We Bostonians tend to rendezvous with other neighborhoods as if we're cheating on our own. We tryst with Chinatown for dim sum and cold tea, step out with the North End for fettuccine carbonara and cannolis, see green in Southie with a pint of Guinness and a plate of curry fries. There's something exotic about dipping into another culture for an afternoon or evening. And Boston, with its many immigrant enclaves, is uniquely suited for just such an experience. An accordion in a trattoria, a bagpipe on Broadway, or a dragon mask on Beech Street can transport us far beyond the city's boundaries. They can whisk us away on an exotic escape. And we never have to leave town.
But Chinatown, South Boston, and the North End aren't the only neighborhoods where immigrants have made a mark. Less prominent communities are scattered throughout and just outside the city, waiting to strike up love affairs of their own. Boston has long been second only to New York as a port of entry for immigrants to the United States, and new groups from countries plagued by prejudice, war, or poverty continue to arrive.
Cyrillic hangs over the storefronts in Brookline, where Russians fled economic stagnation after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The sounds of samba beat on the streets of Allston Village, where Brazilians have come to join a Portuguese community with roots in the whaling industry. Fragrant fish stew is ladled out in the Cape Verdean restaurant near Uphams Corner, where Portuguese and African culture mixes with Dorchester street life. In Watertown, the Armenian population that's filtered in over the 100 years since the Turkish genocide is the second largest in the United States.
These countries within our city give us a chance to flirt with other cultures Â— and, in the process, to experience the best of Boston. “Boston is exceptional among American cities in great part because of its ethnic diversity,” says Westy Egmont, director of the International Institute of Boston, a refugee resettlement organization. “We're a small city to be a world-class city. But we have become one because the world is at home here.”
Â— Michael Blanding
The Latin Quarter
[In Jamaica Plain, even baseball stars stop by for the authentic Cuban sandwiches and salsa music. By Michael Blanding]
Baseball fever is gripping Jamaica Plain. It's on the tongues of the men who gather at Miami Restaurant for espresso and Cuban sandwiches. And it's in the Yankees caps on sale at the bodegas along Centre Street. Yes, Yankees in Boston. Fans here choose their allegiances not so much for the city they live in, but for the country they come from. And whenever the heavily Cuban Yankees are in town, they find a warm welcome at the local Cuban restaurants, Miami and El Oriental de Cuba.
Of course, the Red Sox also feel at home in this neighborhood, buoyed by a near-religious fan base from the Dominican Republic. When Manny, Pedro, and Nomar aren't on the field, they sometimes can be found getting haircuts at Fernandez's, an old-time barbershop. “I see Pedro Martinez so often, I can get a signature any time I want,” jokes Enerio “Tony” Barros, a special assistant to the mayor and neighborhood activist who owns Centre Boutique, a clothing store.
There's good reason homesick ballplayers flock to the stretch of Centre Street between Hyde and Jackson squares. This is, says Hyde/Jackson Main Streets program manager Valerie Grabiel, the heart of Boston's Hispanic community. “I choose to call it the heart because of the care and concern that people have for it,” Grabiel says. “It's a community with an incredible sense of ownership and pride.”
Waves of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban immigrants have put up so much Spanish signage that Jamaica Plain's streets seem more like those in San Juan. Schoolgirls stop in at Estrella Bakery for flan or arroz con leche, while immigrants from as far away as Connecticut come to Hi Lo Foods to search for Caribbean specialties, like carob syrup and guava paste.
“Almost everything you can find on the island, you can find here,” boasts Rafael Benzan, owner of Tropical Market. Grabiel herself is from Los Angeles; she searched in vain for Latin culture in Boston until she heard the mariachi bands at Tacos El Charro.
A walk down Centre Street is like a culinary tour of Latin America and the Caribbean without the passports. In addition to Cuban sandwiches, El Oriental de Cuba serves delicious batidos, or Latin milkshakes, in flavors like papaya and tamarind. Alex's Chimis serves up the Dominican version of a hamburger, with flavored pork, chicken, or beef slapped between slices of toasted bread. And La Pupusa de Guarana dishes out a taste of El Salvador.
That selection of spice and sabor makes Centre Street the perfect place to satisfy your appetite for Latin American and Caribbean culture Â— with a ballplayer's autograph for dessert.
