December 7th 1941 was, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “a day that will live in infamy.” It was also an important day for the North End. All the street kids, tough guys who were chronically unemployed and broke because of the Depression, signed up in droves to serve in the military. What a great adventure for a North End corner kid—fighting, traveling the world, and a chance to meet exotic, foreign women.
My father, like most of his North End friends, signed up for the Army but, being a North Ender, he knew someone who knew someone else, and obtained a plum assignment. He was stationed on Fort Warren in Boston Harbor with the 9th Coast Artillery. He spent the war defending our City on a Hill against German U-boats and sneaking back to the North End to visit his then girlfriend and later wife, my mother.
By the end of the war in 1945, the year I was born, life in the North End hadn’t changed in twenty-five years. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively excluded most Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews from emigrating to America. Soon thereafter the Great Depression and World War II put everything on hold. Inner city neighborhoods like the North End were in a kind of time warp. The United States had focused all its energy and resources on ending the Depression and winning the War, leaving the cities to fend for themselves. Little money was invested in improving their infrastructure, and many cities fell into disrepair.
Rents in many inner city neighborhoods like the North End were ridiculously low by today’s standards. Our first flat on the corner of Salem and Cross Streets cost about $15 a month in 1945. Of course, it was a cold water flat with no central heat or hot water, and the four rooms were tiny. The bedroom that my brother and I shared was no more than 8′ x 10′. There was a slightly larger bedroom for my parents, a 12′ x 14′ living room, and a kitchenette. Unlike most North End apartments we did have an enclosed toilet, but only a primitive shower. The apartment was considered “renovated” because it had a fairly new sink and stove. There were also built-in pine bookshelves in the living room. My mother had a Philco radio on one of the shelves and, in those pre television days, we listened to radio serials like Boston Blackie, Jack Benny, and The Goldbergs. The radio was kept on all day long.
The building at 53 Salem Street was owned by the Tecce family. Mrs. Tecce, the matriarch, lived on the fourth floor. We were on the third and Adeline Tecce and her husband, Gino Rapacioli, were on the first. The Tecce brothers had a fruit and vegetable store on the street level and on Fridays and Saturdays they would set out displays of their wares in wooden crates on the sidewalk and in the street. All the merchants on Salem Street did this, and Salem Street from Cross Street to beyond Prince Street became almost a pedestrian walkway on shopping days.
Italians from the suburbs would flood into the North End on weekend days to buy specialty foods that were unavailable elsewhere. Every shop had an awning which would be opened on rainy days in the winter and every day in the summer. On a rainy day I could walk almost all the way to my grandmother’s apartment, which was on the corner of Salem and Parmenter Streets, and hardly get wet.
There was an Italian grocery store farther up Salem Street that had the most elaborate street displays. Tubs of baccala, both dry and wet, several kinds of olives, all sorts of beans and nuts, even cans of tuna fish, were all put out for shoppers to inspect. My friends and I being street kids, gualioni is the Neopolitan word, would grab a handful of olives whenever we walked by. The owner or one of the dutiful young men in his employ would yell and chase us away. Once a homeless man stole some items from one of the displays and didn’t see the owner standing nearby. The owner picked up a can, probably a large tomato can, and hit the poor man on the head, instantly killing him. No charges were brought against the killer because he was defending his property, but it was a local scandal that was whispered about for many years.
Living in a tenement apartment was really living in the streets. The apartments were so small and families so large that there just wasn’t room to move around or relax. Those of us who went to college did our homework in the library on North Bennet Street or at the North End Union, a settlement house on Parmenter Street. Students from the Phillips Brooks House at Harvard University would occasionally come to the North End Union and tutor us in various subjects. The Union also allowed the many small social clubs to use their rooms in the evenings for meetings and other activities. The idea was to give young people a safe place to gather and keep them off the street corners and out of gambling clubs and pool rooms. It worked to an extent, but hanging around pool rooms was an awful lot of fun.
A few years ago I visited the Tenement Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a fascinating experience and brought back so many memories. The museum found a building that hadn’t changed since the 1930s and they restored three flats to what they looked like at various times during the periods of mass immigration. There was an Irish, a Jewish, and an Italian flat. My generation of North Enders was the last one to experience true tenement living, and I recognized many of the items in the flats.
The huge soapstone sink with two compartments, one for washing clothes and the other for dishes. The kitchen stove, theirs was coal but ours was gas, that was kept on continuously during the cold weather months. The entire apartment was heated by that stove with maybe a kerosene space heater for the back bedrooms. The museum had kept the original paint on the walls and woodwork. In areas where the paint had chipped you could see the many layers of paint from previous tenants. When a family moved into a new flat they would paint the walls and woodwork, install new linoleum, and bring in their own appliances. The only thing the landlord supplied was cold water and a gas hookup.
At the museum I instinctively looked at the baseboards trying to find small holes where rats entered. Like most Salem Street buildings, ours had rats because of the shops on the street level. They lived mostly in the cellar, but would climb up the inside of the walls and chew through the baseboard to get inside the apartments. My uncles plugged the rat holes with steel wool and covered the holes with the bent top of a large tomato can nailed to the wood. They thought rats wouldn’t eat through the steel wool because it would get caught in their teeth.
Although the museum flats were fascinating, I found them strange and inauthentic.
The one thing that seemed the most odd about the flats was that all the furnishings and appliances were specific to a particular time. They looked like dioramas in a museum rather than apartments where people lived. There were no dirty dishes in the sink, no papers and books on the floor, no groceries waiting to be put away, no laundry waiting to be washed, and, most of all, no updated or modern items.
People who lived in tenement flats were always trying to upgrade their living conditions in any small way possible. Next to her soapstone sink that was probably fifty years old, my grandmother had a new washing machine. She had eight children, and as soon as they all had jobs they pooled their money and bought her a machine with roller wringers on top. This saved her many hours of hand washing clothes and sheets, but she still hung them out to dry on a clothesline strung between the adjacent building.
She had her groceries delivered by Johnny Gaeta, a grocery store further up Salem Street. Johnny was also a bookie and my grandmother would give the delivery boy a list of numbers to play, two cents on one number, five cents on another and if she felt really lucky, ten cents on one that was sure to come out. She once hit the number for a few hundred dollars and bought a new Formica kitchen table and chairs from DiCarlo’s furniture store on Hanover Street. Tenement apartments were always a mix of old and new. The one consistent thing was the constant flow of people in and out of the apartments.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Tenement Life; coming next week!
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.