Living in a congested neighborhood like the North End meant there were always people out in the streets and going in and out of the apartments. Families were large and people were always either leaving or returning from work. School children went home for lunch and many women went to daily Mass.
Peddlers were always stopping by to sell their products. Freddie the Fuller Brush man would come by every few months with a suitcase of samples. My mother and grandmother would eagerly anticipate his visits because he always had interesting items to show and he was a font of local gossip.
The insurance salesman, Angelo Bocchino, would come by to collect the monthly premium. In between house visits Angelo hung out with my uncle Mimmie at BeeGee’s “horse room,” a gambling club on Prince Street. Angelo’s son, John, my high school classmate, became a Franciscan priest. Delivery men would be regular visitors and some old ladies who couldn’t climb stairs would let down baskets on a rope to retrieve bread, eggs, or milk.
The downstairs door and the apartment doors were never locked. Neighbors stopped by at all hours and there was always a big pot of coffee percolating on the stove. If someone was sick, the local physicians made house calls. Once Dr. Salvatore Lima was called to attend to my grandfather who was dying. I was sent downstairs to meet him at the front door and escort him to the apartment. The hallways were dim, almost pitch black, because the landlord used the smallest ten watt light bulbs since he had to pay for the common area electricity. Dr. Lima was smart and had practiced in the North End for many years. He retrieved a flashlight from his black, leather bag and led the way upstairs.
Tenement living was wonderful. The apartments were small, but very inexpensive. You had everything you needed for day to day living right outside your door. My mother and aunts shopped daily for food and groceries. The library was steps from the apartment and there were three churches within a couple of blocks. Hanover Street had restaurants, coffee shops, and pastry stores. Every block had a bakery where you could get fresh bread and slices of pizza.
Since my family lived one floor below my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, I practically lived in their apartment. A typical day would start with Nonna watching a fifteen minute TV show called the Farm Report. A local guy named Joe Kelly would list the wholesale price of eggs, beans, onions, etc. from the local truck farms. Nonna’s cousin, Lillian, had married Joe Kelly’s son and Nonna thought Lillian had married into Hollywood royalty. The big Pyrex coffee pot would be percolating on the stove. My aunts and uncles would toast sliced Italian bread called a scali in a stovetop toaster right over the gas flame.
Everyone would leave for work in the typical jobs of North End immigrant children; a seamstress, a candy dipper, a sales girl, a clerk, a mechanic, and a secretary. My grandmother would watch all the soap operas on television. As the World Turns was popular, as was Search for Tomorrow. Neighbors would drop by for coffee and homemade biscotti. Jenny, the local abortionist, and Bella, an officer in one of the saint societies, were regulars.
When everyone returned from work supper was ready; usually chicken soup with a salad made of bitter greens like dandelions or chicory. There was always a contest to see who would get the shell-less immature eggs that were sometimes found in the chicken. At night the men would go to their local clubs to play cards and the women would do some sewing or go to a church event. Novenas were very popular.
Inner city tenements were the original, and maybe the best, form of affordable housing. South Boston, Charlestown, and Dorchester had street after street of three deckers; sturdy wood clad buildings which had large, sunny rooms, central heat and hot water. Aspirational North End Italians worked hard to save enough money and buy a two family in Somerville, Medford, or Revere.
The problem was, the city hated the tenement neighborhoods. In 1949 Congress passed the Urban Renewal Act which allocated federal money for slum renewal. Mayor Hynes wanted a share of that federal money, but in order to get it he urgently needed a slum. Suddenly, the West End and North End became slums.
Articles appeared in the local newspapers about how these neighborhoods had filthy streets, and the mayor, aided by the newly empowered Boston Redevelopment Authority, began coming up with urban renewal schemes. Of course, they never asked any North or West End residents about this. The arrogance and condescension of the politicians was astounding. They told us we were poor, but we didn’t feel poor. They said we were living in squalor, but our apartments were spotless. They said we were deprived, but everything we wanted or needed was right outside our front door. They wanted to improve our lives, but all they did was encourage gentrification and force lower middle class people out of the North End.
The West End was the ugly paradigm of that kind of urban renewal, one that still resonates today. The BRA took over the land in the West End by eminent domain, evicted seventy-five hundred residents, and replaced the tenements with mid-rise luxury apartments.
After the debacle of the West End the city was forced to back off from what they had planned for the North End. We were convinced that our small tenement neighborhood was going to be the next one to experience “urban renewal” by bulldozer. The West End apartments were larger than ours and had central heat, hot water, and inside toilets. The public outcry about what happened to the West End forced the BRA to back off and change their tactics. They had to develop a different approach to improving the North End and they did.
There are many ways to destroy a neighborhood, and the Boston Redevelopment was expert in all of them. The West End was demolished the quick, brutal way by sending in the bulldozers. The destruction of the North End was more subtle. The city changed the zoning and modernized the sanitary codes to encourage renovation, claiming it was to benefit the neighborhood and make it cleaner and safer. Many North End families couldn’t afford to upgrade their buildings so they sold to real estate developers. It was death by a thousand renovations. The cumulative decisions made by hundreds of well meaning, anonymous bureaucrats can destroy a neighborhood as effectively as a battalion of cranes with wrecking balls.
One of the greatest of all Italian novels is Il Gattopardo, written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. It tells the story of Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina during the Risorgimento. The prince’s nephew Tancredi, joins with Garibaldi’s red shirts, much to the dismay of the Prince. When Don Fabrizio confronts him about being a traitor to his class Tancredi responds to his uncle with one of the most profound statements in all of literature,
“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come e’ bisogna che tutto cambi.”
“For things to remain the same, all things must change.”
One of the defining characteristics of a great city or neighborhood is its ability to continually remake itself according to the desires and needs of its current residents. Change is inevitable and can make a neighborhood stronger, but the change should be organic and come from within. When the great urban observer, Jane Jacobs, visited the North End in 1959 she didn’t see the slum she was told to expect. Instead, she saw a vibrant, friendly, safe neighborhood filled with people who were content with their urban lives.
Every day is a battle to preserve our beloved North End. The city is surrounding us with anonymous, mid-rise buildings meant to house young, single, childless tech workers. The new buildings in the Seaport and around North Station offer a glimpse of what passes for redevelopment in today’s Boston.
Few former West End residents returned to live in the new Charles River Park apartments. The rents were far beyond what they could afford and the neighborhood just didn’t feel the same without all the shops and familiar neighbors. When ethnic people become deracinated from their culture they suffer a shock very similar to post traumatic stress. I remember seeing two West End guys, Nick the Greek and Froggie, huddled in doorways on Causeway Street many years after they had been displaced from their old street corner. They would return to what was left of the old neighborhood at every opportunity, hoping that a bit of the West End street vibe would remind them of the wonderful life they left behind.
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.