[Watertown's Armenian community keeps its traditions Â— from sweets to spirited storytelling Â— alive. By Susanna Baird]
First, a story. An Armenian American travels to the old country. “Where you from?” they ask him. “From Boston,” he says. Blank stares. He tries again. “From Watertown,” he says. “Ah!” they say. They smile. “Of course! Watertown!”
Apocryphal, perhaps, but this tale often told with a wink by old Armenian men is rooted in reality. Armenians started arriving in the United States in significant numbers in the 1890s, when the Ottoman Turks began terrorizing them. The Turkish campaign climaxed between 1915 and 1922. More than 1.5 million Armenians died. Thousands more came to America.
The Hood Rubber factory appeared in Watertown at about the same time the Armenians did, and proved a magnet. Hood is gone, but Watertown's Armenian population Â— one of the oldest in America Â— flourishes, numbering roughly 7,000. A visit to the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown Square offers a crash course in the community's culture and history. Gorgeous rugs, rare coins, and art share space with exhibitions on subjects as varied as folk magic and the 1915 genocide.
Though culture abounds, it can be hard to find a taste of Armenia in Boston. You can dine finely on Armenian fare at Karoun Restaurant in Newtonville, but any eating you do in Watertown takes place at church or at home. The three Armenian congregations Â— St. James, St. Stephen's, and Armenian Memorial Â— have wonderful bazaars every year. Barring a bazaar, the best place to sample Armenian fare is Little Armenia, in East Watertown's Coolidge Square.
Mount Auburn Street and Bigelow Avenue anchor the square, but the heart of Little Armenia is located slightly south of the crossroads. Neighborhood activity bustles around Massis Bakery and Arax Market, both of which offer riotous sensory experiences. The former is easier to navigate. The latter is minor bedlam: crowded shelves housing everything from platters to hair-removal wax.
A picnic-worthy sampler might include halvah, a deceptively bland-looking nutty, nougaty sweet; dolma (stuffed grape leaves); and lahmejuns (flatbread topped with a sweet-spicy meat or veggie). For dessert, Sevan's bakery reigns supreme, with baklava and decadent tukaleek, fried dough soaked in honey.
Finish the day at Uncommon Grounds, where old Armenian men yackety-yak at the tables. If you're lucky, you might even overhear a story or two.
[Allston may be far from Ipanema, but its Brazilian residents make it home with football and feijoada. By James Burnett]
When Hildo Costa designed his first Café Belô, he modeled the modest Brighton Avenue storefront after the cafeteria-style establishments popular in his native Brazil. It didn't take long for the concept Â— a low-priced, pay-by-the-pound buffet brimming with garlic-spiked beans and handcarved grilled meats Â— to find an equally receptive audience in Boston. Costa now owns nine Café Belôs in Massachusetts (plus two in Connecticut and two more soon to open in Florida), including a new location on Commonwealth Avenue just blocks from the original. In Allston Village, his white-and-blue logos now outnumber McDonald's golden arches, two to one. “In this neighborhood,” says Costa, smiling, “I am winning.”
As many as 250,000 Brazilians live in eastern Massachusetts, according to community estimates. Social scientists believe it may be the largest Brazilian population outside the mother country. Many, like Costa, planned to work for a few years, save money, and then return home Â— but put down roots in Boston instead. “Brazilians don't like to leave Brazil. The country has a history of bringing immigrants in, not sending them out,” says Heloisa Souza, who helped found the city's annual Brazilian Independence Day Festival. “But people are sticking around. There is a community here to stay.”
That community, which also encompasses enclaves in Marlborough, Somerville, and East Cambridge, has been carving out a presence among Allston's pizza joints and discount furniture stores since Café Brazil set up shop on Cambridge Street in 1986; only Buteco Restaurant, in the Fenway, has been around longer. Café Brazil features a mural of Rio's Copacabana beach, a menu that runs to homespun fare, and a separate coffee bar, added last summer mostly as a place to show Brazilian soccer games.
As Brazilians have brought their distinctive culture to Boston, the day-to-day items they left behind have caught up with them. The Brazilian exports on sale in the city are no longer limited to the bikini waxes offered at Silvia's Hair Salon and Salao Brazil, a pair of beauty parlors on Brighton Avenue. “When I arrived here 15 years ago, it was hard to find Brazilian products. Now you can find almost anything,” says Souza. Brazilian Corner, a bodega in Allston, stocks an array of Brazilian goods, from CDs to candies to cookware Â— even fresh breads delivered daily from a bakery in Framingham (a town that claims at least 10,000 Brazilian residents). And last month, Costa opened Belô Market, a full-service grocery store offering both Brazilian and American foodstuffs.
