Known as “Little Italy” for over a hundred years, the North End proudly carries the torch of Boston‘s Italian heritage. Its narrow, dense streets consistently draw hordes of visitors looking to experience old world culture and first class dining. The West End was a sister neighborhood, until it was almost entirely demolished during the 1950s. Today it’s the site of a huge sports arena and massive amounts of new construction.
The draw of the North End was evident even to the first Puritan colonists, when powerful minister Increase Mather made this neighborhood his home. This area shared fortunes with Beacon Hill, and people from all walks of life came together to live and worship. The Old North Church was put up in 1723, the oldest church in Boston still standing. As the years wore on, the English and free Blacks living here would be pushed out by a wave of Irish immigrants who arrived in great numbers. Stately mansions were converted into tenements, and living conditions deteriorated. By the mid 19th century, the North End developed something of an unsavory reputation, a red-light district along what is today North Street being chiefly responsible.
By the 1880s the Irish had decamped, and the North End became dominated by Jewish and especially Italian immigrants. These families would barter trade skills to one another, slowly repairing and replacing the area’s dilapidated housing stock with what you will see here today. A poorly considered expressway project constructed in 1950s cut this neighborhood off from the rest of Boston. Although this did have the beneficial effect of strengthening already close community connections, and family owned businesses continued to thrive.
When the ugly expressway was removed in 2007 by the Big Dig, a hulking metal barrier was replaced by a welcoming green garden, and the North End was united with the rest of the city once more. This connective parkland invites visitors from around the globe to explore the narrow brick streets, historical highlights, and unparalleled Italian dining that make the North End such a unique destination.
Once simply a small bay and mill pond to early colonists, the West End is another of Boston’s neighborhoods built on reclaimed land. After the American revolution, the pond had turned into something of a convenient—although increasingly stinky—garbage dump. By the dawn of the 19th century it was decided to use the earth from one of Beacon Hill’s three original hills to fill the pond in.
The creation of this new neighborhood quickly relieved pressure on the town’s overcrowded housing stock. Some of the areas first residents would be African American, joining friends and family living nearby on Beacon Hill’s north slope. This was one of the few places in the United States where African Americans had a political voice before the Civil War. In the coming years they would be joined by immigrants arriving from across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East.
By the 1950s the once overcrowded area was in the process of “de-slumming” along with the North End. It wasn’t perfect, but small shops were still in business and many families still considered it a fine place to live. A city plan to “redevelop” the area was overwhelmingly opposed by residents during a meeting in late 1957. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, however, and eviction notices were handed out a few months later. The following year, a majority of the West End would be razed to the ground.
Today a vibrancy is slowly returning to the remaining pockets of what once was. It will never again feel like a sister to the North End, but as the tall buildings of glass and steel take the place of 50s era parking lots, the West End stands ready to turn the page and write its next chapter.