The old Italian laborers in the North End used to have a saying when they came home exhausted from ten hours of backbreaking work; “fatica poots” meaning work stinks, and for them it did, but finding a job was essential and the main reason they emigrated to America. Today, we’re going to look at how jobs have evolved in and around the North End.
The two photos I’m sharing today are of Washington Street around 1953. While not actually part of the North End, Washington Street is contiguous with our neighborhood. It was so much a part of our work and social life I thought it would make an interesting article.
Preservation Massachusetts has just designated the “Ladder District” with its nineteenth century buildings as one of the most endangered historic resources. In the 1970’s, suburban shopping malls began drawing people out of the city and downtown languished. That entire area between Washington and Tremont streets is now being re-invented as high tech startup companies move in. The streets are alive again with coffee shops, small restaurants and hordes of people moving about.
These post cards illustrate the part of Washington Street near Kneeland Street, the boarder of Chinatown and the garment district. Notice the street activity and the scale of the area. There were restaurants, clothing stores and old Vaudeville theatres recycled to show movies, all lit up with neon signage. This was our Times Square and everyone went there to work, shop, dine and meet their friends.
Today, we have the Ritz Carlton hotel and condominiums, the Millennium Tower and more high rises on the way. These vertical gated communities are fine as long as you live there, but they become self-contained neighborhoods and isolate wealthy people from the activity on the streets.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with my uncle about the changes he has seen in the North End during his ninety five years living here. He mentioned several things we already know; the exodus to the suburbs, urban renewal, gentrification, the diminishing influence of the Catholic Church and organized crime and the tremendous influx of tourists. “But, you know, Nicky” he said, “for me the biggest change of all is the lack of (blue collar) jobs. When I was young, a North End kid could graduate high school and easily get a good paying job within walking distance or a short trolley ride from home.”
My mother was one of eight children in a typical North End family. Her parents were immigrants who came to this country in the late nineteenth century and lived first on Prince Street and then on Salem Street. Neither one spoke much English. Her father was a barber and all the children were educated in the Boston Public Schools, none went to college. Here is a list of the jobs they had;
- The eldest, Louisa, worked for the State as a social worker and two nights a week in Filene’s Basement.
- My mother Emilia (Emily) was secretary to Frank L. Havey, the director of the North End Union settlement house.
- Aurora was a candy dipper (first rule, never lick your fingers) at Deran’s near North Station.
- Christina (Tina) was a stitcher in a clothing factory on Kneeland Street.
- Emidio (Mimmie) worked for the Veteran’s Administration when he got home from WW II.
- Norma was a sales girl at R. H. Stern’s on Tremont St, a wonderful department store where the elevator operators wore white gloves and there was a “notions” counter on the first floor.
- Alexander (Yankee) worked as a fish cutter at the Globe Fish Co. and then as a truck mechanic.
- Barbara (Dolly) was a clerk at Liberty Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Anonymous jobs for anonymous people but there was food on the table every night.
Every week they would cash their checks and give the money to my grandmother who kept it in a coffee tin over the sink. She would pay all the bills and give them each an allowance. As adults, the two boys got to keep all their pay but the girls continued receiving an allowance until well into their twenties.
The North End was surrounded by businesses that needed low wage workers. The fish markets along Atlantic Ave, the candy factories, the dry goods and hardware stores on Union Street, the garment factories on Kneeland Street, the department stores and so many others all needed workers which the North End and other neighborhoods provided. As wave after wave of immigrants came ashore in Boston the North End was their gateway to the new world, a place where they could find cheap shelter and a job. Every generation of residents reinvents the North End to reflect its own culture and desires and we see this happening today. Where we once had butchers, greengrocers and funeral homes we now have yoga studios, restaurants, boutiques and coffee shops. I think this is a positive development and a characteristic of a healthy, ever evolving neighborhood.
Seventy five years ago when my aunts and uncles walked to work they wore fedora hats, cloth coats and sensible shoes. Now, I see young North Enders going to work wearing yoga tights, flip flops and man buns. Times change, but as they walk to their new economy jobs I hope North Enders will remember the generations of workers who preceded them. The jobs and the clothes are different but the North End is still a great place to live.
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.