At the northern tip of Boston lies a neighborhood distinct in its appearance because of narrow streets and alleys that seem to follow no pattern and brick residential buildings cherished from another era. This neighborhood is the North End of Boston.
The North End has a history as old as the history of Boston, dating to when the Puritans settled here. The North End’s history is a story of all of Boston’s early immigrants from the early Puritans to English sailors, Irish, Jewish, and Portuguese, and Italian immigrants, who all looked up at the Old North Church in the North End with hope as they neared the coast of Boston.
The mark of Boston’s changing times is evident throughout the North End’s evolution. It shows in its narrow streets, in its churches, brick buildings and 20th century attempts to rebuild and reinvent Boston.
Pre-1800- Old Boston Towne
The North End was part of Boston’s original landmass, and Boston’s earliest settlers made their homes there nearby the harbor on which they depended.
Many of the North End’s early residents were engaged in shoemaking, carpentry and shipbuilding. As the North End community grew, it felt the need for a meetinghouse, a Church and a marketplace. A marketplace was established at the North Square- a block down from the waterfront in North End. It was one of “the three market structures erected in Boston- North Square, site of the Liberty Tree and at the Town Dock near present-day Faneuil Hall.” The Second Church of Boston (the Old North Church) and the North Meetinghouse established in 1650 were also located at North Square making it a very popular social and economic center. Consequently, more new residential development sprung up around North Square.
At this time, mills began to emerge in Boston. The first mill to come up in the North End was Corne Mill, a windmill that gave the surrounding land its name- Windmill Hill or Mill’s Field, known as Copp’s Hill (after William Copp, a shoemaker) today. Soon, there were chocolate mills and sawmills in this neighborhood. In 1648, a dam was built over Mill Pond by submerging a portion of land to make way for it. This move narrowed access to the North End and separated it from the rest of Boston. In the early 1800s, Mill Pond was filled-in. However, this was just the first of many times the North End would be physically separated from the rest of Boston.
In 1659, land was purchased on a part of Copp’s Hill to develop a cemetery- the North Burying Ground. It became the largest cemetery in Boston when more land was added to it in 1708 and 1809. Several noteworthy persons and “over 1000 slaves and freedmen are buried in this cemetery”- many of whom were “former residents of ‘New Guinea’ at the foot of Copp’s Hill” in North End, “the first black district in Boston.”
The North End’s proximity to the sea brought it trade and prosperity. Enterprising businessmen started building wharves to support growing merchant and shipbuilding businesses in the area. Growth in commerce led to wharves built farther and farther out into the sea to be accessible for larger ships. As new wharves were created further into the sea, old ones were ‘wharved out’ and new land was created. Taverns became popular along the waterfront to serve the area’s working men. Gradually, businesses came to be aligned close to the waterfront while residences were clustered closer inland near Copp’s Hill.
Boston’s early settlers highly valued education. The North Latin School or the Grammar School was founded on North Bennet Street in 1713. It was annexed to the North Writing School in 1789 and still serves the North End as the Eliot School.
A proliferation of churches in the North End came in the 1700s as the new groups of migrants brought with them a greater tolerance for diverse religious beliefs than had the early Puritan settlers. Old North Church was the only church and meeting house in the North End until 1714 when “New North Church (today’s St. Stephen’s) was built at the corner of Clarke and Hanover Streets.” A segment of the New North separated and formed the New Brick Church that united with the Old North and after 1775, when the Old North was demolished, “took on its original name- the Second Church.” In 1723, the second Anglican parish (the oldest continuously functioning church in the North End) was built in the North End- symbolizing the imperial authority that the early Puritans had tried to escape. In 1796, the Methodists’ second house of worship in Boston began services on Hanover and North Bennet Streets. In the late 19th century, it would become the Portuguese church of St. John the Baptist. In 1912, the City of Boston bought this building for the North End Branch Library.
