The North End of my childhood was a neighborhood of tenement buildings and storefronts. Almost every street had at least one storefront and some streets like Salem, Hanover and Endicott were lined with shops selling all the goods and services necessary for tenement life. One of the reasons people loved living in the North End was you could get virtually everything you needed for day-to-day living within a few blocks of your flat.
As a child living at 53 Salem Street, I could walk to my grandmother’s apartment at 109 Salem Street on a rainy day and stay perfectly dry, except when I crossed Parmenter Street, because all the storefronts had protective awnings. Shopkeepers would set up stands made of wooden boxes on the sidewalks and in the street. There were butcher shops with lamb and rabbit skins hanging from outdoor hooks, fruit and vegetable stores, Italian salumerie, bakeries and fish markets. There were also many candy and cigar shops, which were really bookie joints, but more about that another time.
One flight up were the offices of doctors, tailors, dentists, lawyers and accountants. Even after Italians moved out to the streetcar suburbs they would return to the North End on weekends for shopping, placing bets on their favorite numbers and catching up with neighborhood news and gossip.
The dream of many immigrants was to own a building with a storefront. One could live upstairs, rent out the other apartments to pay taxes and overhead, and have a storefront to generate income. Many well-known immigrant families, Irish, Jewish and Italian, got their start in the New World by owning a North End storefront.
In 1908 Carmine Martignetti, an Italian immigrant from Montefalcione near Avellino, started an Italian grocery store at the corner of Salem and Wiget Streets. When prohibition ended in 1933, he began selling beer and wine and the company he founded is now one of the largest liquor distributors in America. My grandfather didn’t have a cellar where he could make his own wine, so he would order a gallon of California red called Fortissimio from Martignetti’s. He would then pour a glass, dip his finger in it and let me lick the wine. A special treat for a six year old boy.
Pastene Wine and Spirits, now owned by Martignetti, was founded in the North End, as was Prince Spaghetti. A reader of this column named Rachel reported that Bernard Berenson’s parents had a small shop on Salem Street. Berenson was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard College. He became one of the most important art historians of the last century and advised Isabella Stewart Gardner on choosing the art for her mansion on the Fenway.
In 1892, Solomon and Jeanie Rabinovitz left Malestovka in Russia, moved to the North End and opened a small grocery store at 134 Salem Street, where Bova’s Bakery is presently located. They painted the front of the store, the columns and lintel, green and named it the Green Front. Locals called it the “Greenie” and it remained a local fixture until 1908 when they moved to Somerville and expanded their operation into self service supermarkets, which eventually became the Stop and Shop chain.
Painting storefronts different colors, some of which vaguely indicated what was being sold, was a North End tradition and I suspect it was a common feature of other tenement neighborhoods as well. Most of the meat markets on Salem Street had red facades, fruit and vegetable stores were often green and the outside of Polcari’s Coffee Shop was painted brown and black like the coffee beans Rafaelle Polcari roasted fresh every week.
At the far end of Hanover Street, Al Pascantilli had the Blue Front Restaurant which was very popular with the Coast Guardsmen whose base was just a block away. After spending several weeks or months at sea, the first thing the Coast Guard sailors would do upon arriving back in port was go to the Blue Front for great Italian food at a reasonable price. I spoke to one of Al’s sons a few weeks ago and asked him about the origin of the name “Blue Front”. He said it was already named that when his grandmother took over the restaurant. My suggestion was the color of the facade closely matched the color of the Coast Guard blue uniforms or the color of the sea. Perhaps that’s what inspired the name.
A few years ago, when I visited the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in New York’s Lower East Side, I asked the docent about the painting and naming of tenement storefronts. I wanted to know if there were Green Fronts and Blue Fronts in New York City or other tenement districts. She said no one had ever asked that question and she could not offer any information.
This tradition still exists in the North End, as you can see in the local painted storefronts of Romano Florist, Limoncello and more. Look carefully when you walk through our neighborhood and see how many more you can find.
The storefronts of the North End were, and still are, an important urban social and economic phenomenon. Not only were they the first rung on the economic ladder for generations of immigrants, but they were a unifying and cohesive force in the North End. Neighbors met in the shops and shared local news and gossip. Teenagers found part-time employment in these shops and the constant street activity made our neighborhood safe.
When the great urban observer Jane Jacobs visited the North End in the 1960s, her tour guide was a person from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the infamous BRA. Fresh from his agency’s victory in replacing the West End with anonymous, unattractive mid-rise apartments, he kept referring to the North End as a slum, but Jacobs corrected him and said the North End was one of the most vibrant and livable neighborhoods she had ever seen. Jane Jacobs believed in allowing urban neighborhoods to grow and develop organically without the top down planning of remote city agencies. Her tour guide was not pleased with that idea.
Sadly, we are losing our storefronts at a prodigious rate. The economics of contemporary real estate make converting storefronts into apartments more profitable than keeping them as small shops. The loss of storefronts to apartments will change the character of our neighborhood in many ways which I believe will be perverse and antithetical to a diverse urban neighborhood. Already hundreds of small North End apartments are owned by absentee landlords and are being used as short-term rentals through various websites, which to me are the real estate equivalent of weapons of mass destruction for urban neighborhoods. I think Jane Jacobs would agree.
The old North End of small storefront shops with friends and neighbors shopping, chatting and mingling will be lost and replaced by a more sterile, tourist-centered playground. Still attractive and picturesque, but more an Italian theme park than a livable urban neighborhood.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.