This is the second of a two-part series on the destruction of the old West End in the name of urban renewal. Catch up with Part 1 here.
For over thirty years Felicia Solimine was a North End institution. In 1958 she opened Felicia’s on Richmond St. and it immediately became one of the North End’s most popular restaurants. Felicia played hostess for many local and international celebrities. Bob Hope, Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra and so many others ate there when they were in town. Her food was red sauce Southern Italian but very good and the waiters had just the right amount of North End swagger.
Dining at Felicia’s was dinner theatre before they invented dinner theatre. Felicia was also a relentless self-promotor. Every year she would fly to Palm Springs to cook for Bob Hope at his celebrity golf tournament. All the newspapers and TV stations would see her off at Logan airport and film her carrying her pots and pans up the companionway where she would smile demurely and wave at the cameras. Felicia was a marketing genius and one of her brilliant ideas was naming some of her special dishes after celebrities. The Chicken Verdicchio was named for Bob Hope, the Veal Margherita for attorney F. Lee Bailey, and her Chicken Bianco was named for Melvin (Mel) Massucco.
Today, no-one knows who Mel Massucco was but in the middle of the twentieth century he was a local celebrity and power broker. Mel started out as a newspaperman with the old Record American and ultimately became the picture editor for the three Hearst newspapers in Boston, a very important job at the time. But that doesn’t come anywhere near describing his prominence and influence. Mel knew everyone who was worth knowing. Presidents, sports figures, businessmen and politicians were all Mel’s friends. He was very close to Foster Furcolo, the Governor of Massachusetts, who in 1957 appointed Mel to become one of the founding members of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. This was an incredibly powerful position because the fate of entire neighborhoods depended on the whims of the BRA. The BRA controlled all development in Boston and Felicia’s restaurant was Mel’s second office. It was there he wined and dined businessmen, real estate developers and politicians with Chicken Bianco a la Mel Massucco and a bottle of Lacrima Christi wine.
Felicia’s was only one of many popular North End restaurants, Stella’s, Giro’s, Cantina Italiana and the European were others and restaurants were only one of many neighborhood businesses. Salem, Endicott and Hanover streets were lined with shops, the fishing industry was centered on Atlantic Avenue and the meat and produce warehouses were on Commercial and Fulton streets. The North End was an economic powerhouse for the Italian American community and had a much more robust business culture than the West End. The shops in the West End were mostly Mom & Pop stores and nothing there was remotely comparable to Hanover Street.
The official party line was the North End was spared because there was so much moral outrage at the destruction of the West End, but I don’t believe that tells the whole story. From the City’s standpoint, the building of Charles River Park was a tremendous success and accomplished all that Mayor Hynes intended. In fact, the BRA was ready to move the bulldozers on to the North End and then to the so called New York streets of the South End. Boston officials looked at what Robert Moses was doing in New York City and tried emulating his slash and burn style of urban planning.
Our State Representatives, JoJo Langone and Mike Nazzaro had considerable clout in the legislature and they aggressively advocated for the North End. City Counsellor Gabriel Francis Piemonte, aka Penitentiary Gabe, also made impassioned pleas for saving the neighborhood. Gabe didn’t actually live in the North End but he owned a lot of local real estate and held court at his unofficial office, the back card table in the Florentine Café’.
I believe the North End was spared because it had something the West End lacked and that was money, lots of money, and money buys influence. The only crime the people of the West End were guilty of was being poor and because of that they didn’t matter to the Boston Redevelopment Authority and power elite of the city.
Of course, the most important and profitable industry in the North End, by far, was gambling, the numbers game, and the profits from that traveled up and down through the system. A lot of cottages down Popponesset were bought with money that came from the North End. As a child I always wondered why such a poor neighborhood, which the newspapers called a slum, had so many banks and credit unions? It seemed incongruous but there was, and still is, an awful lot of money sloshing around the North End mostly in the shadow economy. The West End was sacrificed to urban renewal because the land was more valuable than the people. In the North End the people were more valuable than the land because of the number of businesses and the wealth they generated. It was a close call but we prevailed.
I almost forgot, I mentioned in Part 1 that sex was somehow involved in the West End project. Well, as soon as Charles River Park was built several members of the legislature and at least one Boston mayor rented apartments through their political slush funds to use as “offices”. Many years ago when one of my good friends was a surgical resident at Mass General, he had an apartment in CRP on the same floor as the mayor. On many mornings on his way to the hospital he would meet the mayor leaving his apartment accompanied by a young woman, always a different one. During his time there he was introduced to Maureen, Shannon, Erin, Catie, and many others. Strangely enough, they all had jobs at City Hall. You have to love this town.
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.