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Whither the North?

Okay, last time, I had us walking briskly toward the T-stop...the train station...and I was thinking to myself about the North End, a place I truly love...but whose future concerns me.


Here’s the thing. Neighborhoods have a fairly standard pattern of development -- at least in the United States, and particularly in the Northeast. They start as, well, just ordinary neighborhoods. They may get wealthy. That is, they may become fashionable districts. And that’s exactly what happened to the North End. Back in the eighteenth century, it *was* Boston, and then later a place where the wealthy went to live. (1)


But, then, those same neighborhoods age. They become disreputable. The rich, and then the middle classes move away. In the North End’s case, they went to places like Beacon Hill, and from there, in the 1950s, the suburbs. But that’s a story for another day.


Then, the older neighborhood may turn into a slum. Or, at least, it gets run down. Eventually, it is discovered by new groups moving into the area who need inexpensive housing. That new group -- say, Irish immigrants -- settle down and gradually become established. Time passes, and the children of the new group advance in economic status. Finally, they, too, move out to the suburbs, or wherever. Once again the neighborhood decays, but then it is discovered by yet another new group--say, Polish or Greek immigrants--and the whole affair begins all over again.


Okay, in the North End’s case, that same pattern appeared to play out... at first. The Anglo-Saxons moved out, and then others moved in--specifically, Irish immigrants, and for a time, the North End was an Irish-American neighborhood. Then, the Irish were joined by Jewish immigrants from Central Europe, and you can still see traces of Jewish Boston in things like street names and architecture.(2) Gradually, though, both groups were replaced by Italian immigrants, and that’s when the North End took on its current Italian ethnic character.


Now, if the North End were a normal neighborhood, what should have happened next was that the Italian-Americans would move out and be replaced by yet another set of new-comers, say, Puerto Ricans, or African-Americans moving up from the South. And this is exactly what occurred in many communities in places as diverse as Montreal, New York, and, yes, even Washington, D.C.


But, there is a second pattern that “ethnic” neighborhoods occasionally follow. Sometimes...not always, maybe not often, but sometimes...the “ethnic” neighborhood discovers that its ethnicity is considered exotic and interesting by the larger culture. It therefore latches onto that exoticism, and sells it for all its worth. You can see that effect in a lot of American “China Towns,” which became somehow in the popular mind repositories of adventure, crime, sex, and magic, and many a local vendor has made a fortune from those fantasies.


Okay, that’s sort of what happened to the North End. It became nothing less than Boston’s Italian playground. It became an attraction. It plays on its Italian-ness like a fiddle. And that’s worked very well for it.


Ah, there’s the rub. As an attraction, is the North End still a neighborhood? Or is it, well, more like the Frontierland at Disney World? A mediated experience only lacking admission tickets and costumed characters?



About the photos: Two today. First, a photo of one of the entrances to the North End, this one coming into the area via the North End Park (which is quite beautiful, BTW).



I have heard some rather bitter talk about that subject from North Enders themselves. I remember once being in a gift shop in the North End which inexplicably sold Southwestern art and jewelry. Because I am a New Mexican, and know at least a little something about turquoise, I ended up having a conversation with the owner--a tall man, taciturn, a little short tempered, but absolutely tickled pink to find someone who could pronounce “Taos” as if it didn’t rhyme with “Chaos.”


I asked him how he...clearly an Italian-American...had come to be selling Southwestern art in the Italian North End. He didn’t exactly snarl, but it was close, and what he said was “There has to be *somebody* selling something other than fake Italian shit on a fake Italian street.”


In a word, Yikes.




Second, as per norm, nothing to do with the story, but I like the photo. Here is a shot of Martha with her friend-qua-sister Judy at Sandia Peak in 2017. We took the Tram up that year when Judy came to visit. Lovely time.


But, I do worry, that maybe the man had a point. I do fear, sometimes, that the “Italian” North End has been a victim of its own success.


In fact, I have a dreadful vision of the neighborhood being someday reduced entirely to a theme-park, owned and operated by a single corporation, “The North End Italian Experience™” with restaurants serving canned pasta, college students part-timing in body suits as Guidos and Guidettes, and people lining up for a visit with an animatronic Raymond Patriarca in “the Hall Of The Mafioso.”


It’s a perfectly revolting thought...but I have a sick feeling it just might happen.


Well, let’s hope it doesn’t happen. Or, if it does, then only in the far future, when none of us are alive to see it, and even the tourists are actually computer generated avatars, so no one really cares, and nothing is really ruined...for once.


Anyway...


Next time, we had back to Revere and have another beach trip. And then, in time, and in a few more entries...we come to yet another lost world.


But, this time...it’s my own...


More to come.





Footnotes:


1. For my information on the North End, I rely chiefly on the following: Wikipedia, “The North End,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_End,_Boston, and “North End,” in Global Boston, https://globalboston.bc.edu/index.php/home/immigrant-places/the-north-end/



2. For more information on the Jewish North End, see this article: https://northendwaterfront.com/2015/08/life-on-the-corner-a-shtetl-in-the-city-the-jewish-north-end/


And if you should be visiting Boston, and want to take a walking tour of the Jewish North End, see here: https://bostonbyfoot.org/tours/jewish-north-end/










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~mjt



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