The Boston Globe’s new columnist gets all teary-eyed about the changes the North End has undergone over the past twenty-four years.

Same Place, Different Time – By Kevin Cullen, the Boston Globe

When Jerry [Angiulo] and his brothers were arrested [1983], about 70 percent of the people who lived on the blocks surrounding Prince Street were either Italian-born or of Italian descent. Today, that figure is below 30 percent. In that same period, the median income in those households has more than quadrupled, to more than $50,000, about 25 percent higher than the city average.

Hanover Street, the North End’s spine, and the streets that run off it retain an Old World veneer, with cafes where old men speak Italian and peruse copies of La Repubblica. The number of restaurants has doubled since the 1980s, but the natives can’t afford them. On the side streets, copies of the Wall Street Journal sit in front of condos that Financial District traders call home. Cafes that once boasted about their variety of grappa now entice customers with “Free Wi-Fi” decals.

So, just for kicks, let’s go back 20-years from when Gerry last walked down Hanover Street.

The year is 1961. The place, the North End.

Courtesy, Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

This is an old, low-rent area merging into heavy industry of the waterfront, and it is officially considered Boston’s worst slum and civic shame. It embodies attributes which all enlightened people know are evil because so many wise men have said they are evil. Not only is the North End bumped right up against industry, but worse still it has all kinds of working places and commerce mingled in the greatest complexity with its residences.

It has the highest concentration of dwelling units on the land that is used for dwelling units of any part of Boston, and indeed one of the highest concentrations to be found in any American City. It has little parkland. Children play in the streets.

Instead of super-blocks, or even decently large blocks, it has very small blocks; in planning parlance it is “badly cut up with wasteful streets”. Its buildings are old. Everything conceivable is presumably wrong with the North End. In orthodox planning terms, it is a three-dimensional textbook of “megalopolis” in the last stages of depravity …

Twenty years ago [1939], when I first happened to see the North End, its buildings – town houses of different kinds and sizes converted to flats, and four- or five-story tenements built to house the flood of immigrants first from Ireland, then from Eastern Europe and finally from Sicily – were badly overcrowded, and the general effect was a district taking a terrible physical beating and certainly desperately poor.

When I saw the North End again in 1959, I was amazed at the change. Dozens and dozens of buildings had been rehabilitated … Many of the small, converted houses now only had one or two families in them [!] instead of the old crowded three or four … Mingled all among the buildings for living were an incredible number of splendid food stores, as well as enterprises as upholstery making, metal working, carpentry, food processing. The streets were alive with children playing, people shopping, people strolling, people talking.

So, what is happening today in Boston is what has happened in major American cities for at least the past 100 years – it’s changing.

Jane Jacobs seemed to understand that cities change; they grow, they shrink – they change. But what she couldn’t seem to comprehend is that, if you make a neighborhood appealing, everyone will want to live there! But, because of limited land and anti-growth zoning laws, the simple law of supply and demand will lead to increasing home prices (along with improved housing stock, reduced crime, and wide-varieties of stores and shops).

Then what do you do???

(Also, Ms. Jacobs was a bit too optimistic in calling downtown Boston a roaring success. The mid-to-late 60’s brought great unrest and the abandonment of much of the area, and the late-70’s brought forced-busing and the flight of the middle-class to the suburbs.)

(Also, those Italians still living today in the North End, after 50 years? In addition to lamenting the high cost of housing (and living) in Boston, they should point an accusing finger at their past neighbors, who grabbed as much cash as they could from invading developers, and then ran for Everett and Revere, as quickly as possible.)

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Updated: 1st Q 2018

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