After many years of living in the suburbs, Boston lured us back. Its skyline promised to be the perfect backdrop to our second act like it has been for many popular movies. The pros and cons of living in Boston were many, but whenever we spent an early summer evening strolling along the city streets, vibrant with residents, students, and tourists (pre-pandemic), under a symphony of lights that played softly, as only city lights can, we knew this was where we wanted to be. The notion was reinforced when we would return to the quiet, sparsely lit, tree-lined streets of the suburbs. When we decided to retire and downsize, we moved back to the North End.
I lived in the North End as an adolescent, and later as a newlywed. At the time, the condo buildings on Tileston and North Bennet Streets were still home to Julie Billiart and Christopher Columbus high schools. The Sisters of Notre Dame educated the girls and the Franciscan Fathers, the boys. The gardens that beautify Battery Wharf used to house fish, fruit, and meat markets, and a Dunkin’ Donuts facing Commercial Street. The North End was the definition of a neighborhood. Grocery and hardware stores, as well as discounted clothing stores, thrived, and everyone knew how to skillfully use the North End whistle to get friends’ attention.
When deciding to return, I was aware of the countless renovations and gentrification that have inhabited the North End over the past thirty years; therefore, I did not expect many surprises. Nonetheless, there were a couple. One was meeting past residents who had left like me, and after decades, rejoined the community. Another was realizing that time had not erased past bonds.
At times, it is hard to reconcile the memory of the younger people we knew with the faces we meet on the North End streets now. However, we discovered that we could pick up where we left off. Going for a walk or doing errands often means stopping for a chat. Despite having lost track of each other’s lives, we find that we have traveled similar paths, and our children are now older than we were when we moved out. “How is that possible? Where did the time go?”
On these occasions, for a few minutes, the conversations hover on what has changed, starting with the exorbitant real estate prices. Then, the conversations drift to other changes to which we have not become oblivious yet: the constant flow of people on Hanover Street, the number of restaurants, the gone-forever mom and pop shops, and the number of students and young professionals who live here. The comments we exchange are laced with nostalgia, but also with a good dose of reality. We agree that we can’t freeze time, and why would we want to? Communities survive if they can adapt and change with time, which marches on, with or without us.
In our sidewalk chats, we note that the cars that mark the line between the streets and the sidewalks are more upscale than those we remember, many display logos from out of state colleges, not only the local ones that were popular when we were college age. We know that they may belong to the grown-up children of North End citizens who went to leafy Boston suburbs when they became parents, enticed by the manicured fields on which their children would play baseball or soccer. As young adults working in the city, they now choose to live in the North End, a place they came to for the feasts in the summer or to get Umberto’s for pizza and arancine.
Yes, the streets look different to the eye of newly returned. There are decorative planters with colorful annuals dotting windows and the doorways of businesses where members of past generations used to sit and greet neighbors as they passed by. These streets, however, are still the best setting for conversations. We mention starting a “coffee clutch” or a book group to catch-up, but realize we don’t need to. The catching-up occurs organically when we run into each other on the streets that lead us to Saint Anthony School Or Saint John’s; to JB, or Columbus. It happens in small bites, ongoing exchanges that last five or ten minutes, and can be continued at any time. It soon becomes evident that the spontaneous conversations carried on from day to day, combined with the unmistakable neighborhood feel, are the constants that withstood time and gentrification.
In the past three or four decades, tall, modern buildings, imitating the medieval towers of San Gimignano, surrounded the North End. They continue to sprout in the North Station area, Seaport, and the Financial District, framing the brick dwellings and the regal, white steeple of the Old North Church. At night, they illuminate the narrow streets and cafes while, the once-abandoned granite structures shield the North End on the Waterfront side with their beautiful condos and roof decks. It seems as though these structures watch over this unique community, protecting the sites that celebrate American history and the rich cultures from different Italian regions.
On busy Salem and Hanover Streets, on little Prince and North Streets, traditional values blend with contemporary ways of life, scented by the aroma of freshly ground coffee and delectable food. The old and the new coexist making this a neighborhood like no other. It is no wonder that the North End, effortlessly, beckons young people to move in and those who moved out a generation ago, to move back.
Iolanda Volpe recently retired from teaching at the high school level. She aspires to continue being a learner, observer, and interpreter of life. A former North End resident, she now resides in Charlestown.
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