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Boston’s historical North End is known for being one of the city’s oldest residential communities. It is home to more than 10,000 people, of which around a third are Italians or Italian Americans and the remainders are young professionals, college students, business owners and families. During the 1600s, the North End consisted of only a couple of streets and was home to craftsmen who worked from home. Due to its closeness to water, the neighborhood started developing as a major shipping and trading center.
During the 18th century, British settlers who worked in the mercantile and shipping industries, contributed to this development and built houses, wharves, churches and schools, but after the American Revolution, many of the wealthy merchants left the neighborhood and the region started to experience waves of European immigrants. Even though by the 1930s almost all of the neighborhood’s population was Italian, today that population has decreased and the North End has passed from being an authentic Italian neighborhood to an Italian neighborhood theme park as we discussed in class.
On the other hand, East Boston is also one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city; East Boston was annexed to the city of Boston in 1636 and was created by using landfill to connect five islands in the Boston harbor in 1836. The two larger islands make up the basis of the current residential and commercial sections of the neighborhood while the three smaller ones make up Boston’s Logan International Airport. East Boston was a resort and residential suburb for Boston’s wealthy class, but due to its harbor proximity it soon became a working class neighborhood.
During the 1800s, the neighborhood began to grow and thrive as a center of shipbuilding, shipping and trade that helped Boston become one of the leading ports in the country. East Boston soon became an arrival port with many employment opportunities for immigrants around the world. Today, the neighborhood is home to more than 40,000 ethnically diverse people reflecting the immigrants who moved into it, but Latin Americans seem to form the largest population.
As an international student, I was interested in Boston’s North End and East Boston because of their immigrant history. As a result, I ended up finding interesting similarities and differences between the two. At first, I thought that the only thing these two neighborhoods would have in common was that they were both prominent immigrant neighborhoods and therefore I was hoping to discover how the different ethnical backgrounds had helped shaped the neighborhoods today. After exploring both places, I realized that they not only share an immigrant past, but also that they are neighborhoods, which had or continue to have ecological barriers that separates them from the central downtown Boston area.
With that in mind, I was first curious to explore the North End because of our class discussions. I had been to that neighborhood before and was aware it was known as Boston’s ‘Little Italy’ but the lectures made me aware of the strength of the Italian community that lives there as well as the previous existence of the Central Artery. Through my first memo I wanted to discover the effects the elevated highway had on the neighborhood’s residents and why was it that the neighborhood had maintained it’s Italian authenticity.
Moreover, I then chose to visit East Boston for the completion of my second neighborhood memo. Since I am from Colombia, South America, I was curious to discover the places Latinos away from home call home. I wanted to know if East Boston, because of its similar immigrant background, was an ethnic neighborhood theme park like the North End. While there, I realized that because the neighborhood is actually made up of different islands, it also has an ecological barrier, like the North End did, that separates East Boston from the city’s downtown area.
As a result, to create a theme for this final paper, I decided to compare the life of the different ethnical groups who live in East Boston and the North End and try to explain the impact ecological barriers have had in their communities.
To further explain the concept of ecological barriers I will use information from Suttles piece “The Defended Neighborhood” to describe how physical or ecological structures impact the way we make sense of places. Suttles explains there are two ways people can navigate through places: through the neighborhood’s physical structures or through people’s cognitive maps. These cognitive maps are mental maps we create that describe what the area is like and what we think it ought to be (Suttles, 1972). People use physical markers to create these cognitive maps and the ecological barrier created by the Central Artery in Boston’s North End is an example of how spatial organization allows for the construction of people’s cognitive maps and how these impact social structures in a neighborhood.
Most likely, people who grew up with the elevated highway demarcating the North End must have had very different cognitive maps of the neighborhood from people today. With this example, it is interesting to see how a physical structure can prevent or encourage people to go places and how it can also affect the way people feel about spaces. In class, we mentioned that due to the elevated highway, people embedded stereotypes to their cognitive maps about the North End. We talked about how people stopped going there and how the places around the highway were labeled ‘dark’ and ‘dangerous.’ This shows that when spatial organization is altered, the neighborhood’s social structure is also subject to change and this change is deeply embedded is the residents and visitors’ cognitive maps.
With this being said, I’ll now describe my visit to the North End: When you first enter the neighborhood through Hanover Street, you find yourself surrounded by Italian restaurants and cafes. Although menus and signs outside are in English the names of the establishments seem authentically Italian and the people attending there, seem to speak Italian. Even though the places I went in were noisy and full of people I still sensed a family-like ambience as I walked around the neighborhood.
When I walked through the small streets I saw a lot of families and friends; it was rare to see someone alone, everybody seemed to be accompanied by another person or group of people. Not every group of people seemed to know where they were headed to since they popped in several restaurants to check out their menus and asked for waiting times, then came back out and entered another restaurant again. I also encountered myself with a lot of tourists, whom I recognized because they carried Boston and North End maps with them, possibly following the freedom trial.
