Flavors of Boston’s North End

Flavors of Boston's North End

Paul Revere lived in Boston’s North End, which is now considered the city’s “Little Italy.” Walking the same streets as Revere, one sees an abundance of Italian restaurants, cafés, bakeries and shops. The place gives off an Old World vibe—the streets are narrow, the young people are seductively dressed, the old folks observe from benches and an occasional Vespa buzzes by. Parking is a nightmare.

The Italians are the fourth group to dominate the neighborhood. First, were the original colonists from England, who developed the small peninsula into a world trading hub. After the Revolutionary War, the wealthiest moved up to Beacon Hill, leaving behind an ever-growing port complete with sailors, prostitution and crime.

A huge wave of Irish immigrants filled the North End in the 1800s, escaping repression and the Potato Famine. Between 1846 and 1855, 37,000 Irish fled their home country for a new start in Boston. Eventually, they, too, left the North End, moving on to South Boston (“Southie”), where they still dominate culturally, and beyond.

Following the Irish were Eastern European Jews who played a significant role in upgrading many of the buildings in the neighborhood. They too, moved up the social ladder and on to other neighborhoods, such as Brookline.

As the Jews moved on, it was the Italians who filled the North End. In 1930, 44,000 were packed into the neighborhood. Interestingly, the immigrants from Genoa, Abruzzo, Sicily, Naples and other regions of Italy, created their own neighborhoods within the neighborhood.To this day, Italian-American culture dominates, holding on against a steady push of young professionals seeking apartments and condominiums.

Off the main drag, but no less a landmark in the North End, is Pizzeria Regina, a small, crowded, noisy restaurant which has attracted locals and and out-of-towners since 1926. The popular restaurant has since grown to a chain of stores throughout the suburbs. Pizza, one of the most popular foods in America, came with immigrants from the area of Naples. It actually exploded in popularity first in the U.S., before it was widely popularized all over Italy, where it was considered a regional dish.

At Pizzeria Regina, waiting for tables is common and space is at a premium. That’s why benches and overhead heaters are provided outside the front door. Once seated, or rather, squeezed into a tiny booth, there is an assault to the ears (blaring jukebox, barking waitresses and whooping patrons) as well as to the eyes (piles of pizza boxes, walls of old faded photographs). But alas, the experience is worth it. We come back every year.

Royall Pain

Picturing the history of slavery in America conjures up southern plantations, but at the time of Paul Revere’s ride, slavery was very much alive in the northern states, too. Boston’s John Hancock owned slaves, as did Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin.

On his way to Lexington, Paul Revere rode right by the stately home of Isaac Royall Jr., one of the wealthiest men in New England and one of Massachusetts’ largest owner of slaves. Little did Royall know how his fortunes would change the very next day.

It was Issac Royall’s father, Isaac Sr., who brought 27 slaves to Medford, Massachusetts, from the island of Antigua in 1737, where he had made his fortune, owning a sugar plantation. The 600-acre estate along the Mystic River was called Ten Hills Farm, and it was originally owned by the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop (another slave owner). Isaac Sr. commissioned the building of the home seen here in the left of this drawing, and the slave quarters, on the right. The Royalls’ slave quarters are the only ones known to still exist in the northern states of the original thirteen colonies.

Issac Jr. inherited his father’s farm (and his slaves) upon his death only a few years after moving to America.

How did Issac Royall Jr.’s fate change after Paul Revere’s ride? Royall was a Tory, meaning he was a supporter of the British, and not the colonist revolutionaries. When the first shots of the revolution were fired the next day, Royall’s status changed dramatically. He fled his farm soon after, escaping to Nova Scotia, and then England. He died soon after. The house was eventually used as a headquarters for leaders of the Continental Army, including George Washington.

The fortunes of Harvard University changed too, due to the Royall Estate. When the property was sold by the relatives who inherited it, a portion of the sale was donated to Harvard as Isaac Royall’s will had stipulated, to be used as an endowment for its first ever law professor.

There are records of over 60 slaves who worked for the Royalls throughout the years in Medford. When their owner fled, the existing slaves were left to forge lives on their own. One 63-year-old slave named Belinda eventually hired a lawyer and won a pension of “15 pounds and 12 shillings a year” from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783. After all, it was argued, she had been kidnapped at the age of 12 in Guana and spent a lifetime as a slave and was now left with nothing. She was one of the first slaves to ever argue for reparations for a life lost. Slavery had been ruled illegal in Massachusetts in 1780, due to the freedom clause in its young constitution.

From the Petition of Belinda Royall in the Medford Historical Society:

“Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, until, as if Nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of the freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human Race, the present war was Commenced – The terror of men armed in the Cause of freedom, compelled her master to fly – and to breathe away his Life in a Land, where, Lawless domination sits enthroned – pouring bloody outrage and cruelty on all who dare to be free.”

“The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.”

On the cold, damp March day that I drew the remnants of the Royall Estate, all was quiet, empty and still. It was a good day for ghosts.


