Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of articles about visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.
In James Pasto’s summer course on the history and culture of Boston’s North End, students explored the colorful neighborhood, famed for its Italian restaurants, bakeries, and religious street festivals, on foot and by studying a trove of firsthand written accounts. By the final class, which was capped with a seven-course feast at Bricco, the students felt a kinship with the North End’s densely settled, cobbled byways. Spreading from the inviting, often tourist-clogged Hanover Street, the narrow streets date as far back as 1680, and have been home to a succession of immigrants, from the Puritans and American Revolutionary War patriots to Jews, Irish, and of course, Italians.
Mention the neighborhood to people of a certain age, and they’re likely to recall one of television’s longest running commercials: a young boy named Anthony being summoned home by his mama for his Wednesday Prince spaghetti supper. The popular ad was filmed a few blocks from the former North End home of the Prince factory.
Bostonians and suburbanites continue to flock to the now-gentrified North End’s Italian restaurants. But its Italian-American population peaked in the 1930s and continues to decline. It is now estimated at a scant 3 percent. So as the students learned more about the place, Pasto, a College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program senior lecturer, asked them to contemplate the following: “Is the North End still Italian?”
The answer? Well, yes. And no.
Offered through BU’s Metropolitan College, the four-credit class, titled A Social History of Boston’s North End, examined “changes in the area from the first Puritan settlement to the current period of gentrification, with central attention given to the dynamics of culture change among the Italian immigrants,” according to the course description. It’s a subject Pasto knows firsthand. He was born in the North End, his childhood mischief monitored by the paisan nonas and nonos parked in folding chairs outside the cheek-by-jowl brick walk-ups. That generation is gone, and like Pasto, who commutes from Sandwich, its children have mostly moved out of the city.
At its peak Italian population, the North End had 28 Italian physicians, 6 Italian dentists, 8 funeral homes, and along just one block of Hanover Street, 4 or 5 barbershops. But unlike New York City’s Little Italy, which has been reduced to just a few blocks of Lower Manhattan and has been primped for tourists, Boston’s North End has retained its Italian authenticity—even if that authenticity is kept alive and vibrant by proxy, says Pasto. Those who doubt that need only partake of the ricotta pie at Modern Pastry or the pappardelle with wild boar sauce or steak tympano at Bricco. The chefs and owners may commute from Quincy or Dedham, but the Old World trattoria culture continues to flourish.
Within the bounds of this one colorful and iconic neighborhood, where tourists from around the world queue up for cannolis at Mike’s Pastry, the class considered global, national, and local influences. With an ever-morphing ethnic makeup, the once drug- and violence-plagued streets are now gentrified to the point where diminutive studio apartments are widely sought after, despite steep rents. Gone, Pasto notes, are most of the barber shops of his youth, and the butchers with skinned rabbits hanging in the windows. Pricey boutiques are sprouting in what is being increasingly referred to as an extension of the city’s waterfront.
The masses of Italians that flowed into the North End on the heels of the departing Irish and at the apex of the Jewish settlement in the late 19th and early 20th century found a neighborhood in physical decay, a rundown, overcrowded hodgepodge of tenements. Today the streets are well-tended and photogenic, and for the final class, students and teacher gathered in a lovely green across from the Paul Revere House, where they were joined by North End native and historian Dom Capossela, proprietor for 37 years of the now-shuttered Dom’s Restaurant. A gregarious local fixture, Capossela recently self-published Dom’s, An Odyssey, billed on Amazon as a true account of a single night at one of Boston’s most famous Italian restaurants of the 1970s, during which unfold stories of “sex, the Mafia, food, drugs,” the North End of the 1950s, “celebrities, sports betting, social revolution, rock ’n’ roll, wine, history, and child labor.”
