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North End Roof Gardens

Living in Boston’s North End in the 50s and 60s with its winding narrow streets and alleyways, it was always amazing to see so much greenery growing on fire escapes and on our flat patio rooftops.

North End Roof Garden, courtesy of Michele Toper

Besides laundry lines on fire escapes, there were hundreds of potted plants and herbs to be growing in the spring and summers and only brought in for winter.

Since time immemorial, roof gardening has been practiced in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Roman Emperor Nero’s villa and here, in the narrow streets of Boston, where even today you may notice many gardens if you only look up. North End roofs tops were and still are the place where well-kept potted growing became mini farms and many immigrant houses had them. Not only did they use them for gardening, but the Nuns of St. Joseph on Tileston Street ran Religious classes had a play-pen on the roof of their residence. The Rear of the building faced the Prado or the Paul Revere Mall where the students from the roofs rained down water on the poor old men playing cards for nickel and dimes. Homing pigeons as a hobby was very popular in those days. My friend Joel had one on top of the “AMVets” building on Commercial St. next to the North End Playground and pool.

The best part of our sun drenched roof top/patios was that they would supplement our food sources with freshly picked salads and spices grown easily in our reach daily without having to worry about the usual insect pests, weeding or people or dogs except for an occasional nightly cat’s visit.

North End Roof Garden, courtesy of Michele Toper

Some of my neighbors had more elaborate gardening going on. They had miniature fruit trees, figs and even lemons. They practically invented rudimentary Hydroponic Systems of watering while adding nutrients, all the while without getting a wasted drop of water. Also many of these roof tops had elaborate wooden floors with barbecues. Every little space was filled with plants so that living even in this crowded North End, ways were found. There even exists a roof top restaurant today.

Roof gardens can reduce the effects of asthma and other breathing conditions in our city simply by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing clean oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis in growing food.

Scientific evidence has also shown that “Roof gardens are beneficial in reducing the effects of temperature against roofs without gardens. If widely adopted, rooftop gardens could reduce the urban heat island, which would decrease smog episodes, problems associated with heat stress and further lower energy consumption.”

Rooftop gardens today can use modern hydroponics so that the weight of soil is greatly reduced from the equation making more room for growing more with less space and toil. Get in on growing your own food and you’ll never quit.

Philip Bellone grew up in Boston’s North End in the 1950s and 60s. He writes eclectic articles, about the old and new. He is also a feature writer for “On Tray” magazine.

One Reply to “North End Roof Gardens

  1. In the 80s I my car filled with tomato plants to my grandparents on Endicott Street. I brought them up to her rooftop and she had a great harvest and brought everyone up to see her luscious tomatoes!

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