1800-1840- Town to City
Before this era, the North End accounted for fully one-third of Boston’s population. As Boston grew into a city in this era, many of the North End’s wealthier families left it for the fashionable new Beacon Hill. Later on, more of North End’s elite would move to the Back Bay and to further out suburbs as transportation technology allowed. The large mansions they vacated were to be adapted to house the North End’s newer residents.
While the North End lost Boston’s elite to tonier neighborhoods, it became even more popular among the small merchants, traders and artisans who wanted to make the most of its commercial network of shipping and merchant businesses, warehouses and dockyards. Many of them occupied homes and storefronts on Hanover and Salem Streets. Roughly one-third of the North Enders were immigrants, primarily from England and Germany but also a small number of early Irish immigrants.
1840-1880- Rapid Growth
Ireland’s ‘Great Hunger’ in the 1840s caused hundreds of thousands of poor Irish peasants and laborers to flee their home. Several thousands of them settled in the North End. The Irish often crowded at least one family per room in the converted buildings that had once been mansions for Boston’s upper class. By 1850, half of the North End population was Irish-born. Their share of the North End population peaked around 1880, and then rapidly dropped when a new wave of immigrants came to North End.
The North End’s older housing supply could not house the rapidly growing Irish population in the 1840s and 1850s. Old mansions were torn down and replaced by four to five story tenements. From the perspective of the Yankees who had lived a fashionable life in the North End, these were Boston’s first tenement slums. The tenements were very dense and in unsanitary conditions. They merely provided housing and had no connection to the sewer system. Poor sanitation caused diseases to spread rapidly among immigrants crowding the North End.
When the Irish first arrived in Boston in the 1820s and 30s, the North End did not have a Catholic church. The growing Irish Catholic population established St. Mary’s of the Sacred Heart at the corner of Endicott and Cooper Streets. Irish Catholics in the North End also established parochial grammar schools to assuage their worries about the Protestant-dominated public education system.
In addition to a burgeoning immigrant population, the North End continued to host the many sailors and traders who came ashore on its wharves. “Bars, brothels, gambling dens, low-class boarding houses and dance halls” proliferated in the North End, especially around Ann Street, to serve them and were also popular among the rich, young men of Boston. This district gained the nickname “Black Sea” in the 1850s as the shady establishments were joined by “riots, brawls, mugging and crime.” The police organized a large raid on April 23, 1851 where 153 people were arrested on charges of prostitution. Following these efforts, Ann Street was renamed North Street.
Many North End residents enlisted or were drafted to serve in the Civil War. As the war dragged on, conscription became increasingly unpopular among the North End’s residents. On July 14, 1863, an officer “attempting to serve notices of conscription on Prince Street was beaten by a mob of North Enders” followed by more mob activity and attack on police amid gunshots. There are contradictory accounts about draft riots in the North End and their comparison to the draft riots in New York City. Certain accounts describe the mob attacks in North End as politically motivated and organized to express dissent with the practice of conscription. Other accounts describe the North End mob attacks as spontaneous acts that did not have an agenda.
Towards the end of this era, new immigrants from central and southern Europe began to arrive in the North End. Jews, mostly from Poland with many from Germany, settled in the North End around Salem Street. These immigrants were typically young, single men and women who met and married each other here and raised families.
A small proportion of Portuguese fishermen also came to live in the North End at this time. But, the Portuguese left the North End before long in favor of the thriving Portuguese communities in Gloucester and New Bedford.
Italian immigrants also began to arrive in Boston in small numbers during the 1860s and 1870s. The first were of Genoese descent, educated and, although poor, better off than Italians from the southern regions who would begin to arrive in large numbers in the 1880s.
Boston as a whole became much more diverse during this period of heavy immigration. The North End, which had come to house a diversity of immigrants, came to be dominated by a large wave of immigrants from southern Italy.
