Boston's North End maintains its ethnic character
By Kathleen Howley, Globe Correspondent, 11/21/1998
For the last half century the neighborhood has been known as "Little Italy." Its streets are lined with expresso bars, old-fashioned grocery stores, and Italian restaurants housed in 100-year-old brick buildings. Today, a sizable chunk of the neighborhood's residents bear Italian last names. It's not unusual to hear Italian being spoken on the streets, or, in some cases, yelled from upper-story windows.
"The ethnic character of the neighborhood is very strong. You still see older Italian women sweeping the streets in front of their buildings, and we still have the little Italian butcher shops and bakeries," said Sandi Padellaro, vice-president of the North End/Waterfront Residents Association.
But, when the matriarch of America's most famous political family was born, the North End was the stronghold of the Irish. Kennedy's father, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was twice elected mayor of Boston, running from his North End political base. His political opponents mocked him as "Dear-o" because he so often referred to the "dear old North End" in his speeches.
The Fitzgeralds lived in a well-appointed home in the neighborhood's most fashionable district, but the majority of Irish immigrants lived in wood-framed tenement buildings and lodging houses. In the 1890s, most of buildings in the North End were razed after the city deemed the living conditions to be unsanitary.
Before the Irish came, English immigrants dominated the North End, primarily merchants who built commercial holdings on the shoreline and constructed their residences a few blocks inland, in the North Square area. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the North End was home to Boston's wealthiest citizens, including Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor who fled the North End on the eve of war and sailed for England.
In the Colonial era, African Americans settled in a section of the North End that became the city's first black district, located on the west side of the Copp's Hill Burying Ground. Eventually, they moved to establish another black neighborhood on the north side of Beacon Hill.
In the 1840s, the Irish came, waves of desperately poor immigrants who were fleeing the Potato Famine. They settled in the North End for two reasons the housing was cheap, and they couldn't afford to travel far from the docks where they landed.
Between 1890s and 1920s, large numbers of Polish and Russian Jews settled in the neighborhood, taking the place of the Irish and lining the streets with kosher markets, Hebrew schools and synagogues.
The influx of Italians began before the turn of the century. By 1920, "Little Italy" was born. At that time, about 90 percent of the North End population was Italian-American, a ration that remained steady until the 1970s when gentrification began to force many young families to leave the neighborhood. By 1990, only 43 percent of the residents were of Italian descent.
That trend has many North End residents concerned.
"The people who grew up here can't afford to stay here, and that's a shame. When you lose the families and the children, you lose the sense of neigborhood. You end up being a transient neighborhood," said Padellaro.
The North End isn't hostile to newcomers, said Padellaro. For example, she became a North Ender less than four years ago. "When I came to the North End, I felt like I came home," she said. But, residents don't like to see the old ways of the neighborhood change, she said.
Christine White, of Christine White Realty in the North End, said the neighborhood's real estate market is busy, and prices have risen drastically in the last few years.
"I just had the busiest week of my life. I had three listings go under agreement," said White, who has been selling North End real estate for 16 years.
She said that four years ago a small one-bedroom condominium would have sold for about $100,000. Today, it could go for $150,000, she said.
White's firm lists a Lewis Street studio condominium for $86,000 and a Moon Street one-bedroom unit for $145,000.
Boston Waterfront Realty lists a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium on North Street for $459,000 and a two-bedroom, two-bath unit in a building off Hanover Street for $479,000.
"The people buying in the North End are either young professionals or empty nesters coming back to the city. There are not a lot of low-end properties, and there are not many units that are big enough for families with children," White said.
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 11/21/1998.
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