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North End

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Mythically considered the Italian neighborhood in Boston, the North End witnessed dramatic changes over the past four centuries. The northernmost of three projections from the original Shawmut Peninsula, the North End hosted important individuals and institutions from 1630 on. The landmass of the North End changed dramatically as wharves were extended around its periphery to accommodate the constantly growing commercial potential of the neighborhood. In the colonial period, a wide range of economic groups cohabited in this area. The now demolished North Church near North Square, home of the Mathers who dominated Puritan theocracy, or Christ Church (NE12), the oldest surviving Anglican church building in the city, suggest the variety of the environment. Here rose the most ornate houses of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Boston. Nearby lived artisans, such as the silversmith Paul Revere, in the complex interlocking of large and small houses, shops, and wharves. Following the Revolution, the wealthy residents moved to more fashionable areas, and the North End began its long economic decline. In the mid-1840s, as the American terminus of the Cunard Steamship Line, this neighborhood welcomed Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. Soon the area ballooned in population, and former mansions and town houses were bursting with new arrivals. The dynamic story of immigration accelerated in the late nineteenth century, as Italians, as well as Russian Jews and other Eastern Europeans, invaded the formerly Irish-dominated enclave. By the turn of the century, the North End could claim to be one of the poorest and most intensely occupied districts of the city. The overcrowding and sanitation problems of the immigrant tenements generated private and public sector efforts to improve living conditions. Model tenements, education programs, public baths, and housing legislation all attempted to ameliorate the conditions of the slums here. Much of the surviving housing stock of the North End, four-to-five-story brick, multifamily dwellings, rose between the 1880s and 1920, built by well-intentioned outsiders and increasingly by the immigrants as they gained financial stability. The community maintained a human vibrancy that produced political action. As immigrants challenged the established Yankee power structure, the North End proved an important site of organizing. John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, demonstrated how to harness the vote for political advancement of the Irish and other immigrant groups that followed. The construction of the Fitzgerald Expressway, the elevated Central Artery, in the 1950s, further isolated the North End from the rest of the city. However, the demolition of that highway at the turn of the millennium has opened the North End to the larger community, hopefully without destroying the uniqueness of this neighborhood.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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