The first Italians arrived in the North End in the 1860s when the political and economic situation in Italy had become untenable. Their numbers grew here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most were unskilled laborers and lacked the ability to speak English. They faced severe discrimination and took what jobs were available with their limited resources. The North Bennet Street Industrial School within the North End offered classes in the trades to these new immigrants. Many of the first arrivals worked as vendors of fruits and vegetables. Later they acquired work in commercial fishing, shipping, and in construction building subways.
Like the Jewish immigrants to the North End, they sought help from family members and acquaintances from the same regions of Italy who had already established themselves in the area. The help from others of the same regions created neighborhood enclaves. Over the next decades, the Italian population of the North End increased and other immigrant groups moved elsewhere. By 1900, Italians had firmly established themselves in the North End, and by 1930, the North End was nearly all Italian.
The old Italian North End for me began around 1951-52. My father was born on Charter St. in the Saint Joseph Society building. But, he was raised in the “old country” and emigrated back to America before my arrival with my mother and two sisters. A story repeated by generations.
Some people honored Saint Anthony and lived on Endicott Street area. The feast has been celebrated since 1919 when a group of Italians from Montefalcione settled in the North End of Boston. The Sicilians from Pietraperzia were devoted to Maria SS Della Cava, near Battery St., all proud people supporting their old country patron saints in a tradition that continues to this day. Countless hundreds of thousands of people have come to see the feasts.
Geographically, the North End sits at the heart of the American Revolution, a place where Paul Revere home may still be visited. Today the Freedom Trail’s red brick pathway brings a continuous flow of tourists and dollars keeping all businesses thriving. The hustle and bustle has replaced the somewhat village like character of the past.
The old elevated highway or expressway was a blessing in disguise as a demographic barrier from the Financial District. In a way, it protected the residential ethnic flavor of the neighborhood from encroaching gentrification. Yuppies were not on the menu of the old North End. Once that barrier was removed, the 98% Italian neighborhood has been reduced to 10% because of rising property values.
There are nearly a hundred thriving restaurants from the five or six in the 1950’s. Ciro’s, Ida’s, the European. I sold newspapers from Fiore Christy’s Smoke Shop. All the restaurants owners and staff were kind to the paperboys by letting us in and solicit their customers.
I remember a sweet grandmotherly, Mother Anna, sitting in her restaurant. Then, there was Felicia, owner of a fine restaurant of her name sake. A kind woman who bought me my own violin when I was taking lessons. She had a sense of real community and hospitality quite common in native Italian villages brought here to America.
Today, the thriving restaurant community has put the North End on the map with its award winning accolades. The economic future of this area looks very sound and the Italian flavor has been secured by its thriving business that bring millions of visitors each year.
The Italian population today in has gotten much smaller in recent years with sky-rocketing property values that have forced many of the less affluent residents to move elsewhere. Increasingly, the residents of the North End are young professionals attracted to the area by its proximity to their downtown offices, by the North End’s narrow streets and brick buildings, by its safety and sense of community, as well as by its decidedly European ambience. Although Italians presently make up less of the population of the North End, its old world Italian flavor has been preserved.
Phil Bellone grew up in Boston’s North End in the 1950’s and 60’s. He writes eclectic articles, about the old and new Boston.