Boston’s North End is bursting with Old World charm. But a proposed commercial development has newcomers and old-timers at odds over the type of neighborhood they want to live in. Their positions aren’t what you might expect.
When the Molinari brothers agreed to show a visitor around their historic neighborhood, they could have chosen to meet at Caffe Vittoria, with its marble countertops and towering Pavoni espresso machine. Or at Maria’s, a bare-bones bakery with marzipan in the window and the best sfogliatelle in Boston. They could have chosen any of more than 100 Italian cafés, pastry shops and restaurants within a five-block radius. But they didn’t. They picked Starbucks.
The Molinaris (Richard, 56, and Ben, 58) have lived most of their lives in Boston’s North End, and as they walk through the neighborhood they point to some of its invisible history. The condominium where they live today was an abandoned warehouse where they played as boys. Up the street is a wine store owned by an aunt. At the Sacred Heart Church, they stop to greet Father Vincenzo Rosato. “The church was like just another room in our house,” says Ben. “And it still is!”
They remember the stoop where their grandfather used to sit in the evenings, singing and playing the mandolin. (He was a successful silversmith, as was the North End’s most famous resident, Paul Revere.) They point to the house where their mother was born, across the street from the birthplace of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose grandparents came from Ireland long before the Italians started arriving. For more than 200 years, the North End of Boston was the classic American immigrant ghetto. Its narrow streets and brick tenements were home to wave upon wave of working class immigrants – English, African, Irish, Jewish and, beginning the late 1800s, Italian. When Richard and Ben Molinari were boys, the North End was known to outsiders as “Little Italy.” But to residents, a street wasn’t simply “Italian”, but Genovese, Sicilian, Milanese, or Neopolitan.
Most of the Italians are gone now, driven out by gentrification and soaring real estate values. And while their legacy is visible everywhere – in colorful pastry shops, noisy restaurants and boutique grocery stores – it’s a prettified version of the way things used to be. An “Italian stage set,” Richard says.
Newer residents talk about the North End’s distinctive character, its Old World charm. Older residents shrug when they hear that. Back when it was their neighborhood, there were only a handful of restaurants. But for them, the North End has never been about restaurants or shops, let alone about authenticity or character. It’s about the connections between people. The shared history, the church, the thousand kindnesses and petty grudges that bind neighbors together. Today the North End may look something like it looked 50 years ago, but it’s a different place.
The Molinaris don’t blame anyone for that. They say the changes started long ago, part of a natural process for an immigrant neighborhood. “People come searching for a better life,” Ben says, “and they move in the direction of acquiring more things, bigger houses and so on.” Sitting in Starbucks, talking about the old days, the brothers’ conversation begins to sound less like a lament for a vanishing neighborhood, and more like a tribute to the way things are supposed to work in America. But then Ben pauses. “A lot of the good was jettisoned in the move toward wealth. It’s hard to hold onto your values. You have to look back as well as forward.”
– Allan Coukell