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Life on the Corner: Clinton Street Market

With all the media hype about building an Olympic stadium at Widett Circle I thought our readers would like to see where the wholesale fish, meat and produce dealers were located before the city moved them out in the 1970’s.

Would you be surprised to know they were right here in the North End?

The two pictures I am sharing today show the North End/Waterfront before redevelopment, when Boston had a real working waterfront.

The first picture is a postcard I own and was probably taken from the Custom House in the mid 1930’s. The postmark says 1938 and the elevated railway, which was removed in the early 40’s, is still there. The wharves in East Boston were still active at that time with several steamships visible. Before the interstate highway system was built the easiest way to travel between port cities was by boat and Boston had an active coastal trade with ports up and down the East Coast and Europe. I remember taking the ferry from Rowe’s wharf to Nantasket beach in the summer.

The bottom part of the photo shows three North End wharves, Commercial wharf on the left, then T wharf and Long wharf. There is a steamer docked on the right side of Long wharf and several fishing boats, even some schooners, are at T Wharf. The long row of buildings along Atlantic Ave, where the waterfront park is now located, were the wholesale fish dealers.

At this time Boston was a major fishing port and boats would unload at T wharf or Packet pier. The dealers would cut the fish, pack it and ship to restaurants and retail shops. Lulu Marino, who worked as a fish cutter, told me that at certain times of the year he could look through cracks in the floor and watch sea turtles laying their eggs.

Across Atlantic Avenue from the fish dealers was the Clinton Market which you can see better in the second picture taken in 1949. This was the meat packing and distribution center for greater Boston. The Union Freight railroad went down Atlantic Avenue and delivered meat and produce to the warehouses.

If you look closely you will see the loading docks for the Clinton market. Every year, usually in the winter, a group of Micmac Indians would come down from Maine to work at the market unloading freight cars. They were taciturn, dour men who spoke their own language, slept under the loading docks and kept to themselves.

This entire area was a hub of activity and provided jobs for many North Enders. In the early 1970’s the city became concerned about the deterioration of the piers and old warehouse buildings. Redevelopment and gentrification became the new religion, wealthy urban pioneers would save the city.

The produce companies were moved to Chelsea, some fish dealers went to the South Boston fish pier and the meat dealers were resettled to Widett Circle which had better highway access. In the early 70’s, after most of the meat wholesalers had left, the Clinton Market had a suspicious fire and burned to the ground. The tallow and grease which impregnated the metal sheathed, wooden buildings made this fire difficult to control and it lasted for several days. It was one of the most spectacular fires in the history of Boston and the firefighters did an outstanding job keeping it from spreading.

Now there is talk about relocating the meat dealers back to the waterfront, this time to the Marine Industrial Park in the Seaport district, to make room for the Olympic stadium and what the boosters call a new and exciting urban neighborhood. Boy, they are going to have to put a lot of lipstick on that pig. The plans I’ve seen show anonymous, high rise apartment buildings bounded on one side by the southeast expressway and on the other by railroad tracks. It makes the South Bronx look attractive.

Every so often an idea comes along that is so breathtakingly bad it makes you wonder about the sanity of the people who proposed it. Moving the meat wholesalers to South Boston is one of those truly bad ideas. The Seaport District is already choking in traffic. When there is a convention at the exhibit center the entire area is in gridlock for several hours a day. Can you imagine how bad it would be if scores of delivery trucks were added to those streets? Enough is enough. The Olympics might be good for the city but please don’t saddle the inner city neighborhoods with ever more traffic, noise and pollution.

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.

2 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Clinton Street Market

  1. Nick another on the money aticale, I agree with not killing the city with tons of traffic we have more thsn we need now.
    Bobby Church

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