The photo I’m sharing today comes from a postcard dating from the 1890’s. It depicts Salem St. looking towards Cross St. The photographer was most likely standing near Blackstone St. in front of the new Boston farmer’s Market. At that time Salem St. was mainly a Jewish colony although Italians were starting to move in.
It’s interesting that someone thought the North End was worthy of a post card but I suppose our neighborhood was always considered somewhat exotic.
The Irish were among the first non native ethnic groups to populate the North End. There were some early Portugese and French Canadians but after the terrible potato famine of the 1840’s the Irish arrived in droves. I read that the North End Irish were mainly from County Donegal while those who settled in South Boston came from Galway. St. Mary’s Church on Thacher St. was built in 1835 to service these Irish immigrants and it quickly became one of the largest parishes in Boston. There was a lot of Nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment on the part of the Yankee Puritans. Donald Trump would have felt right at home then, and the Irish suffered the brunt of this prejudice. In 1859, the pastor of St. Mary’s, Bernard Wiget, S.J. tried to defend a young boy, Thomas Whall, a student at the Eliot School, who was whipped for thirty minutes for refusing to read a passage from the Protestant bible. The teacher who whipped the boy was exonerated by the school committee and this incident led to the founding of St. Mary’s parochial school.
The history of the North End is one of constant change. After the Civil War, Eastern European Jews began arriving in large numbers. Like so many ethnic groups they came with nothing but what they could carry and the tenements of the North End offered cheap, affordable housing. By the turn of the twentieth century there were over twenty synagogues in the North End, small shuls that most likely serviced people from the same village or town [See Jewish Synagogues of the North End). The Jewish section formed a rough triangle encompassing Salem, Prince and Endicott Sts and many of the storefronts depicted in the postcard were owned by Jews. On the right side you can see two dry goods shops, one selling used shoes and the other curtains. On the left is a plumbing shop and what appears to be a food store.
I have a book in my possession published in 1899 entitled, “The History of the Catholic Church in New England”. The author, Fr. William Byrne, comments that the North End of that era was mainly Irish but, “A few years ago…Hebrews and Italians (began) supplanting Irish Catholics in the North End.” How shocking.
The Jews dominated this area from about the 1880’s until 1930 when they moved on either to the West End, where the apartments were larger and had central heating, or Mattapan/Roxbury where large synagogues such as Mishkan Tefila were being built.
Several years ago, I was speaking with Norman Leventhal who was my landlord at the time. Norman was one of the great Boston philanthropists and among his many developments are Rowe’s Wharf and the park in Post Office Square. Norman knew I lived in the North End and he told me his wife, Muriel, was born on Cooper St. We commiserated on how in her lifetime she went from a cold-water flat in the North End to a penthouse at Rowe’s Wharf, a wonderful American success story.
Even after the Jews left their tenement apartments they continued to have a major North End presence as landlords and shop owners on Salem St. Today the only thing left to remind us of the Jewish settlement is a small passageway off Salem St. called Jerusalem Place, the site of one of the shuls.
We haven’t had a contest in a while so it’s time for one.
The North End Union was a settlement house on Parmenter St. started in the early 1890’s by the Benevolent Fraternity of the Unitarian Church. During its early years it serviced mainly the Jewish residents. There was a much beloved social worker there who organized clubs, reading groups and social events for young Jewish girls. A water fountain (we called them bubblers) in the lobby was dedicated to her.
I will give a $20.00 gift certificate to the first person who can name her and give the biblical quotation inscribed on the fountain in the comments section below. The gift certificate is for Sam LaGrassa’s, home of our favorite pastrami sandwich, located in Downtown Crossing. I know, it’s not the 2nd Avenue Deli but give it a try.
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.