As I walked across the North End I realized that there were also non-Italian establishments like CVS pharmacy, Starbucks Coffee, Boston Common Coffee Co, 7-Eleven and Citizen’s Bank. I was hoping to find some Italian influence in these chain stores and cafes like some poster signs in Italian or any alteration to their menus, but that was not the case. There were not many art galleries and museums, but of course a lot of historical buildings and memorials like old churches and Paul Revere house.
I entered one of the restaurants in Hanover Street and talked to one of the waitresses there. The waitress told me that she had been working in the restaurant for about five years now and that her brother who was a cook there, helped her get the job. From where I sat, I was able to see the Pinkberry store we talked about in class and I was curious to know what the waitress thought about it in particular. Surprisingly to me, she told me that after three years, that Pinkberry location was no longer in operation.
As I continued walking through the area I entered mass service at Saint Leonards Church. When service was over, I saw a coupe of twin brothers playing and heard their mother talking Spanish to them so I kindly approached her. She told me she was from Colombia and had immigrated to Boston about ten years ago. She married a Bostonian who has Italian roots and they now live in one of the buildings that used to be wharves on Commercial Street. I asked her if she would not prefer living in another area of Boston, maybe one where there were more native Spanish speakers like East Boston, but she told me she really enjoyed the North End and even more now that she had kids. She told me she enjoyed the peacefulness and close proximities of the neighborhood; she likes that she can go walking almost anywhere. She told me the twins’ day care is a two-minute walk from her house and that she is close to Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park and the Aquarium, two places where the kids love to go.
I finally reached Langone Park where I encountered Leonard, a lawyer who lives with his family in the area. He was around Langone Park because his son was practicing baseball and told me that the North End felt like home for him because his family has always lived there. I asked him if he knew that they had closed the Pinkberry in Hanover St. and told me he had been waiting for that moment to happen since they first opened it; he told me that the Pinkberry didn’t bother him, but that it just didn’t seem to fit in the area, particularly in that street.
In hope of finding similar rich information that would enable me to learn about the life of diverse ethnic communities in Boston I went to East Boston. From my two years in the city, I had never been to East Boston before, so I rode the T’s blue line and got down on the Maverick stop. I wanted to appreciate the views of Boston’s skyline so I went passed through the East Boston Greenway to get to the Gold Stairs Park terrace where they had a sitting area and the view was great. While there, I realized that like the North End, East Boston was also a neighborhood demarcated from the city’s downtown area, this time by water.
While I was in that park, I had the chance to speak to a woman who also seemed to be appreciating the view. I asked her if she was from the neighborhood and she told me she lived nearby. I noticed an accent so I asked her if she spoke Spanish and fortunate for me, she did which was easier for me to establish a conversation and connection with her.
Her name was Carmen and she told me she was Dominican and that she had come to Boston about 20 years ago. She told me that before she used to live in South Boston with other of her Dominican friends and family, but that a couple of years ago she had moved to East Boston. Amazed to find out that I was Colombian, Carmen told me she had a lot of Colombian friends at work (she works as a housekpeer at the Ritz hotel in downtown Boston) and that she knew places where they served typical Colombian plates that I should go try out.
Following Carmen’s directions I went to Maverick Square where I was amazed to find a mix of shops and restaurants. I walked down Benington Street and encountered myself with a number of different Latin American restaurants. I entered “El Peñol” which was the one that Carmen recommended and took a look at the menu. They served typical Colombian food and it looked pretty authentic so I had to give it a try and it was really really good!
While at the restaurant I chatted with the server and told me he had been living in East Boston for a while now. He told me the Latin community there was great and that he had a lot of friends from El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico, but he was concerned with increasing rent prices and explained to me how he is trying to find another job so that he doesn’t have to move outside East Boston.
After my typical Colombian meal I continued exploring the neighborhood and headed to the Eagle Hill area. I reached Central Square and walked towards Border Street where I encountered a man working in the community garden “Our Garden.” I introduced myself and told him I was walking around the neighborhood, talking to some people and jotting down my observations for a class project. He told me he enjoyed living there because it had great views from the city and harbor and because there were a lot of parks and places for him to take his kids. The man told me he was Dominican and that his wife was Colombian. He also mentioned that he worked as a bellman at a hotel in downtown Boston and as an Uber driver too.
From my experience, East Boston is definitely home to a big Hispanic community in the city. I was pleased to find places where they served Colombian food, but was also surprise to see Italian restaurants and Buddhist temples. The places in the neighborhood definitely resemble the diverse communities that have called it home throughout history.
Looking back, I now realize that the neighborhoods I visited had much more in common than what I was expecting them to. The North End and East Boston both have strong ethnical cultures present with strong generational and family ties, they both may seem to be experiencing a little bit of gentrification and they both have or had ecological barriers separating them from the city center.
