The most famous resident of the neighborhood hardly belongs here. Not only was Paul Revere one of the wealthiest men in American history—and the North End has never been a rich area, at least by legal means—but he was a Protestant Brahmin to his bones. And his closest place of worship, the equally honored Old North Church (“One if by land, two if by sea”), for all its Episcopalian glory, looks entirely out of place in this thoroughly Catholic and Italian community.
At least since the mid-nineteenth century. When the Italians started to arrive in Boston, they found themselves on the sharp end of the age-old American immigration dilemma. Admitted by a country in need of their cheap labor, they were immediately abused and chastised by every nativist political con man from Boston to Washington. It didn’t help that the Irish had already established their hold on the levers of local corruption and power. Amid violent police raids, random mob explosions, and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italians all but walled themselves into the North End and Jeffries Point, two of the least accessible refuges in the city.
By the 1970s, when I was running a grocery store here, if you had a problem with a youth gang or—worse yet—with a food inspector, you went around to Polcari’s at lunchtime to see Pat, and the problem disappeared. They still talked about how Pat once tried to throw his brother Tony out the window of their tenement on Hanover Street (until their Mama slammed him over the head with a cast iron frying pan). The Italians of the North End were tough, but fair and honest in a tax-evading, off-the-books, anti-authoritarian kind of way. A girl could walk home at two in the morning without a thought for her safety. The old lady on the stoop watched out for trouble and demanded cash for rent. The Mafiosi kept their quarrels to themselves.
But now, if you talk to the locals, it’s all gone to pot. Restauranteurs grumble about the Asian tourist invasion, even as they spike their prices to soak them. Rents have skyrocketed and forced service workers out to residential suburbs like the Heights, Medford, and Billerica. Gloomy, smoky Polcari’s is now bright and open Filippo’s, a nice enough tourist trap (although they’ll still trot out the old photographs if you ask). Di Carlo Furniture, Martignetti Liquors, and the European—with its thick, watery Sicilian tomato sauces—are gone. So is the social club on Prince Street, from where the Angiulo brothers fought the Irish mobs for control of the Boston rackets. And when you walk the back streets here, there are no old mamas on watch at the stoops and windows.
And the main reason seems to be the Big Dig, concluded in 2006. The greatest and maybe the most corrupt boondoggle in American construction history, the project was estimated at $2.8 billion and came in somewhere around $22 billion. Its main goal was to submerge the overhead Southeast Expressway, one of the ugliest highways anywhere and a blight on a city that was styling itself as the history and tourist mecca of America. But without the hideous intersections and murky passageways of the Expressway as barriers, the North End had no choice but to join the modern world.
When we fled to California in the late 1980s, Boston was a place where absolutely nothing—for good or ill—ever changed. An African-American friend once described it as a white city full of bigoted ethnic neighborhoods and destined to remain stuck in that mud forever. Today, the obstinate insularity seems to be fading, and maybe that’s a good thing. But when we return to the North End, we immediately head to Regina for pizza, Filippo for friendship, Vittoria for cannoli, the Daily Catch for Lobster fra Diavolo, and Mama Maria for some of the best Piemontese cuisine in North America.
Some things change and some stay the same.