These southern Italians were peasants, oppressed under the burden of rising taxes in Italy that amounted to over half of their family income and severely affected by natural disasters and poor crops. Many of them were uneducated, unskilled and ready to do any work to make do and save money to bring their families over from Italy. They began taking the same sorts of hard labor jobs as the first generation Irish had, building much of Boston’s early subway system just as the Irish had provided labor for the Back Bay project. The second generation Irish who shared the neighborhood with the newly arriving Italians disliked them in much the same way that Boston’s Yankees had disliked the first generation Irish. The Irish also saw the newly arriving Italians as an economic threat and competition for jobs that had been theirs for years.
The Italian community initially settled on Ferry Court off North Street. North Street at this time was still a rundown area with cheap housing suitable to the newly arriving immigrants. In the beginning, when the Irish outnumbered the Italians, the Italians clustered together. By the 1880s, the Italian district had extended along North Street up to Cross Street on one side and up to North Bennet Street on the other side as the Irish began moving to other neighborhoods.
Social reformers in this era began to concentrate on the issues facing Boston’s growing immigrant population. They favored English language and citizenship classes, job training and other services that came to be offered through settlement houses. Pauline Agassiz Shaw, a member of the Boston Association of Charities began to organize these services for the North End’s immigrants and in 1883 established programs for students of the Eliot School. In 1884, the Boston Association of Charities got the Salem Street Congregational Church building- and called it the North End Industrial Home. A year later, a corporation was formed to purchase this property and the North Industrial School for vocational studies was set up. It was the first of its kind in America. In 1885, cooking classes for girls from Hancock School were set up. These were later assumed by the Boston School system and became the public school kitchen in America. The first public kindergarten and nursery began here as well.
By 1895, Italians and Jews made up one-third of the North End’s population. By 1920, Italians made up 90% of the North End and 15.7% of Boston as a whole. Most of these were working-aged men. They found accommodation “with relatives or paesani (Italians of the same village or area)” until they found a stable job. They lived in cramped spaces with “10-12 men sharing one room.” They worked in factories, on the docks, in stone quarries or in the construction business. They ventured into selling fruits and ethnic food and peddling pushcarts. Some of these pushcarts and small stores grew into larger companies that produce and import Italian foods, including the large and successful Prince Pasta (named after the address of its first small storefront at 92 Prince Street in the North End) and Pastene companies still operating today.
Unlike the Italians and Irish immigrants who were mostly rural peasants, the Jews came from small towns and highly valued education and business acumen. A much larger wave of Eastern European, predominantly Russian, Jews arrived in Boston from about 1880 until 1917. These immigrants differed substantially from the earlier, predominantly Polish wave, not only in national origin but in religious practice, language, socioeconomic status and family structure. Many came as families headed by a father with a skilled trade and an illiterate wife with small children.
By 1906, two-third of the Eliot School was Jewish. Many of the early Jewish settlers were peddlers who bought enough goods to travel for a few days and sold linens, groceries, utensils etc. to make small profits. With the profits, they would further expand this business. Some of them went on to form successful companies that operate to this day, like Stop & Shop; others became bankers and doctors. As the community became prosperous and blended with mainstream society, the Jews left the North End. But, the Italians stayed even as they became more middle class and Americanized.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, the North End’s dense residential population lived cheek by jowl with industrial areas. On January 15, 1919, the molasses tank on Commercial Street, a major landmark in the North End, exploded. A fast-moving wage of molasses flooded the surrounding streets. About 2.2 million gallons of molasses spilled out of the tank, and 21 people were killed with many more hospitalized. Buildings, several houses, and a portion of the elevated rail line collapsed. Over 500 men worked for more than a week to rid the streets of molasses and wreckage.
The North End suffered during the Great Depression. It was beset by foreclosures, and many of its laborers and craftsmen remained out of work. Its reputation as a slum, earned decades ago, became cemented in the city’s psyche. Like the nearby West End, the neighborhood became increasingly insular and ignored by outsiders. Jane Jacobs first visited the North End in the late 1930s and walked away with the impression of a North End that was “badly overcrowded, and the general effect was of a district taking a terrible physical beating and certainly desperately poor.”