Walking with his students and Capossela along the side streets and tiny squares off Hanover Street, Pasto explained that the neighborhood has undergone a steady process of rehabilitation, restoration, and now construction that belies its humble, ghetto-ized origins. As Capossela explained to the group, in a neighborhood of immigrants, the Italians didn’t follow the same trajectory as the Jews and the Irish, who prized assimilation. The Italians gravitated toward the trades they practiced in Italy and were slow to learn English and embrace the greater ambitions embodied in the term “the American Dream.”
For the class, the students had read Capossela’s book, which asks, “Why did it take six million Italians 100 years to assimilate into the American mainstream?” It illustrates the arduous road the immigrants, most from Italy’s southern region, traveled to find a functional identity in their new country. Capossela, born and raised in the North End in the 1950s, writes, “We became these people by being always mindful of our separateness and our minority status, and we became these people by taking.… As payment for what we took, we gave this transformation of a hopeless 1900s slum into our own 1950s Emerald City, the metaphorical equivalent of our own personal development and growth in American society. We gave our own North End, where the ‘joie de vivre’ of an Italian-rooted daily routine merged with the optimism that is America; our own North End, this sociologically magical moment, this quintessentially personal thank you.” He paints a mostly quaint picture of the North End of his youth, where neighbors looked after each other, children played safely in the streets, and those considered outsiders were viewed with a protective wariness.
Chock-full of “who knew?” moments
Seated later at a banquet-sized table at Bricco with Pasto at one end and Capossela at the other, the students spoke of their revised notions of the North End. For a few of them, joining the class had a personal element. Rachelle Regan (SAR’18) frequents the North End, where her Irish grandparents lived until they moved to South Boston. “The Irish kept to themselves,” says Regan. “You stayed in your part.” And Dan Kaufman (CAS’17), the grandson of Jewish immigrants to the North End, grew up hearing that Jews, too, were marginalized there in his grandparents’ time. Barry Kingsbury, who is enrolled in MET’s Evergreen program, which is open to those 58 and older to audit classes and attend lectures, now volunteers as a North End tour guide. Kingsbury’s grandfather was the neighborhood’s last kosher butcher and had a store on Salem Street, once a Jewish enclave.
North End history is chock-full of “who knew?” moments. In the early 1900s, for example, Eastern European Jews comprised nearly a third of the neighborhood’s population. Among them were Solomon and Jennie Rubinowitz, eventually going by the name Rabb, who opened a grocery at 134 Salem Street in 1892. It closed in 1908, but by then the family owned several grocery stores, which later became the Stop & Shop supermarket chain.
From Pasto’s lectures and an essay in the collection Small Towns, Big Cities: The Urban Experience of Italian Americans (Bordighera Press, 2010), the class also learned that the neighborhood was a scary place by the 1970s. Drugs, crime, and vigilante violence reached such a critical level in that decade that in 1979 the Boston Herald published an article with a headline calling the North End the “Killing Ground.” Today the neighborhood is safe and welcoming. Although institutions like churches and a health clinic were established at a time when they served Italians nearly exclusively, the neighborhood is not the one of Pasto’s childhood.
But some North End natives most likely were the ones weighing in on an item on northendwaterfront.com about casting for the remake of the iconic Prince Spaghetti Day commercial (the son of the original Anthony was turned down for the part). A commenter identifying himself or herself as “resident” commented, “Wouldn’t the follow-up commercial be more realistic if the ‘1969’ Anthony’s wife called Anthony, Jr., who is playing in the yard of their home in the suburbs? Then maybe show ‘visiting’ grandma in their kitchen smiling proudly!” Mary Fiumara, the original mother beckoning her son from the window of a building on Powers Street, died last February. Prince Macaroni Company, founded in 1912 by three immigrants from Sicily, is now called Prince Pasta and is owned by the Harrisburg, Pa.–based New World Pasta company.
But despite all this, and the fact that its arancini is prepared for visitors by members of a range of ethnic groups, the arancini are the real thing.
So is the North End still Italian? No. And yes.
November 30, 2018
October 31, 2018
August 3, 2018