Noise in the Night

It was midnight when Paul Revere arrived at his actual destination on the night of his famous ride: the home of Lexington’s clergyman Jonas Clark. In the house, a short distance from the town’s Common, Colonial rabblerousers John Hancock and Samuel Adams were hiding out, and had been for over a week. Revere (and other riders) had been sent by Colonial leader Dr. Joseph Warren to warn them of oncoming British, and the likelihood of their arrest. Revere knew exactly where to go that night as he had run the route a week earlier.

John Hancock was related by marriage to Jonas Clark. This was originally his grandfather’s house, built in 1738, and he lived briefly in the house as a boy. On the night of April 18-19, 1775, it was a very full house. The Clarks had at least eight of their twelve children still living with them, and Hancock had brought his fiance as well as his aunt with him. With Samuel Adams, that made fourteen residents in all.

Arriving in haste from his hour-long ride, he came upon Sergeant William Munroe and about a dozen other Lexington militiamen, who were guarding the house. Munroe didn’t know Revere and when Revere called out, he was ordered to quiet down, because everyone in the house was trying to sleep!

“Noise!” Paul Revere exclaimed, “You’ll have noise enough before long. The Regulars [British] are coming out!”

Revere hustled by Munroe and pounded on the door, causing many windows to open and many heads to look down upon on him. One was Hancock, who recognized Revere and called, “Come in, Revere! We’re not afraid of you.”

Soon after William Dawes arrived, bringing the same news from a different direction. He, too, was sent by Dr. Warren by the land route through Boston, Roxbury, Brookline and Cambridge. Adams, Hancock, Clark, Dawes and Revere then walked down the street to Munroe Tavern, on the Common, to find “refreshment” for themselves and their horses. Some Lexington militia had been staying there for the night. In the tavern, the group considered the intentions of the British. With so many more soldiers marching than expected, perhaps they were marching not only to arrest Hancock and Adams. Maybe they were marching on to Concord to seize the large amount of weapons and ammunition the colonists had stored there! Knowing that Concord needed to be warned, Paul Revere and William Dawes then took on another mission and together rode off to Concord.

Samuel Adams and John Hancock escaped arrest and harm by hustling off to Woburn later that night following a second visit from Paul Revere after he escaped capture. (More about that later.)

In 1896, the Hancock Clark Parsonage itself escaped a dangerous fate: demolition. Instead, the house was bought by the Lexington Historical Commission and moved across the street. Later it was moved back to its original location.

From where I drew, directly across the street was another relocated house. This one, built in the mid 1800s, was recently renovated and was at some point moved from near the Battle Green. I sat by the “For Sale,” sign which reassured me that I had selected a million-dollar view. The asking price for the house: $1,150,000.

Shore Thing

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There’s a marker and an information display at Paul Revere’s landing site on the shore of Charlestown, Massachusetts. The only problem is finding them.

Here’s what the marker says:

At this site Paul Revere landed on the night of April 18, 1775 to begin his midnight ride. 

Dedicated by The Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution April 1999                                                                                                                               

In this drawing, the marker and the display are behind the large vacant brick warehouse building, at the dead end of a waterfront walkway, next to a forbidding gate blocking one’s entrance to the Charlestown Navy Yard. Tourists following Boston’s Freedom Trail, the bright red line on the sidewalk which connects historic sites, pass by, to the left of the building, without a clue to what they’re missing. As I drew, a steady stream of tourists passed on my left, headed for the USS Constitution and The Bunker Hill Monument beyond.

The USS Constitution, a stone’s throw away from the Revere marker, is certainly worth a visit. The world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, built in Boston, the Constitution was launched in 1797. It was built to battle with Barbary pirates off the coast of Africa, but gained great fame in the War of 1812 when she defeated four British warships and earned the nickname “Old Ironsides.” The ship was taken out of service in 1855 and is now a museum, owned and maintained by the US Navy. At over 220 feet high at its highest point, it is only one foot shorter than Charlestown’s other most famous site, the Bunker Hill Monument. Both icons influenced the design of Boston’s newest icon, the nearby Zakim Bridge, which combines features of the two.

The less renowned building, which is the focus of this drawing, is referred to as Hoosac Stores 1 & 2. This warehouse was built in 1895 by the Fitchburg Railroad. At the turn of the century, Boston was the nation’s leading importer of wool, and Hoosac docks were where most of that happened.

In 1964, the building was sold to the W.F. Schrafft & Son Company, the large chocolate and candy company with headquarters further along Paul Revere’s route.

On the wall are large painted ads—the top one for White Star Line (known, too, as the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company). White Star Line was a prominent passenger shipping company, dominating the North Atlantic route to America. The Titanic was a White Star Line ship. From Liverpool to Ireland to Boston (and New York), immigrants from Ireland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Italy started new lives via White Star and landed in this port in Charlestown at the height of American immigration. Some of my own Irish ancesters, the O’Connors and the O’Keefes, from Cork, may have arrived on these docks.

Hoosac Stores 1 & 2 is now owned by the National Park Service, and it awaits its transformation to a more modern usage.

