IT and US: Boston’s North End an Italian-American community between continuity and changes
- WTI Magazine #76 Feb 14, 2016
WTI Magazine #76 2016 February 15
Author : Augusto Ferraiuolo Translation by:
Boston's North End is a peninsula of almost 100 acres, half a mile long and wide, confined by the ocean on the north and west sides. Though the ocean can be considered, above all, as a physical frontier, various symbolic meanings have been conferred on it. As a result, the feeling of territoriality and belonging connected to the ocean is certainly not the same between a Northender born in the mountains of Montefalcione (Avellino) and working in a factory or holding a local, terra firma, business, and a neighbor from Sciacca, fisherman from generation to generation, who expands the idea of territoriality beyond streets and buildings, including ships, waters and courses.
Another physical as well as symbolic border would be the so-called Big Dig project separating the North End from the rest of the city on the south and west sides. Big Dig is the unofficial, vernacular name given by Bostonians to the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T) to redirect the intense traffic of I-93 to new built tunnels, under the heart of the city. It is considered the most expensive highway project in the history of United States. It began in September 1991, and was fully completed in 2007. Despite all the problems connected with this almost endless work, the North End, protected by the Big Dig, has become more and more a sort of exotic, secret place to protect and discover, favoring a sort of strategic essentialism of the "Italian" neighborhood.
For a long time the North End remained a repository or social drifters, essentially migrants. At the end of 19th century the centrifugal move of the first settlers, the Irish, out of the neighborhood and up on the social ladder, was combined with the arrival of new immigrants from Eastern Europe (Russian Jews) and, above all, Southern Italy. The Genoese community settled in the Ferry Court area until the first decade of the 20th century. Another ethnic enclave materialized in the area bound by Prince Street and Salem Street, inhabited by Abruzzesi and a few Napoletani. The area bound by Hanover Street, North Square and Fulton Street saw the growth of the Avellinesi. Sicilians, especially from Sciacca, came to Boston in a second time, populating the area around North Street, and also taking the place of the Genoese group in Ferry Court.
The settlement pattern is well known: Italians tended to cluster together on the basis of the village of origin, in relatively small enclaves. I am arguing, following well-established scholarship that it is necessary to deconstruct the idea of "Italians" and to consider Italy as a place of many diasporas. I am therefore suggesting the idea that migrants became "Italians" in the United States.
In the 1930s a new economic pattern became evident, one that later on – and in particular nowadays – can be considered as an important characteristic of the neighborhood: the emergence of the food business. At the beginning of 20th century the North End was already scattered with very cheap little restaurants or pizzeria. As appreciation of Italian cuisine mounted in the country, the food business became more important, then fundamental, to the local economy. Over time food also became an important marker of Italian ethnic identity. Nowadays the importance of ethnic food businesses in the North End is easily demonstrated by the concentration of restaurants in an area of not even 100 acres. It is, indeed, impressive: at the end of February 2008 86 restaurants, 8 bars and pubs, 4 coffee shops, 7 home delivery businesses, 2 catering businesses, and 8 bakeries offered "Italian" food in the neighborhood.
The transformation from a slum to a desirable area was slow and inevitable. In the 1960s the neighborhood started to be described as a "model of city life" by people who favored the "ambience of the Italian way of life" over the hectic American way. This led to another factor of attraction: appreciation of a community-style life, modeled on the Italian village idea, now evident in the area even for outsiders.. This overall economic prosperity soon led to a massive rise in real estate prices, as recounted by Pietro, a fishermen from Sciacca. According to him gentrification started with the urban renewal of the North End in the 1970s: Somebody visualized in their mind that people in the North End love the water, they love to live by the seashore, somebody got the idea in their minds 'Let's buy up that property' for cheap money, money again involved! And we will build condos. And now they charge half a million dollars and people buy it! And what happened to the old people living in this area? Now they are living in the nursing home, they have no more property.
Such beliefs are widely held in the North End and they always carry, on one hand, the feeling of an ethnic identity irremediably lost, and, on the other hand an awareness of economic prosperity, with dramatic consequences concerning the unaffordable cost of living of the neighborhood. For the first time in the history of the North End ethnicity became an economic value, making it necessary for local businesses and the neighborhood as a whole to be, or at least pretend to be, Italian. This is even more necessary when identity became a scarce resource: if in the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s Italians were still the principal ethnic group in Boston by far, the trend changed dramatically at the beginning of the 1970s.
According to various censuses, in the 1970s the residents of the North End numbered around 10,000, with 63% declaring Italian descent. In 1980 residents declaring Italian descent comprised less than 50% of the entire population. Among them, only 3% were Italian-born. In the 1990s people from Italian ancestry represented only the 43% of the local population. In the 2000 the figure dropped to the 22.8% (data concerns the electoral District 1 of Boston (East Boston, Charlestown, Downtown. North End, and Chinatown). Figures are of course important to understand the phenomenon but I am more interested in the residents' perception of their own environment.
During an interview with Sal and Therese, members of the Fishermen Society of Sciacca, I asked them if they thought that the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood was changing. They said:" It changed, it changed, dramatically. There is not really a lot of Sciaccatani left, not even many Italians. The population if I had to take a guess probably can be 20% of the Italians here in the North End. What keeps like a little fortunately are the elderly home, a lot of old Italians they live over here and the children come to visit them and they keep like that."