This era of stagnation across the city of Boston further cemented the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, of which the North End was a prime example. With immigration all but outlawed and Boston muddling through a poor economy and sluggish construction market, people tended to stay put in their communities rather than moving their families elsewhere. The North End, which had become almost wholly populated with Italian immigrants around the turn of the century, remained the heart of Boston’s Italian community.
Interethnic conflict contributed to a feeling of separation from the larger city. The Italian-Irish rivalry continued in this period even after the Irish had left the North End. Attempts at controlling the liquor business during prohibition led to rivalry between the Italians in the North End and the Irish in Charlestown and South Boston. The North End began to grow a reputation for organized crime around this time.
In the 1930s, the need for open space and area for recreational and social activities in the North End (since it was very dense with narrow streets) led to the 1933 construction of Paul Revere Mall or Prado where several narrow tenement streets were cleared. Prado became popular with local residents as a meeting place for men and women, old and young. During the reign of Mayor Curley, the city gave particular attention to improving youth and recreational facilities in the North End and across Boston’s neighborhoods. The Industrial School, the North End Branch Library with its teen council and organized puppet shows, and the Christopher Columbus Catholic Center with its athletic facilities and a swimming pool held programs to keep the North End’s youth occupied. These efforts helped keep juvenile delinquency rates low in the North End while on the rise in other parts of Boston.
Towards the end of this era, the North End began to attract a new group of residents. Low rents and intriguing ambience attracted young professionals and artists to the North End in the 1940s. At the same time, many second generation Italians became absorbed into mainstream America and left the North End for neighborhoods like Somerville, Medford, East Boston, Revere, Hyde Park, and Quincy. Some feared at the time that the North End would lose its Italian identity, but poor conditions in Italy during the post-war period led a new wave of Italians to immigrate to the North End.
The activity brought by World War II and the post-war boom helped the Boston region begin to shake off decades of stagnation, but most growth was in the newly built and subsidized suburbs. City leaders turned their attention to Boston’s old core and pondered how to create a “New Boston” from the tangle of old streets and crowded ethnic neighborhoods.
Jane Jacobs revisited the North End after twenty years. She was so impressed by the neighborhood that her classic of urbanism “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” focused heavily on lessons to be drawn from the North End’s streets and society. Her contacts in academia and banking reflected popular sentiment when they attempted to assure her that the neighborhood was a hopeless slum. In reality, she found a neighborhood that had quite successfully transformed itself from a slum to a well-functioning urban neighborhood. Its streets were safe, its population was healthy, and its homes were no longer overcrowded.
Banks refused to grant mortgages for construction or rehabilitation in the North End. In what Jane Jacobs described as a miracle, North Enders overcame this lending discrimination and rehabilitated their homes through cooperation and barter. Many residents of the North End worked in the building trades as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and masons. They lent their labor to each other, and they were able to upgrade their homes for not much more than the cost of materials, which they could afford from their personal savings.
Yet, the successful efforts of North Enders to rehabilitate their neighborhood went largely unnoticed by outsiders, and urban renewal plans continued to target North End. In 1951, swaths of the North End were demolished to make way for the Central Artery. “More than 100 dwellings and 900 businesses” below Cross Street were destroyed to make way for the Central Artery. North End wholesalers organized the “Save Boston Business Committee” to protest the move but had no effect on the project. More protests erupted again when residents learned that Hanover Street, a main thoroughfare, would be cut off from downtown. The elevated highway became a blight on the surviving buildings along its path, and it created a steel and concrete barrier between the North End and downtown Boston. As construction on the Central Artery neared completion, the city fully demolished two large neighborhoods just across the highway from the North End in a massive urban renewal effort. North Enders awoke to the fearsome possibility that their neighborhood could face the same fate as the West End and Scollay Square.