Dashing through the Rain

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The classic holiday song “Jingle Bells” was written in 1850 by James Pierpont in the long-gone Simpson’s Tavern on High Street, in Medford, Massachusetts. The tavern was situated along Paul Revere’s route (from which I’m drawing this spring)—so says a plaque on the wall of the three-story brick office building on High Street where the tavern once stood.

The plaque sits below the front window of an optical shop and says:

“Jingle Bells” Composed Here                                                                                On this site stood the Simpson Tavern, where in 1850 James Pierpont (1822-1893) wrote the song “Jingle Bells” in the presence of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who later verified that the song was written here. Pierpont had the song copyrighted in 1857 while living in Georgia. “Jingle Bells” tells of the sleigh races  held on Salem Street in the early 1800’s.

-Medford Historical Society 1988                                                   

Because the current Jingle Bells building is so ordinary looking, I took a seat directly across the street in the Lighthouse Cafe and drew from there. When I left my house just three miles away, I had rushed, hoping to draw the scene through falling snow. Snow, oddly rare this year, would be a perfect setting for a drawing of “Jingle Bells,” I thought. Unfortunately, the snow turned to rain as I crossed the town line.

The Lighthouse Cafe used to be called Ye Olde Lanthorn Restaurant and on the wall above my table, to my pleasant surprise, hung a fake old sign that read:

“One if by land…two if by sea”                                                                               Paul Revere’s ride was immortalized in the words of the poet Longfellow. The path of that ride, taken to alert the colonial patriots, brought Revere through High Street, Medford, where he stopped briefly, to enjoy our local hospitality. We welcome you to Ye Olde Lanthorn Restaurant.    

Lanthorn is an old British term for lantern.

The restaurant has changed owners a few times over the years. In the 1970s, it was a Pewter Pot Restaurant—one of a chain of Yankee-themed eateries, with post and beam ceilings, waitresses in Revolutionary era outfits and a menu featuring classic New England foods like pot roast, baked beans and broiled scrod. It was in this Pewter Pot that on April 18, 1973, Medford bookmaker Joe “Indian Joe” Notarangelli was mowed down by machine gun fire while he was eating, by a member of the Winter Hill Gang—the Irish Mob. Seems he did not want to pay them a portion of his illegal earnings for their “protection.”

Now, the Lighthouse Cafe is owned by a family from Albania, and was pretty un-newsworthy on the day I drew by the front window. I listened to the family members speak to each other in their native language. I guessed the daughter was the waitress, the father was the cook and the mother delivered the food. Behind me was the only other customer, and I could hear, all too clearly, her one-way conversation go on and on. I continue to find one-way conversations annoying despite the ever-present use of cellphones.

“That’s so nice!” she said.

“Oh, I’ll need $12.00 for that!” she said.

I turned around for the first time when she raised her voice higher and said “That’s so pretty!”  It was then I saw that it was an old lady, not on the phone, but talking to herself. She was looking at her fingernails admiringly. She kept talking as she left a few minutes later with her little shopping cart.

When I paid the bill for my coffee and grilled English muffin, I asked the waitress if she knew “Jingle Bells” was written right across the street. She raised her eyebrows in surprise. I guess she never saw the plaque.

I wondered if Albanians sing “Jingle Bells.”

I wondered too, if the Albanians knew about the mob killing, but I didn’t dare ask. That’s a different kind of history.

Paul Revere Park

On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere was rowed across the Charles River, from Boston to Charlestown, to begin his midnight ride. The famous trip was for the purpose of alerting John Hancock and Samuel Adams (in Lexington) of the approaching British Army. But he didn’t land where Paul Revere Park is now, on the shore of Charlestown. The Park is closer to where the HMS Somerset (a British Navy ship) was anchored and filled with enemy soldiers. Revere slipped behind the Somerset and landed further along the waterfront near the Charlestown Navy Yard, hurrying in to town to get a horse for his mission.

Paul Revere Park is young, built on land that was gained from the Central Artery/ Tunnel Project (also known as the “Big Dig”) which relocated an entire elevated highway underground through downtown Boston. The Big Dig disrupted the city for well over a decade around the turn of this century, and was the most expensive highway project in American history. The park continues to be a work in progress, as are many of the other Big Dig properties, such as the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway in Boston. Politics and a stagnant economy have slowed these projects’ progress.

Besides a playground, a performance stage and a large circular lawn, the park features a mosaic wall, on which the story of Paul Revere is written and mapped. On the cold February day when I drew there, the place was deserted, with only a few dog walkers briskly passing by.

From the park, you can see the Leonard P. Zakim Memorial Bunker Hill Bridge, better known as the Zakim Bridge, which is perhaps the most striking result of the Big Dig. The new bridge became an instant landmark for the city and, with its obelisks and rigging, it echos the nearby Bunker Hill Monument and USS Constitution. Bathed in luminous blue light after dark, the Zakim Bridge is, like Paul Revere, a creature of the night.