PART 5: BOSTON’S LITTLE ITALY
The Italian masses that flowed into the North End on the heels of the departing Irish and at the apex of the Jewish settlement found a neighborhood in dire physical condition; a rundown, overcrowded slum of deteriorating tenement buildings.
Like their predecessors, these newly-arrived Italian immigrants also had to contend with Bostonians’ disdain for foreigners. As historian Samuel Adams Drake opined (in 1871) about living conditions in North Square:
The first Italian immigrants came in the 1860s from Genoa and settled in a three-block area off Fulton Street, adjacent to the Jewish Menorah Products poultry slaughterhouse. They numbered fewer than 200, but during the 1880s, the immigrant tide began to shift — of the 15,000 Irish that lived here in 1880, barely 5,000 remained by 1890.
The Genoese were followed by the Campanians, who were followed by the Sicilians, the Avellinese, the Neopolitans, and the Abruzzesians. Each group settled in their own area within the North End, creating their own enclave within the greater North End neighborhood.
The North End had also changed in a number of other significant ways over the preceding decades. Formerly Protestant churches were acquired by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston – reflecting the ascendancy of Irish Catholicism throughout the neighborhood. The Seamen’s Bethel became the Sacred Heart Church in 1871 after Rev. Edward Taylor’s death. The Bulfinch-designed New North Congregational Society became St. Stephen’s Church. In 1873 a new Italian-Portuguese Catholic church, St. John the Baptist, was dedicated, and in the same year St. Leonard’s Church was founded. St. Leonard’s, at the corner of Hanover and Prince Streets, was completed in 1899, becoming the first Italian church in New England and the second oldest in America.>
During this same period, a new Settlement House Movement swept through Boston’s North End. It took several forms. Some settlement houses were established to assist immigrants in adjusting to their new life in America. For example, the North End Union provided food and aid to several generations of immigrants. In the 1880s, it housed the Children’s Mission which developed “The Boston Sand Garden Project”, the city’s first public playground.
A North Bennet Street Industrial School was also founded in 1881 by Pauline Agassiz Shaw to teach Italian and Jewish immigrants skills needed to obtain employment. And eight years later, Lina Hecht set up her Hebrew Industrial School next door to teach needlework skills to Jewish women.
Then there was the “Saturday Evening Girls” library club. It was founded in 1899 by Edith Guerrier, a 21-year-old librarian who maintained a reading room at the North Bennet Street School. She came up with a novel approach to keeping Jewish and Italian young women “off the streets” while at the same time advancing their education and well-being. Her library club held meetings on Saturday evenings at which literary scholars, writers, historians and social reformers would present talks.
The three Sicilian friends- LaMarca, Seminara and Cantella – started a small macaroni and spaghetti manufacturing business in 1912 at 90-92 Prince Street. They became so successful that within five years, they moved their Prince Pasta Company to 207 Commercial Street. Then, in 1939, the three partners moved the entire operation to Lowell, where they were joined by Guiseppe Pellegrino, another Sicilian immigrant with a deft hand at marketing. Pellegrino eventually bought out two of his three partners – – LaMarca and Seminara – and proceeded to build Prince into a national brand. He created the famous radio slogan “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day” in and in 1969, under the direction of his son, Joseph, Prince introduced its most memorable TV commercial, featuring Anthony Martignetti and the refrain of a mother peering out a tenement window, calling to her son to come home for a supper of Prince spaghetti. Joseph Pellegrino, took over the presidency of Prince Pasta from his father Guiseppe in 1972, eventually selling the company to Borden, Inc. in 1987.
Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death.
Charles Ponzi claimed that he was simply sharing with his investors a portion of the 400% profit he was earning through trading in international Postal Reply Coupons. When in 1920 Ponzi’s bubble finally burst , the truth came out: he paid off his earliest investors with money received from his later investors. He had never bought or sold Postal Reply Coupons; they simply served as his cover for what has come to be called a “Ponzi Scheme” – robbing Pietro to pay Paolo.
Like the experience of the Boston Irish before them, Italian-Americans began to accrue political power after the close of WW II and, in this way, started to redress over a half-century of prejudice and neglect. In 1948, Foster Furcolo was elected the first Italian-American Congressman and eight years later he became the first Italian-American Governor of Massachusetts.
Fred Langone, whose grandfather had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1922, was himself elected in 1961 to the Boston City Council, a position he held for the next 22 years. Frank X. Belotti served as Lieutenant Governor from 1963 to 1965, when John Volpe was elected the second Italian-American Governor of Massachusetts.
The North End today retains much of its “Old World” feel. Tourism provides an economic underpinning. However, many neighborhood grocery stores, fruit vendors, butcher shops, bakeries, shoe stores, clothiers and cobblers have simply disappeared to be replaced by restaurants. With a population barely one-quarter of its 44,000 peak in 1930, fewer services are required to sustain the community. Ten of its 12 schools have been subdivided and converted to condominium apartments. Church parishes have been auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Times have changed in Boston’s North End.