A small chunk of the North End was demolished in 1961 for another highway project, a second tunnel to East Boston – the Callahan – to manage the increased traffic between the Central Artery highway and the airport. Yet, in the end the North End mostly survived the bulldozers of the urban renewal era. Redevelopment in the North End proceeded in a more considerate and gradual manner.
The industrial area along the North End’s waterfront had become a blighted area of vacant warehouses and crumbling docks abandoned when most port operations shifted to South Boston. From the mid-1970s on through the present day, urban planners and developers rebuilt the waterfront into a district of expensive condominiums, hotels, offices, restaurants and bars.
1980-Present – The Cosmopolitan City
The North End managed to survive Boston’s period of turmoil and urban renewal largely intact. But, the North End began to change dramatically as Boston once again emerged as a world-class city.
The North End’s population changed dramatically in this era as many of the neighborhood’s older, working-class Italian residents passed on, left to join children in the suburbs, or moved into elderly housing. The old, cold-water flats and tenement buildings were poor environments to age in. Newly built affordable housing for seniors, such as Casa Maria, allowed some of the North End’s elders to age in appropriate housing in their neighborhood, but the supply was limited. As the seniors left their old homes for the new senior housing or to leave the neighborhood, their former homes were quickly rehabilitated and converted to more condos or high rent apartments for young professionals looking to move into the increasingly popular neighborhood. Not all of the North End’s seniors were lucky enough to finish their lives in their neighborhood, profit from selling their old home, or leave their apartment voluntarily for a better rental in the new housing. As the neighborhood became more popular, many landlords raised rents and evicted their longtime tenants in order to profit from the new demand from young professionals. Similarly, older neighborhood-serving shops lost their leases in favor of more expensive and fashionable restaurants and shops.
Residents worried that these new developments disrupted the original character of the North End organized around initiatives to preserve the neighborhood. Their efforts led the, the City Council to establish the North End Neighborhood District in 1993.
The North End’s population became less isolated during this era, and dramatic physical changes reconnected the neighborhood to the larger city. Almost as soon as the Central Artery had been finished, planners at the city and state level began to devise plans to dismantle the elevated highway and remove its scar through the city and its blight on the North End. Fred Salvucci, Governor Dukakis’ Secretary of Transportation and a one-time North End resident, oversaw plans for the mammoth Big Dig project, which would replace the Central Artery with a tunnel and free land on the surface to reconnect the North End and Waterfront with downtown Boston. Before it could be free of the blight however, the North End’s people and businesses suffered the effects of heavy construction for over a decade.
When the construction finally stopped, the North End gained new park space along the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Residents and tourists could easily cross from Faneuil Hall, Haymarket, and other downtown sites to the North End’s restaurants, shops, and waterfront. New residential development along the Greenway is adding to the area’s housing stock. While many of the North End’s residents are no longer Italian, the North End’s Italian character has become even more celebrated. Its little Italy feel combine with its revolutionary historic sites to make the North End among the top destinations for visitors to Boston.
From the very beginning of settlement in the North End, its proximity to the sea made it ideal for sea-trade. As commerce and businesses in Boston kept growing, more and more land was needed. Throughout the late 17th and the 18th century, marshy flats around the North End were filled and wharves were created further out into the sea to accommodate larger ships.
Later, in the early decades of the 1800s, the Mill Pond was filled due to a greater demand for land for residential development and transportation infrastructure. It created more land between the North End and the West End and the Shawmut Peninsula began to take form closer to what Boston looks like today.
