A horse and carriage trundled down the street--top-hatted driver dressed in nineteenth century black and white, flickering his whip half-heartedly as he looked over his shoulder to talk to his passengers. It wasn't a movie. There were cars on the other side of the carriage, and the passengers were wearing jeans. But somehow, in Boston's North End, the scene hardly seemed out of place.
The flavor of this neighborhood is decidedly historical. Even the swarms of tourists (constantly reminding you that you are indeed in the twentieth century) are unable to dispel the atmosphere of antiquity that clings to the brick walls and cobblestoned streets.
On my most recent visit to the North End, I wandered around alone. It was one of those quintessential fall days--bright sun, red leaves, warm enough to meander through the streets for hours, but cold enough to have a twinge of pre-winter bitterness. Sometimes being alone is the best way to see a place; you can drink in everything without distractions, and you're free to imagine that you're someone or someplace else. And in this place it's easy to imagine yourself 100, 200, or even 300 years back.
Today the North End is a melange of different histories: the signs on the restaurants bespeak its more recent Italian heritage, while the street names are reminiscent of its colonial beginnings. Anyone who read "Johnny Tremain" when he was little, or had colonial history rammed down his throat, will appreciate the locale.
For almost 200 years, the North End was the city's commercial center. As Boston became a mercantile power, the city's industries, especially fishing and shipping, clustered around the harbor, and the lure of its economic success drew immigrants from across the globe.
After the turn of the last century, the different ethnic populations stabilized and became primarily Italian, as the Jewish and Irish people who had previously lived in the area moved out to the surrounding suburbs and to other areas of Boston. "They wanted a house and a yard," says Nina R. Meyer, director of Boston's Historic Neighborhood Foundation, which runs discovery programs about the neighborhood. "It was just the American Dream...you moved on."
Today the population is still in flux. "That's the whole point about the North End," Meyer says. "It's always been the place where newcomers went." Once those newcomers were English colonists; in the early to mid-nineteenth century they were Irish and Jewish immigrants, and by the end of that century they were Italian. Today they are what Meyer calls "hopeful yuppies," young people just out of college and on the move toward economic security.
BUT no matter how much the North End may be changing, it retains a certain appealing air of Old World stability. As I walked down the quiet, brick-fronted streets, it seemed as though I was entering a timeless area. In the window of an Italian grocery store a cat lounged indolently, gazing uncuriously at passers-by. Off the main streets, narrow lanes wound out of sight, leading to concealed courtyards fronted by iron gates and hanging plants.
Hanover Street, the main drag, bustles with tourists and shoppers, but even here an aura of quiet serenity prevails. Strollers munch pastries, residents gather in chattering groups on the street corners, and children play tag under people's feet. But through it all, the buildings seem to watch from behind their stained glass windows and flower boxes, calmly approving the slow march of change at their feet.
The colonial and the Italian heritage fuse on these narrow streets: Paul Revere's house in North Square is just doors away from a mouthwatering Italian restaurant. A bit further down the street stands the one-time home of "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, a powerful Boston political boss almost a century ago, and birthplace of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (mother of John, Robert, and Edward). Across the street is the site of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson's house, where angry colonists protested the Tea Act in 1773.
I surprised myself by actually stopping to read the little plaques on these buildings when I walked by, and by feeling a small thrill at the fact that I was standing on the very spot where mobs once gathered to protest "taxation without representation." As a native of Lexington (you know--as in Lexington and Concord) I was spoonfed local history from a tender age, and I'd thought I was hardened to that feeling of historical wonder--in Boston at least. But somehow, the North End called it back.
And I had that same feeling an hour later as I wandered around the Copps Hill Burying Ground, reading the gravestones of people named "Dorcas" and "Mehetabel." A bunch of squealing children disturbed the peace, and their mother wavered helplessly behind them, calling, "Wait. I said to wait." But to no avail. The children skipped merrily on, chanting "Don't walk on the grass. Don't walk on the grass."
Usually intrusions like that put me in a foul mood, but that day it just seemed part of the scenery. Even tourism blends calmly with daily life in the North End, and modern living mingles easily with history.
Further down the street, some children played hide and seek between the parked cars. In front of them, tourists paused to snap photos of the iron fire escapes and stained glass windows on the narrow street. Overlooking it all stood the Old North Church, watching this scene impassionately as it has so many others since Paul Revere hung his lanterns there in 1775.
It was time to leave, and I made my way back to Hanover Street. No North End visit is complete without sampling some of the Italian pastries in one of the neighborhood's many bakeries (besides, I'd promised my roommates I'd bring something back). So I went to Mike's Pastry, a big, crowded place with tables and counterhelp that calls everyone "honey", where you can buy bread the Old World way (not in a bag) and walk down the street munching on the end.
Next door to Mike's is the Caffe Vittoria, a dark and atmospheric place with possibly the best cappuccino in Boston. I didn't have time to stop, but I wanted to. Musing over a cup of coffee is definitely among the best ways to finish a walk in the North End--watching the people, pondering change, or just dreaming about the day. Or any day. Somehow, in this part of town, it all seems very much the same.