I went back to my roots last week. I had to escape the heat of the desert Southwest. I had to feel an ocean breeze. I had to return to my childhood home. I needed to experience again the sights and sounds and smells of the North End. I had to replenish my spirit.
I found a North End apartment on VRBO and I rented it for three nights.
What I discovered was that today’s North End is not the North End of my grandmothers. It is vibrant and alive with young professionals. Millennials walking around in their high-heeled sandals with cell phones in hand have replaced the Italian immigrant women in their black dresses and lace-up shoes carrying shopping bags from the butcher and bakery shops.
The Boston I Market on Hanover Street where my mother used to shop has been replaced by the Golden Goose market on Commercial Street. Going there with my 91-year-old Aunt Mary who still lives in the neighborhood was an experience. The shop specializes in gourmet cheeses, fresh carved meats and specialty foods. My aunt loved the sample bite-size hot dogs on a toothpick. While I was searching for cheese and crackers, she was enjoying the free appetizers. “Natalie Ann, come here, take one. They’re really good.”
The apartment my husband and I rented was ideally located near St. Stephen’s Church. It was completely renovated with hardwood floors, granite counters and stainless steel appliances in the kitchen. It was a second floor walk-up.
I grew up in a cold water flat on the second floor. I used to bound up the stairs and run down taking two steps at a time. We played jumping games on those stairs which drove my aunt crazy. “Go on. Go play outside,” she scolded.
This time I carefully walked down the hardwood stairs holding on to the railing, trying hard not to make noise. We were warned not to disturb the other tenants.
Our rental apartment had a spacious tile shower in the bathroom. Back then there was no bathtub or shower in my childhood apartment. We had the North End Bathhouse. My cousin Lucille who grew up with me in my grandmother’s building on the fourth floor recalls the Saturday nights at the bathhouse when all the young girls would be getting ready for their big dates, doing their hair, primping and putting on make-up, gossiping about boys. A true communal experience!
We didn’t have the Greenway carousel and the Christopher Columbus Park to enjoy. If we wanted to cool off in the summer, we splashed in the Boston Common fountain. Or we spent an afternoon at the North End pool which had recently opened.
And, of course, I fondly remember the feasts that took place all summer long. St. Joseph’s, St. Anthony’s, Madonna della Cava, the Fisherman’s Feast. We used to sit in front of my mother’s aunt’s building across from the fire station on Hanover Street watching the people, eating slush or quahogs from a cart, and spitting out salted pumpkin seeds. The finale was the procession on Sunday with the saint’s statue held high on the men’s shoulders.
As a young girl, I also took part in a procession. I am the girl with angel wings and a crown marching in front of that same fire station in 1955. The statue of the Virgin Mary is carried by two girls in front of me while the pastor and a priest from St. Stephen’s Church follow in the rear.
Today’s feasts in the North End may not be like the feasts I remember, but the spirit and the essence remain the same. The feasts are the quintessential experience of a North End summer.
It’s true that my grandmothers would not recognize the old neighborhood where women spent hours looking out of their windows, elbows resting on pillows on the window sill, watching out for their neighbors and their children.
But if they were to walk these streets again, they would feel at home.
About the top picture: It is from the 1955 Boston Post. I’ve searched various web sites and made some phone calls trying to identify the priests in the picture, but have had no luck. (I’m thinking they were Fr. Sullivan and Pastor O’Day, but I could be very mistaken.) If you know, please leave a comment below.
Natalie Romano Cinelli