Early settlers in the North End lived in wooden houses with small thatched roofs, surrounded by pasture and gardens. They were scattered but tended to cluster around North Square and North Street. New residential development aligned itself against this scattered arrangement, which led to the creation of the first narrow streets and alleys that came to characterize the North End. In 1636, the streets of the North End were among the first to be officially designated as streets. North Street was at that time “Ann Street, Fish Street and Ship Street.” Hanover Street was “Middle, Hanover and North Streets,” and Salem Street was made up of “Back Street and Green Lane.” The early wooden homes that lined these small streets were highly susceptible to fires. Paul Revere House, built around 1680 is the only building from that period that survives today.
Elites who lived in the North End built grand mansions to live in. However, when the wealthy residents fled to the suburbs or other fashionable neighborhoods, the newly arrived Irish immigrants occupied these mansions- albeit, “one room per family.”
Between mid-19th and the early 20th century, the housing supply fell short of the demand created by the growing influx of immigrants. Four and five story walk-up tenements were built in place of the grand mansions. These buildings characterize today’s North End.
After the 1970s, developers changed the face of the North End by converting the tenements into larger apartments and condominiums. Although development is regulated in the historic North End district under the zoning regulations, additional units have been created on top of existing tenement buildings and new development is undertaken keeping in mind the architecture in the North End.
Planning: Transportation Infrastructure and Clearance and Redevelopment
The North End escaped formal urban renewal, but it constantly faced demolition and pressures from transportation projects. In 1919, the City Planning Board wanted to create a ‘Lafayette Street’ to connect downtown Boston to Charlestown via the North End and across the Charlestown Bridge- a move that could have split North End in half. The North End’s Italian residents, who had never before organized themselves as a strong political force before, came together to successfully oppose the plan and prevent the new, wide road from splitting their neighborhood.
The North End and East Boston had long been linked by regular municipal ferry service. Many of the Italians who left the North End once they were well established in America just hopped across the harbor for the streetcar suburb neighborhoods growing in East Boston. In 1934, the North End and East Boston gained a road connection through the Sumner Tunnel. The Sumner was meant to help connect downtown Boston to the new Boston Airport in East Boston. Its construction tore up parts of each neighborhood, and would be just the first in a string of transportation projects to affect these Italian communities.
In the 1950s when the Central Artery was constructed through the North End, it destroyed with it communities that had made the North End their home for years. Protests from the business community organized as the Save Boston Business Committee went unheard. The Callahan Tunnel, the second such tunnel to East Boston, was opened in 1961 to address the issue of increased traffic to the airport.
As soon as it was constructed, the web of roadways created by the Central Artery was perceived as a scar on the city and affected neighborhoods like the North End. The process to get permissions for dismantling it was slow and spanned decades. Construction on the “Big Dig,” which replaced the Central Artery with a tunnel, built a new tunnel to the airport to ease congestion on the Sumner and Callahan, and tore down the Central Artery, inconvenienced the North End with noise, detours, and dust for 15 years. The Rose Kennedy Greenway now lies along the land freed from the Central Artery.
The North End was a major junction for multiple railroad stations- the Boston and Maine Railroad, Fitchburg Railroad, Boston and Lowell Railroad and the Eastern Railroad. When all of the railroad companies were integrated under one transport authority, their railroad terminals were discontinued. The Boston and Lowell Railroad and Eastern Railroad station locations make up the location of today’s North Station (originally built in 1928 after demolishing North Union Station and redesigned in 1995 and 2007) and TD Garden. The Orange and Green Line tracks used to operate on an elevated corridor, but first the Orange Line and then the Green Line tracks were relocated to subways. A 2004 re-design of North Station’s subway station linked the two subway lines on the same platform.
Planning: Community Participation
Residents worried that new developments disrupted the original character of the North End organized around initiatives to preserve the neighborhood. A zoning ordinance capping maximum building height at 55 feet for any new development in North End resulted from their efforts. Residents continued to organize to use zoning as a tool for more than just a height restriction. A three-year long active, community process aimed to create a zoning code that would ensure new development would effectively complement the neighborhood’s historic character. Their efforts led the, the City Council to establish the North End Neighborhood District in 1993.
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