Costa says he isn't worried about the competition. There are more than enough customers to go around.
[Whether it's Cyrillic newspapers or fresh-baked rye, reminders of Russia are never far from sight in Brookline. By Doug Most]
It's a steady stream of customers at Brookline's Russian Village grocery this Saturday morning. The aisles are filled with women wearing sensible shoes and warm jackets who come here to fill their baskets with sausages, cookies, and plastic-wrapped, beady-eyed mackerel. But the real reason they come here is the bread. The aroma of fresh-baked loaves of rye fills the air at the grocery and hints of something more. It's the smell of home.
In Brookline's busy triangle of neighborhoods Â— anchored by Coolidge Corner, Washington Square, and Brookline Village Â— Russian is more than a second language. Often it's the only language heard in the groceries, on the sidewalks, and on the musty couches of the bookstore Petropol.
For many of the immigrants who call this home, the journey to the United States was merely a move from one Russian neighborhood to another. They shop at Russian stores and buy Russian newspapers. “The whole Brighton-Brookline Russian community is just a big ghetto for people who don't want to become Americans and would rather stay in their little universe,” one local Russian man says.
Of course, life here is decidedly more enticing. In 1994, Mark Kats, the 58-year-old owner of Russian Village, came to Boston from the Ukraine with his family and landed a construction job before starting the business. He has since added a restaurant upstairs. “We came,” he says, “for better life.”
It's the reason most Russians come Â— not because America is pulling them in, but because the hardships of Russian life pushed them out. The earliest generations began arriving in Boston in the 1890s. They took jobs in the meat-packing, construction, and garment industries. More recently, as the Soviet Union dissolved, Boston Â— and Brookline, in particular Â— became a draw thanks to its schools, colleges, and conveniences.
It's estimated that at least 50,000 Russian-speaking immigrants have settled in Greater Boston in recent years Â— so many that they have their own phone book, radio station, and two monthly journals. Because of the language barrier and their shared pasts, it remains a tight-knit community.
Like many of her friends, 25-year-old Yana Khavinson, who immigrated to Brookline with her parents in 1991, likes to go to the Beacon Street bookstore Petropol. “It provides more cultural things,” she says. “Whenever I look for a good book to read, I go there.” Her friends, she says, stop a few doors down for the Russian chocolates sold at Bazaar International Gourmet.
Café St. Petersburg is another local favorite, with its chicken Kiev, beef stroganoff, and borscht. Across the street in Brookline Village, chef Fred Dinov, a Moscow native and French Culinary Institute graduate, turned a coffee bar into the busy Café Europa. His first menu featured sandwiches, but eventually Dinov added a full dinner menu. Now, he says with pride, “Saturday nights are all booked.” And there's a twist he hadn't expected. The clientele? “All Americans.”
[Despite adversity, Dorchester's Cape Verdeans are determined to carve out their own island paradise. By Lena Watts]
Cachupa, the national dish of the Cape Verde islands, is a hearty stew made from hominy, beans, pork, cabbage, and linguiça or fish, all intermingling to create a unique, robust flavor. Like Brazilian feijoada, cachupa is a symbol of a family's fortunes; the more meat in the pot, the better off the hosts. It's also a fitting metaphor for the Cape Verdeans themselves: a persevering bunch who turn what they have into more than the sum of its parts.
Cape Verdeans in Boston gather at Dorchester's Restaurante Cesaria to have a bowl of cachupa and tell raucous stories. Conversations in a mixed patois of Cape Verdean Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, and English float through the air as dishes of grilled octopus and fried yucca are washed down with mango juice.
“We wanted a place where you can enjoy the food, atmosphere, art, and culture of Cape Verde,” says Cesaria co-owner Caz Barros. “We want it to be more than a restaurant.” Named after the famous Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, the restaurant is the center of this neighborhood filled with immigrants from the tiny 10-island nation off the west coast of Africa.
