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Life on the Corner: Tenement Life Part 2—Gentrification

Read Part 1 of Nick Dello Russo’s “Tenement Life” here.

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.

29 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Tenement Life Part 2—Gentrification

  1. Another great article Nick. You have a great memory. Dr Lima , had the little black back and made house calls. My Mother said he resembled Boris Karloff. Froggie was a good friend of mine. His Father worked on the “bull gang” at the old Boston Garden. As for the West End heard stories of Mayor Curley sending city workers to litter the streets with trash and Curley would have a newspaper photographer take photos to show what s slum the West End was . What I remember at the begining of the gentrification ( hate that word) that some NE guys who didn’t have two nickles to rub together were somehow buying buildings in the NE. Of course they were straw men who were buying buildings for some Wiseguys. My memories of beegees was as everyone was waiting for the phone to ring so beegee could announce the race results. Brother Gerrard was a regular who would ask for donations for St Leonard’s Church from beegee & his Brother Dominick and the degenerate gamblers.

  2. Absolutely fabulous articles! I much enjoy reading them and discussing the contents with my grandchildren.
    They brace themselves for my commentaries. Your recall is impeccable. I count myself among one of the fortunate to have grown up during the ’40’s. The memories are engraved in my mind. The experiences helped us to be resourceful and appreciate our achievements.

  3. Thanks for this great write-up Nick. You’re right. If we were poor, we really didn’t know it. It was such a rich life.

    1. Sal I just read your reply. 150 Salem Street still exists. You can contact me at the address below. Donnie Sacchetti

      1. Hi Donnie. Was there last year with my brother Peter. We sat on the stoop. It did seem smaller than I remembered. I saw a picture of my brother’s son who was visiting from Pittsburgh on the stoop. I don’t see your address. But, I am friends with Ann Marie on Facebook.

    1. Great article, Nick, your always on point. I was young but I remember the North End being next on the BRA’s list.

  4. Nick, you explained how politics almost destroyed the North End because of that 1949 legislation under Truman. Your story telling is very compelling too. Thanks for sharing those memories as well.

  5. I did not live in the North/West End, but my father had friends in the North End and we use to visit, shop and eat pizza. So many happy memories. Thank you.
    I looked on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and could not find your books. I will look again. Any suggestions.

    1. I never written a book, Mary, but Anthony Riccio and Stephen Puleo have some very good books about the North End.

  6. Thank you for this article. As you said, after bulldozing the West End (my dad’s neighborhood) the city took a different approach with the NE (my mom’s neighborhood). The renovations that were being done in her building tripped a fire alarm. She was so frightened that she had a stroke and died a few months later.

  7. Nick – as you know, I didn’t grow up in the North End but did experience a lot in the 60’s and 70’s so I appreciate your painting of how it was when you were growing up.

    Around the corner from Nicks Tavern was what we called the “Jungle” ( a massive building – 5 stories high maybe that must have run two blocks) where there must have been 5-10 small grocery wholesalers we called on to sell them Kool Aid which was a staple for any store no matter their size. Back in the day, in New England there were over maybe 150 Tobacco Distributors and 300 + Vendor companies who supplied vending machines. Those were the equivalent of having a bakery on every block!

    Keep it up as no one today can comprehend your so well told history lessons.

    Kevin K

  8. I love reading all the “Life the Corner” articles. It’s as if we are right there, right now.

  9. I grew up in one of the mill cities in SE Mass. We lived in triple deckers, knew everyone, had churches and stores right in the neighborhood: candy stores, drug stores, grocery stores, and the fish and chip shop wedged between houses. The “TV repair shop” across the street was where I think our “Bee Gee” worked.
    I work in real estate, and when I hear colleagues talk about creating “new urbanism”, I laugh. I tell them just talk to people who grew up in dense but friendly neighborhoods to learn from them about urbanism. Most of what they design as planned neighborhoods now look like Disneyland to me. Thanks for your stories and thank goodness the North End is still here.

  10. Nick: The Joe Kelly you referred to was the New England Farm & Food Reporter who worked on WHDH radio Boston and then on WHDH TV Channel 5 where he was also the first host of the Good Day show. Joe Kelly was my uncle. Joe Kelly’s brothers were former Lt. Governor and Attorney General Francis E. Kelly ( father of the Mass. state lottery) and John B. Kelly, past President of the Boston City Council. Joe Kelly, the reporter is my uncle, his son Joe Kelly, husband of Lillian is my first cousin. Francis is my uncle and John my father. Thank for remembering Uncle Joe and his son and daughter in law Lillian.

    1. Nonna Colomba always knew Lillian had married well. Lillian and her kids would visit a few times a year. My grandmother helped raise Lillian so they were very close.
      Did you know that Lillian’s aunt, Prima, was married to Ray Sinatra? Ray was Frank’s cousin and was the bandleader at the Sands and Tropicana hotels in Vegas. Ray worked with Mario Lanza on some popular albums.

  11. Nick: Thank you for your reply. It’s a small world. And keep writing about this great neighborhood we live in. Hopefully it will continue to be a vibrant part of the city for centuries to come. My wife, Katie and I are so glad we migrated from Dorchester to here. Thanks again, your neighbor, Joe Kelly

  12. loved your article and cut and paste the real hero who saved our neighborhood, Michael Nazzaro…

    Michael Nazzaro had a promising and successful career in Washington; however, he gave it all up to rescue his neighborhood from the New Boston Committee and the Boston Redevelopment Authority and their plans to demolish the North End – as they had the West End of Boston. He resigned his job in Washington DC, returned home to run for State Representative, and campaigned in order to save his neighborhood, the North End, from Eminent Domain. He lost his first and second bids for a House seat, but persevered in order to passionately achieve his goal. He served in the House of Representative from 1958 through 1964, opened the Nazzaro Insurance Agency. He fought diligently, and without the power of Eminent Domain, the New Boston Committee and the BRA could not touch the North End. Mike Nazzaro had accomplished what he’d set out to do, and saved his beloved North End. Nazzaro

    1. You are absolutely correct, Philip.
      Mike was a great guy and a true friend of the North End. When I was in high school and college Mike always was able to get me a summer job with the old Metropolitan District Commission (MDC). He was a devoted husband to his wife, Jean, and a wonderful father to his three daughters. It was people like Mike who made the North End such a terrific neighborhood.

  13. Fabulous article–thank you for writing it. Amazing that you are able to capture the spirit and history of a neighborhood and its people (which included my grandmother) in such a short space.

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