The Evolution of Boston’s North End

How the neighborhood has changed—but thankfully also stayed the same.

north end boston

Photo by Marcio Silva/iStock.com

It’s Saturday night, and here in the North End, crowds pack the sidewalks while drivers triple-park their cars on Hanover Street, hazard lights blinking. A flood of next-level Italian food may be cresting on both sides of the Charles, thanks to openings including SRV, Benedetto, and the massive Eataly emporium, but Boston’s Little Italy is busier than ever, overflowing with locals and tourists patiently waiting for heaping portions of pasta, pizza, and parmigiana. A densely populated neighborhood in its own right, many nights the North End feels like it has the most-crowded streets in the city.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Before the Big Dig brought down the Central Artery, the North End felt more like a lovable enclave off the beaten path…literally. I lived there in the early ’90s and had to access the neighborhood from downtown via a shadowed and cracked asphalt walkway under the elevated highway. A welcoming gateway it was not. But once I passed through, it was like I was in another world. To get to my apartment, I walked the length of Salem Street, then filled with smoky social clubs, grandmothers watching from third-floor windows, and street-side conversations spoken only in Italian. At the end of a stressful day working in the Financial District, the North End felt like an escape. When I got home, I didn’t leave.

And rents were cheap. I paid less than $500 a month for a bare-bones one-bedroom apartment with a useless kitchen, so I ate out most nights. My sister Liz lived a few blocks over, and we’d routinely meet up at the Daily Catch or Regina’s. We rarely went to La Famiglia Giorgio’s, because—gasp!—it always had a long line. In fact, the busiest I ever saw the North End during my time there was the summer of 1994, when Boston was one of the host cities for the World Cup. The Azzurri reached the final, so Italians packed the streets for the whole month leading up to their heartbreaking loss to Brazil. On key match days, Caffè Dello Sport was so crowded with fans inside and out trying to get a glimpse of the TV sets that waiters brought espressos out into the street. I’ll never forget how the community felt so worldly and yet so small at the same time.

As much as the dismantling of the Central Artery 10 years later stitched the city together, it also rended so much of what made the North End unique. With the neighborhood easily accessible via the Greenway, tourists, pro athletes, and luxury condo conversions have poured in, jacking up real estate prices as older generations have moved on. The Italian-ness of the place feels more every day like a capital-A “Attraction” for outsiders.

But I still come back. I come for the bags of dark roast coffee at Polcari’s. I come for the crisp cannolis at Modern. Though I often get nostalgic for the cozy North End I remember, the truth is, it was always a place waiting to be discovered. Even with all of the changes, I keep finding plenty of hidden gems, old and new, to stumble upon. And now it’s your turn.

ENJOY:

A Food Lover’s Guide to the North End