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Commentary: Coffee Controversy Brewing in Boston’s North End

The North End of Boston has changed a great deal since I lived there between 1991 and 2003.  When I was a young kid, my family spent many weekends shopping at old Haymarket.  Not crazy about being drowned in crowds of hot, sweaty people and rotting vegetables, it was not my favorite weekend activity.  So when a friend suggested renting in the North End all those years ago, I first reacted with curious surprise thinking a larger apartment on Beacon Hill or Back Bay might be preferable to the small dated apartments, crowded streets, and cramped stairways of Boston’s old Italian neighborhood.  Quickly learning to take the advice of a woman, I rented a two-bedroom street level apartment on Little Prince Street for $625.00 a month.  Interestingly, this apartment at 4A Prince is now a restaurant called Artu’.  As was predicted and to some degree planned, the dismantling of the expressway and the construction of the Rose Kennedy Greenway has created an entirely new kind of neighborhood in the North End, one that is obviously more gentrified and also one that is constantly fighting the process of homogenization, the latest being a community battle to prohibit coffee conglomerate Starbucks from attempting to establish itself in the neighborhood.

The sentiment against Starbucks planting itself in Boston’s historic North End appears to be clear and united within the community.  Polcari’s Coffee, on Salem Street since 1932, has little to say regarding the issue.  “I don’t think too much of it,” said the longtime proprietor as he went about his business.  Hanover Street’s Caffe’ Vittoria is in agreement.  “No!  No!  Obviously, it’s going to hurt our business.  Absolutely no one is rooting for Starbucks.”  Friendly competitor Modern Pastry, a block away from Caffe’ Vittoria on Hanover Street, expressed the same. “No Starbucks in the North End!”

The argument surrounding Starbucks seemed omnipresent on this crowded afternoon.  I overheard a small boy walking alongside his family on Hanover Street reading a posted sign saying no to Starbucks and exclaiming that the North End is a Starbucks free zone.  Everyone had an opinion.  “I don’t like to see change, but on the other hand, they’re [Starbucks] the only ones who can afford that rent.  So if they can design it like an old living room so it looks historical and Italian, it might be the only way it can work,” said Albie from Albie’s Produce on Parmenter Street.  His buddy chimed in comically, “Yeah right.  They can line the place with couches and put plastic on them!”

A street vendor outside of Mike’s Pastry compared the bid of Starbucks entering the North End with the failed attempts of corporate flower establishment Kabloom taking the historic spot of Circle Pizza years ago on the corner of Fleet and Hanover Streets and the Dunkin’ Donuts that did not make it on Salem Street.  “No, no.  The North End has to be old.  It has to be like Little Roma.  When you go into here, you want it to be like Naples or Sorrento.  It has to look old for the tourists.  They should put Starbucks somewhere else in the city.  People come to the North End to see old and Starbucks should not be the first thing they see.  It has to stay an old neighborhood.”

This is not a debate without precedent.  A Starbucks already exists at the base of Lewis Wharf on Commercial Street.  I spoke with Tony, owner of Anthony’s, a small coffee and breakfast establishment that has been in operation since 1993.  Tony and I talked about how the neighborhood has changed over the years, and he expressed particular concerns about the Starbucks across the street from his restaurant.  “In the end it probably helped my business because I offer breakfast choices and lunch that they can’t offer.”  His point was made, however, regarding the challenges of attempting to run a small coffee shop and the corporate effect that Starbucks was already having on the outskirts of a confined neighborhood dominated by local establishments with local interests.  “The businesses within the neighborhood will feel it,” said Tony alluding to a new Starbucks potentially placed in the heart of the North End.

The position is clear.  The North End understands the inevitability of change but remains true to its respect for community and history.  The North End will not welcome Starbucks with open arms.

In true North End fashion, there was nothing left to do but grab something to eat.  Although I would normally choose an older, less frequented restaurant like Spagnuolo’s or Pagliuca’s, I decided instead to have dinner at Artu’, pleasantly enjoying a meal in my old apartment for the first time since 1994.

It was also nice to have someone else do the dishes for a change.

Jay Gillespie can be reached at welcomes commentaries on community issues via email to or through our Submit a Post online form. Opinions are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of or other writers on this site. Comments or responses to this commentary can be posted below in the comment section.

2 Replies to “Commentary: Coffee Controversy Brewing in Boston’s North End

  1. I also think that what’s already happened on lower Salem street is unfortunate. After True Value hardware -a neighborhood institution- closed its doors for good, it was replaced by (yet another) nail salon and a boxing club. And when local coffee chain Boston Common Coffee Co left, it was replaced by some real estate marketing agency. And Lulu’s moved up the street, to be replaced by a bakery for dogs. And don’t even get me started on Peet’s, another huge coffee chain. We may win this battle against Starbucks, but I wonder if we’re already losing the war.

    1. Thanks SW. Totally agree. Clearly, we want the North End to continue being a hospitable neighborhood that welcomes people in, but a line must be drawn between being a functional neighborhood and Epcot Center. Thanks for reading. – Jay Gillespie

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