First of all, as I mentioned before, both neighborhoods have an important immigrant past that is noticeable today. This history has helped both neighborhoods be what they are now days and have a very strong ethnical culture present. It was astonishing to find that Irish immigrants were the first ethnic group to settle in both of these neighborhoods and later on, these were both home to Eastern Europeans. During the last century, the North End ended up having a primarily Italian population while East Boston’s population shifted to a more diverse set of people ranging from South Asians to Latinos.
Even though, North End’s population today isn’t entirely Italian and East Boston’s isn’t entirely Hispanic, these cultures still seem to be very present especially in the neighborhoods’ restaurant offer. It seems that cuisine is the strongest legacy these immigrants have left in the neighborhood because through the different restaurants was that I was able to make sense of this strong native cultural feeling both neighborhoods seem to have.
Furthermore, these restaurants do not only represent the Italian or Hispanic cultures as a whole, but also their subcultures. Since in class we discussed how when Italians first arrived to the North End, they settled in by their different ethnic groups from different parts of Italy, I asked the waitress at “Trattoria Il Panino” what kind of food did they serve there and she told me that their specialty cuisine was from Italy’s Amalfi Coast. As for East Boston, each different restaurant serves food from a different Latin American cuisine. I went to “El Peñol” because it was Colombian, but there were also Dominican places in the area like “El Punto Rojo” as well as other Mexican and Ecuadorian spots serving their typical meals.
Additionally, in class, we discussed how property areas in these neighborhoods have increased, forcing many people to leave. We watched videos on Italians protesting for lower rents and explaining how generations of their family have always lived there, creating a great family-like ambience in the area. A small gentrification and strong generational ties are evident in both neighborhoods as well.
This I was able to sense throughout my walks in the North End where there were barely people who were alone. Everyone I ‘interviewed” mentioned something about family; the waitress got her job because of her brother, the Colombian mom loved living there because of the benefits for her kids, and lastly, Leonard enjoyed watching his child play baseball.
Moreover, a great example showing these residents’ fight over gentrification and trying to maintain the neighborhood’s ethnic culture is the closing of Pinkberry’s frozen yogurt store in the North End. It turns out that ever since the business opened there, Italian business owners were not happy with it and that even days before the store opened its windows were smashed. Apparently, Pinkberry thought Boston’s North End was a great place to open a new business since it was filled with tourists, but turns out tourists go there for pasta, pizza, gelato and cannoli, not frozen yogurt! This shows how a strong Italian culture is still present in the neighborhood and how residents are not the only ones fighting for it to continue being that way.
On the other hand, the server who took care of me in the Colombian restaurant in East Boston also mentioned that he was concerned with increasing rent prices. He even told me that if he had to move somewhere else, he’d rather go to Revere where he could find lower rent prices, but still be close to this Latin community and family.
Once again, gentrification is something that seems slightly present in both neighborhoods, but residents are doing what they can to prevent it not only to conserve the neighborhood’s culture, but also to stay close to their loved ones.
Last but not least, both neighborhoods experience or have experienced an ecological barrier that keeps them away from Boston’s downtown. On one side, we have the Central Artery that used to isolate the North End from the rest of the city while on the other hand, we have the waterfront that separates East Boston’s islands from mainland.
As previously mentioned, the elevated highway segregated the North End from the rest of Boston and prevented people from going there. Since the Central Artery and it’s surrounding was associated with negative stereotypes not so many people felt like visiting Boston’s ‘Little Italy’. The Central Artery later on comes down due to demand for living and space for people who want to be near downtown Boston like university students and or people who work in the financial district. Once the highway was taken down, the neighborhood was reintegrated to the rest of the city attracting all different kinds of people.
In a like manner, the water separates East Boston from the city center. I remember that in a lecture, we discussed how the building of a casino in the area was rejected due to the neighborhood’s demarcation. While in East Boston, I remember wondering why was it that in my two years of living in Boston hadn’t I gone there earlier, but maybe this demarcation is what unconsciously prevents people like me from doing so.
With conviction, I believe it is possible that it is because of these ecological barriers that each one of these two neighborhoods has been able to maintain the strong ethnical backgrounds and family ambience they both have. Maybe, without these barriers, both neighborhoods would have suffered from greater gentrification like other ethnic neighborhoods in Boston have (like Chinatown or the South End). Thanks to their presence, even though it prevented or prevents people from getting there, these barriers maintain the people who are already there strongly close together establishing and reinforcing their ethnic culture but also creating a culture of family.
To conclude, I was able to draw similarities from two neighborhoods, which I though were quite different. I was able to explore and take advantage of the North End and East Boston’s immigrant cultures and try to explain why these neighborhoods have maintained the way they have for such a long period of time. Maybe the fact that they have been demarcated by a physical or an ecological barrier has made these places look how they do today.
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