Uphams Corner is the nexus of this community, with Cape Verdean residents and businesses spread out along Dudley, Stoughton, and Bowdoin streets in Dorchester and Roxbury. Cape Verdeans originally came to New England in the 1800s for jobs in the whaling industry. Their numbers only increased after 1975 when Cape Verde earned its independence from Portugal and Cape Verdeans became eligible for more visas. The latest census counts 11,000 Cape Verdeans living in Boston, but there are probably thousands more who were not counted, says Mila Monteiro, Cape Verdean liaison for the mayor's office.
The gritty neighborhoods of Dorchester are a far cry from the tropical islands that the Cape Verdeans evoke with their colorful music, food, and customs. Yet they're slowly turning Uphams Corner into their own version of peaceful prosperity. Violent crimes, such as the 2001 murder of radio host and prominent Cape Verdean Jorge Fidalgo, brought negative attention that community leaders are trying to counteract with grass-roots activism. Nowadays, local youths like Carlos Alves organize cultural performances at the Strand Theatre. Religion, a constant in this community, is as strong as ever with Creole-language services at St. Patrick's Church.
To experience Cape Verdean culture, stop in for some cachupa at Restaurante Cesaria or visit one of the local markets for the ingredients to make it at home. F&T Davey's and Alves Market offer products such as xerem (broken corn) and yucca for frying and bolachas (cookies from Cape Verde). Ask for the homemade linguiça, and Alves Market owner Marcelino Alves will proudly give you a cut. If the shopping stirs up an appetite, pop into Gino Teixeira's Ideal Sub Shop, which sells sandwiches and pastels, a type of tuna-stuffed turnover. No visit is complete without a stop at Island Music, just down Stoughton Street from Alves Market, where the colaidera, morna, funana, and batuco music of the Cape Verde islands lives on.
[Bridging the cultural gap between the old and the new, the city's Vietnamese make a new life in Dorchester. By Welling Savo]
The girl who steps up to the counter at Dorchester's Ba Le Café looks like any other American teenager, with her denim jacket and chunky platform heels. Her tastes, however, veer to the traditional. She orders the house specialty, fresh sugar cane juice, a sweet concoction coaxed out of a huge machine by a woman who chats in rapid Vietnamese as she shoves long stalks of raw sugar cane and an orange into the juicer. Behind the counter are enticing trays of steaming rice, noodle, and meat dishes. Juice in hand, the girl goes on her way, with only a brief glance at the Vietnamese pop videos flashing from the TV above the counter.
This is not your typical American neighborhood. It's Fields Corner, a section of Dorchester that is quickly becoming the epicenter of the Vietnamese community in Boston. The population in this enclave has swelled by more than 500 percent in the past 10 years. The first wave of immigrants came after the fall of Saigon, many of them well educated and including some high-ranking military officers. They were joined by other refugees from home, sometimes with the help of local church groups. Fields Corner had by then fallen into decay: Nearly half the storefronts sat vacant, according to Hiep Chu, director of the Vietnamese-American Community Center. Now, about 40 percent of businesses along this stretch of Dorchester Avenue are Vietnamese-owned.
Truong Thinh Supermarket, for example, is a neighborhood staple, overflowing with exotic imports such as pennywort drink, chrysanthemum tea, salted jellyfish, and preserved duck eggs. Diners take tables at Pho Hoà restaurant to sip steaming bowls of pho and unusual juices such as salty plum and jackfruit. Nearby Pho 2000 is a popular stop among locals for its inexpensive seven-course beef special. The Fields Corner Bakery, which is almost always crowded with men playing cards, is a microcosm of the neighborhood's changing ethnic landscape: In the 1940s it was an Irish hangout, then predominantly black, now Vietnamese.
The community is still a work in progress. “We're not quite politically established yet,” says Chu. In November, a Vietnamese-American community center was opened on Charles Street, and it now provides social services, cultural activities, and a bilingual preschool. That it's the first of its kind in the country reflects the tenacity of the neighborhood's residents and advocates.
“One of the major issues the community is grappling with is how to handle intergenerational change,” says Binh Nguyen, a 28-year-old consultant and member of a local a cappella group called the VariAsians. A gulf exists between elders who cling to cultural traditions and political beliefs, and new generations who are eager to become Americanized.
“We're hoping to create a Vietnamese-American identity as we try to understand who we are,” says 25-year-old Thuy Tran, who works at the community center, “and what we can contribute as citizens.”