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Walking through the real Little Italy

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

Hang out with me in Boston historic North End

Boston seems to me a European city in lifestyle and architecture. It is a perfect mix of ancient and modern, with Charles River as demarcation line between old and new town: romantic cobblestone streets with red brick houses, tree-lined avenues, historic buildings, churches, street cafes and huge parks coexist with its shopping malls and mirror towers.

Walking through its neighbourhoods, such as Beacon Hill, you might have the impression to be in an English town, with red bricks terraced houses, narrow alleys and pubs at the corner of the streets.

I had the chance to visit Boston on 2016 (I can’t believe it’s 5 years already! Time flies) and every time I think of the historic district of North End, the first things that pop into my mind are the delicious pastries and fresh cannolis of Bova’s Bakery. The almond and vanilla smell coming out this Italian bakery really made me want to pick everything from their counter!

I remember it was a Saturday evening and North End district was busier than ever. A densely populated neighbourhood, North End (aka Boston’s Little Italy) seemed to have the most-crowded streets in the city, especially during the evening when locals and tourists patiently waited for a table in one of the many Italian restaurants. They could not wait to taste some authentic Italian dishes like Parmigiana, Caprese, Bruschetta, Pizza and of course Pasta cooked with different sauces.

“Street photography is a very humanistic genre of photography; there’s almost a political side to it where you’re trying to show that these people are important, they’re real people and just because they live in a city and they’re working class doesn’t mean that their life doesn’t have value and that they can’t be a subject of great art.”

— Aaron Schmidt, Curator, Boston Public Library

Just cross the street and get into the historic district of North End, aka Boston Little Italy. Streets here get really crowded during the evening as locals and tourists patiently wait to get a table in one of the many restaurants of the neighbourhood.

The perfect hangout for Italian pastries lovers. Antonio Bova had a goal and a dream. He moved to Boston from Calabria, Italy in 1890, to fulfil his dream of owning and establishing a family business. For three generations his bakery has survived, thrived and flourished and today still makes the best cannoli in Boston!

From 1880 to 1930, millions of Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, most from southern Italy and Sicily. These immigrants were reluctant in considering themselves Italian as Italy had been unified only in 1861. Furthermore, it was a positive unification just for the rich regions of the north of Italy (like Lombardy and Piedmont), whilst the conditions of the population living in the south only worsened. The soil was over exploited, taxes and tariffs were high and young men had to work at a minimum wage, which in many cases was not enough to feed their 4-5 children and wife.

Boston North Street, North End, 1885

When Italians began arriving in large numbers, the North End was already occupied by thousands of Irish and Jewish immigrants. The area's many low-rent tenements and proximity to downtown made it a natural choice for poor and working-class Italian immigrants as well. As the neighborhood became increasingly Italian, Irish and Jewish, who had lived there until then, began to move out. By 1905, of the 27,000 people living in the North End, 22,000 were Italians.

North End became a real ghetto for Italians immigrants and it was then called Little Italy, exactly like the suburbs in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco etc… These immigrants didn’t speak English at all as the majority of them were poor and illiterate. That’s why they were forced to take low-wage jobs, being exploited by middlemen.

Despite the many obstacles Italians living in Boston had to face - such as poverty and discrimination - they also received some assistance from sympathetic Bostonians in many different ways. Boston Attorney George A. Scigliano, for example, worked to improve the lives of local Italians fighting with them the so-called exploitative padrone system in order to end it. James Donnaruma, an immigrant from Salerno, founded La Gazzetta del Massachusetts, a popular Italian-language newspaper, in 1905. As editor he used his influence to help local Italians, advocating for them in his paper, writing letters to Congress, recommending people for jobs, supporting Italian political candidates and making generous charitable donations.

Salem Street, Boston North End, 1901 (Picture from "Finding Lost Space" by Roger Trancik)

In 1917 there were an estimated 50,000 Italians living in Boston, with 8,000 of them serving in the U.S. military during World War I. After the Great War ended, tens of thousands of Italians emigrated to Boston and, like it happened at the end of 19th Century, they came mostly form southern Italy: many from Sciacca in Sicily, and others from Naples, Abruzzi, Calabria, and Potenza.

During the Roaring Twenties, when the Prohibition banned the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages, some Italian to work as bootleggers in Boston. Though, they were not the only ethnicity involved in controlling the bootlegging. Unemployment rate swept during the 1920s and many people were forced to search for illegal jobs to feed their families.

A street in Boston North End decorated for Saints Day. June 23, 1929 (Boston Public Library)

By 1930 the North End was more densely populated than Calcutta, with more than 44,000 Italians living in an area less than a mile square. Economic crisis was still there as well as the street crime in the neighbourhood.

Roaming around the streets of Boston North End, 1930s (Bundesarchiv Bild - German Federal Archive)

During the WWII many Italians in Boston, in order to prove their loyalty to their adopted country, enrol the U.S. military in hope of obtaining the U.S. citizenship. After the war, many Italian veterans took advantage of the benefits that this participation to the World War 2 had given to them: they could go to college and buy houses. By this way, they completed their assimilation into the American middle class.

Salem Street, historic district of North End, Boston, 1948 (City of Boston Archives)

Hotdog stand in North End (Boston) by Jules Aarons, 1940s

Boston North End, 1948 (City of Boston Archives)

Salem Street, historic district of North End, Boston, 1949 (City of Boston Archives)

Boston historic North End district by Jules Aarons, 1950s (Boston Public Library)

Boston North End historic district, 1950s (Boston Public Library)

Paul the Barber, historic district of North End, By Jules Aarons, Boston, 1950s

The biggest Little Italies, such New York Little Italy, Wooster Square in New Haven, Federal Hill in Providence etc... were once crowded tenement neighbourhoods. Today they have gentrified and are now tourist attractions. This is not the case with Boston North End, where Italian traditions are still alive and kicking. As an example, the annual Feast and Celebration of "Madonna della Cava" is a religious feast taking place in North End's Battery Street during the month of August. At the beginning of XX century a small group of immigrants coming from the little town of Pietraperzia (Sicily) brought with them both their culture and their traditional celebration in Madonna della Cava's honour. This is a tangible sign of how Boston North End neighbourhood can still be considered as a real Little Italy, probably one of the few real ones left nowadays.

Annual Religion feast for Madonna della Cava, Boston North End, 2016 (Picture by Bliss from Bygone Days)


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