And we're back in Boston.
If you didn't know, I used to call Boston home. More specifically, I lived in Brookline. And while this is a neighborhood that will always hold a special place in my heart, it is not our destination today. Today we're going to be hopping on the T (this is the common name used for Boston's subway) and headed to the North End. This is one of Boston's oldest, most beautiful, and most well-known neighborhoods, so before we jump into the pictures I took there, I'd like to take a few minutes to explain what the North End is all about.
The North End in 3 Minutes
Today, Boston's North End is known as the Italian neighborhood. When people tell you that they're headed to the North End, it's a good bet that they're going to dinner, because this neighborhood is absolutely packed with incredible Italian restaurants and bakeries. However, the North End is famous for more than just its food. The history here is legendary.
Settled in the 1630s (more than 100 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed) the North End is the oldest residential neighborhood in Boston. You've heard of Paul Revere's midnight ride, right? Well that happened here in the North End. In fact, Paul Revere's house is still located here, preserved as a historical landmark. In fact, quite a lot of the early phases of the American Revolution played out with the North End as a backdrop.
By the time the 1800s rolled around, the North End was undergoing heavy commercial development. The North End actually played home to Boston's red light district for a while, but by the 1840s, it was the massive influx of immigrants (Italian, Irish, and Eastern European) that defined this neighborhood. It wasn't long before the North End turned into something akin to a ghetto. With its residents packed into its overcrowded buildings like sardines, the living conditions here were the worst in Boston. So when the notorious Cholera outbreak hit Boston in 1849, it was the North End that took the brunt of it. Over the next 50 years, the North end would be the site of several notable violent incidents and riots—by the time the 1800s were coming to a close, there were nonprofits doing aid work here. Yikes!
By the early 1900s, the North End's residents were almost completely Jewish and Italian. The waning diversity of this neighborhood definitely helped relieve ethnic tensions that had been at play, but it was still quite an impoverished and overcrowded area. When the Spanish Influenza Pandemic hit Boston in 1918, so many Italian children were orphaned that the city founded a group home for them. And the following year, one of the weirdest events in history happened here: the Great Molasses Flood. Oh you haven't heard of the Great Molasses Flood before? Here's what happened...
It was hot summer day in the North End. On one of the main streets in this neighborhood, there was a storage tank that was holding 2.3 million gallons molasses. The heat apparently caused the molasses to expand, and the tank explosively burst open causing a 25-foot high wave of molasses to thunder down the street, sweeping away everything in its path. 21 people died, and 150 more were injured. The incident caused $100 million in damages (adjusted for 100 years of inflation), and lives in infamy (and hilarity) to this day.
So this all probably makes the North End sound like a bad neighborhood, right? I mean, not a lot of positive news stories coming out of here. Well don't worry! The North End of today is a far cry from the squalor of previous centuries. The wheels of time, development, and gentrification have been hard at work in the North End. However, to walk around the neighborhood today, it still feels remarkably Italian. And I don't just mean that there are lots of pizza shops. I mean that you will still hear Italian spoken on the street! The spectrum of locals here ranges from the Godfather to Jersey Shore and encompasses everything in between, so make no mistake: the North End's Italian community is alive and well. Below you will see a map of the neighborhood—feel free to zoom in & explore the area!
Summer In Boston's North End
This visit to the North End came in the early days of summer 2018. It was supposed to have been raining on this particular evening, but as the sun slid lower in the sky, things were just looking more and more clear. So we got on the T, bound for North Station, and did what people do in the North End—met a friend for dinner! However, as we took the scenic route through the North End, weaving in and out of alleys to look for a restaurant, I whipped out the ol' camera and did my best to document what was turning out to be a GLORIOUS night!
A few notes from the pictures you are about to see...
Mike's Pastries is easily the most famous establishment in the North End. Whenever people visit the North End from out of town, 99% of the time they specifically ask to be brought to Mike's Pastries. Maybe somebody told them to try it, maybe they read about it on the internet, but people LOVE this place. At this point, it's almost becoming a cliché. I mean, it's good, but it's not necessarily better than the following other 2 establishments. (Oh, and be warned: it's cash only!)
If there is any bakery that is a serious contender to de-throne Mike's as the hot ticket of the North End, it's Modern Pastries. It's almost directly across the street from Mike's, and to be honest, it's more or less the exact same thing. I have actually heard that these 2 places have the same owner... so somebody is making a fortune off of this "rivalry."
Across the street from the distinct green building that is shown in the header of this article and in the gallery below, you will see a sign for Bova's, which is also a damn good bakery and staple of the North End. Is it better than Mike's and Modern's? I don't know. But what I DO know is that Bova's stays open 24/7, which is something that I LOVE! After I discovered this (towards the end of college), at last call, I began lobbying my friends to make the trip over here for end-of-the-night pastries with me whenever possible. It was a hike to get here, but it was so worth it!
So without further ado, here are some of my favorite shots from the North End that I captured that weekend...
Old North Church
No article on the North End would be complete without a visit to Old North Church. Located at 193 Salem Street, Old North Church was originally built in 1723. It's the oldest standing building in Boston, and in a city as old as this, that is a tough superlative to get. It's a big deal. And, in spite of it's old age and status as a historic landmark, Old North Church still holds services every Sunday at 9 and 11am. If you're interested, you really can just show up to one of these services. However, if you're not the religious type, you can visit the church from 10am - 4pm (November 16 - March 31) or 9am - 6pm (April 1 - November 15).
To walk inside this church, its age is difficult not to pick up on. Even the slightest movements and softest steps send loud aches and creaks through the surrounding wooden structure. The air smells musty and old, and the church itself looks like few churches you are likely to have seen before. The wooden pews / boxes shown in the photos below used to be rented by local families. They would actually decorate and furnish these boxes as they would their own homes, even including wallpaper! That was a fun fact I gleaned from my visit. The following pictures were taken very shortly before the church's closing at 6:00pm, so the light outside was already starting to change...
That's the North End! It's a real gem of a neighborhood, and a must-see for anybody who's got time to kill in Boston and likes Italian food. However, we've still only just started to break past the surface of this massive and historic city. The last time I came to Boston, I only had time for one article, but this time around I was a bit more productive.
Coming up next I'll be showing you the Boston Public Library, The Mass Ave Bridge (measured in Smoots), and telling you my favorite Boston story of all time: the heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. Get your hopes up.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with a track from Joey Pecoraro that's got some old, and some new. Just like Boston.