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.

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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.

14 COMMENTS

    • In those days we all knew each other by nicknames rather than surnames. I’m sure if I saw a photo of that time, I probably would recognize them.

  1. Great article except for one thing, its not the same even in the last 10 years.Its crowded,dirty,too many cars and way too many resturants,not very good ones if i am going to be honest……

  2. I remember the old European restaurant. We were Malden/Medford kids in those days and went there for pizza and beer. Chuckie, the maitre’d would sit us down in the far left corner of the back dining room where Mando our waiter, noting our far from legal age, instructed us on the behavior protocol of the restaurant. We were to be “seen and not heard”, the first breach of this rule would be the last time we would be welcomed at the European. ” Capiche?” We heeded Mando’s missive and enjoyed many years of great European pizza and camaraderie.
    To my dear friend Phil Carrigan who clerked at the Thomas Hollis Apothecary in the basement of Faneuil Hall introduced us to the European, (Phil was an old looking 14 year, the youngest of our group).
    Phil passed away this past week in his 74th year. Fair winds and a flowing sea old pal.

  3. We really miss the European. We were steady customers for years on Friday nights after work. Chuckie in his tuxedo would always find a seat for us even in the busiest of times. Our most cherished main dish was chicken or veal marsala. The food was very good and the prices were most reasonable. Today the food is so-so and the prices are unreasonable. The European has now gone the way of other large restaurants, i.e., Pier 4, Jimmy’s. It certainly was a treasure. All we have left are the good memories.

  4. Great memories.
    I was about 7 or 8 years old in the Forties and also sold newspapers out of Fiore Christy’s a the corner of Prince and Hanover Streets. If memory serves, it was also a bookie joint. They wrote “the number” down on Necco wafer candy. If the cops raided the place, they ate the candy! Genius!
    I’d walk up and down the streets yelling “Payoff Extra here, get your Payoff Extra”! It was the last edition of the day for the old Boston Record (which I believe is now the Herald), and it included the horse racing mutual results. The Total’s three digits from right to left were “the number”. If you hit, a nickel got you $30. The average Italian laborer was earning “maybe” $15 a week. So, people had incentive to purchase the paper to see it they “hit the number”. The paper cost 3 cents. The worn out old timers usually gave me a nickel for running up the stairs to deliver the paper. “Eh, Wallyo, keepa da change”!
    Tips were big, times were good.
    My first lesson in capitalism and economics was when the Record American Corp. raised the price from 3 cents to a nickel. My tips disappeared.
    So I raised my sites and began shining shoes on the corners.
    Americana at it’s best.

    • There was a bookie parlor on Prince st.known as the “horse room” Place was operated by two brothers named Beegee and Dominic.Beegee took the horse bets while Domenic was the lookouts and too the street numbers action.

  5. Bobby C…Thoroughly enjoyed your comment. Not very often there are comments from our generation..although, I believe I may have been 5-6 years ahead of you. I too sold the Record/American and remember quite well how the tips disappeared at .05 cents a copy. My route was Washington and Tremont and finished up around Dock Square. We used to get our papers on Congress Street, I believe ? On good nights, I would sell the early and late additions. When tips declined, I took a job working for Sam at the old First National on Salem Street. Stay well..Vince S.

  6. I really enjoyed reading the article on the Old North End. I was familiar with
    the area, because of its close proximity to the West End, where I was born and
    raised.
    My mom and 2 siblings, had emigrated from Sicily in 1928. My mom had a
    difficult time on the journey……reason, she was with child….yours, truly!
    They arrived at Ellis Island on March 25, and I was in September.
    The original destination was California, but due to the ordeal of the transit
    at sea, we ended up in the West End where my dad had a step brother.
    One short step in a long story of a soon to be 90 y.o. God willing, to be continued.

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