Life on the Corner: North Square Part 2, The Italian Banks

This is a scene from North Square about 1895. The Stabile Bank is on the left and the Hotel Rome on the right. The Stabile Bank moved to Hanover St. around the time of World War I.

In our grandparents time the three main shopping streets in the North End were Salem, Hanover and Endicott, in that order, but the business center of the North End was always North Square.

It would be difficult to over emphasize the importance of North Square in the day to day lives of the early Italian immigrants. North Square was the center of their lives. When they disembarked from the steam ships the first place they would go was North Square because it had all the essential services they needed. There were at least two Italian hotels in North Square, the Hotel Rome pictured here and the Angelo Hotel. There were other hotels located on the surrounding streets, the Piscopo Hotel, for example, was at 28 Fleet Street where La Summa restaurant is now located. If an immigrant didn’t have a friend or relative with whom he could stay, the hotels offered inexpensive shelter until they could get settled. Many would only stay a few days until they could get a train to another city where family, paesani or a job awaited. The coal mines of Pennsylvania and rural farms were common destinations for Italian men looking for work.  Tony Trio, who owned a wonderful and greatly missed pasta shop on Hanover Street, worked as a coal miner for many years before returning to the North End with his wife Genevieve. The Marini family own a large farm in Ipswich where they grow native fruits and vegetables for the local markets.

Vanda and Ezio at Marini Farm, Ipswich, 2015. Many Southern Italians were farmers, contadini, and wanted to work on farms in their new country.

North Square was also lined with tenement buildings, rooming houses, food shops and restaurants.  The most influential Italian newspaper, the Post Gazette, was on short Prince Street but, by far, the most important institutions were the Italian banks. These banks provided essential services for the emerging immigrant population. They accepted deposits and usually gave slightly higher rates of interest than conventional banks. They also issued money orders, sent telegrams and sold steam ship tickets. Oftentimes banks would help padroni loan money to poor Italian men for passage to l’America. Since these banks were privately owned they could and did speculate with depositor’s money. Abuses were rampant and some banks had mysterious robberies late at night with no witnesses. These Italian banks all went out of business during the Great Depression. Some were absorbed by larger banks and others simply filed for bankruptcy leaving depositors penniless.

The most famous Italian bank was the Stabile, pronounced STAH-bi-lay, Bank. Founded by Francisco Stabile in 1875 on Mulberry Street in New York it soon became the premier bank for Italian immigrants. Ten years later his younger brother, Gabriele, opened a branch in North Square. The bank prospered and moved to a much more impressive office at the corner of Hanover and Cross Streets. In 1932 the Stabile Bank closed because of the Great Depression and was absorbed by a larger bank. It still exists today and remains on Hanover Street as the Stabile branch of the Santander Bank. The Stabile family is very proud that, unlike other Italian banks, no depositor ever lost a penny in their bank.

In the days before ATM machines, electronic fund transfers, Bitcoins and other financial alchemy, runs on banks were a regular occurrence. Rumors would spread that a particular bank was short of cash and depositors would line up to withdraw their money. When one such crash was imminent, Gabriele Stabile told his tellers to gather all the cash from the vault and put it in the window facing North Square. He hoped this would convince depositors the bank had adequate cash reserves and, apparently, it worked.

You can still visit the original Stabile Bank in New York City.  A non profit group bought it from the Stabile family and transformed it into the Museum of Italian American History. Chinese shops have taken over the area and Little Italy, now called Little Chitaly, is an island of oregano in a sea of Chop Suey but it is certainly worth a visit for no other reason than to make you appreciate what we still have in the North End.

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.

15 Replies to “Life on the Corner: North Square Part 2, The Italian Banks

  1. I love the photo. All the men have hats on and ties. Probably a Sunday. Wonder if there was a church there. I know the Sacred Heart Church is there now but probable not then.

    1. Joyce, Sacred Heart Church was founded in 1888 so it was already there. I’m writing a couple of more articles about Sacred Heart which I hope will be interesting.

    1. You are right. Started in San Francisco by an Italian-American catering to the immigrant community there. I believe after the 1906 earthquake the proprietor went out and found his customers who were affected and made cash loans on the spot. No documentation, but on the honor system. Reportedly, he never lost a dime and all loans were paid back once people recovered. The bank developed such loyal following that it grew rapidly enough such that the owner needed to come up with a new name since his demographic changed. Prior to the interstate banking laws being changed, I believe it became the largest bank in California. Still was dominant in the fishing community, but if you were stationed in California in the military for any length of time, chances are you had an account there.

  2. Nick, Thanks. Great history, as always. If I recall correctly, after the Ponzi crash and some bank crashes, North Enders figured the only trustworthy place to save money was with Uncle Sam, in Postal Savings Bank accounts. In time, this led to the Hanover St. Post Office branch having the largest savings deposits of any post office branch in America. At least, that was the story I heard years ago. The U.S. Post Office shut down its savings bank activities in the 1960s.

    1. Great comment, Bob. Thanks. I think you are correct.
      The other thing that happened was the proliferation of Credit Unions which are owned by the depositors. We had at least two in the North End, the Social Services Credit Union located in the Industrial School and the Industrial Credit Union which still exists.


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