always wondered how they could possibly make a decent living when an office visit was $5.00, a house call $10.00 and people only went to the doctor if they were really sick? (I also wondered the same thing about banks. Why were there so many banks in a supposedly poor neighborhood and all of them crowded?)
About fifteen years ago I met an elderly man at my Mass General office who asked to see me because he knew my family in Medford. When he heard I lived in the North End he was elated because he told me he used to work there. Odd, I thought, he had an Irish name and at first I thought he must have been a police officer. When I asked what he did he lowered his voice and placed his hand over his mouth and told me he was a drug “detail man” for Merck Sharp & Dohme. He called on all the doctors and pharmacies in the North End. In fact, he said, some of the North End doctors were among Merck’s best customers. I couldn’t imagine what he could have sold them; there were only a few antibiotics available at that time, penicillin, aureomycin and sulfa. Were those the drugs they bought? He was very reluctant to tell me but I finally got to the truth, the drug was testosterone which just became available in the late 1940’s. Unbelievable, but it made perfect sense. In the era before Viagra, testosterone injections could make a middle aged man feel like a teenager, and you had to get re-injected every two to four weeks. Pretty good business model. Of course testosterone had many side effects including increased aggression and violent behavior. Hmmm, makes you wonder.
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.