When the Molinari brothers agreed to show a visitor around their
historic neighborhood, they could have chosen to meet at Caffe Vittoria,
with its marble countertops and towering Pavoni espresso machine.
Or at Maria's, a bare-bones bakery with marzipan in the window and
the best sfogliatelle in Boston. They could have chosen any of more
than 100 Italian cafés, pastry shops and restaurants within a five-block
radius. But they didn't. They picked Starbucks.
The Molinaris (Richard, 56, and Ben, 58) have lived most of their
lives in Boston's North End, and as they walk through the neighborhood
they point to some of its invisible history. The condominium where
they live today was an abandoned warehouse where they played as
boys. Up the street is a wine store owned by an aunt. At the Sacred
Heart Church, they stop to greet Father Vincenzo Rosato. "The
church was like just another room in our house," says Ben.
"And it still is!"
They remember the stoop where their grandfather used to sit in
the evenings, singing and playing the mandolin. (He was a successful
silversmith, as was the North End's most famous resident, Paul Revere.)
They point to the house where their mother was born, across the
street from the birthplace of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose grandparents
came from Ireland long before the Italians started arriving.
Feast begins when a statue of the Madonna del Soccorso
(Our Lady of Help) is carried to the waterfront for
the "blessing of the waters." A Boston tradition
since 1911, the feast has its origins in 16th century
For more than 200 years, the North End of Boston was the classic
American immigrant ghetto. Its narrow streets and brick tenements
were home to wave upon wave of working class immigrants—English,
African, Irish, Jewish and, beginning the late 1800s, Italian. When
Richard and Ben Molinari were boys, the North End was known to outsiders
as "Little Italy". But to residents, a street wasn't simply
"Italian", but Genovese, Sicilian, Milanese or Neopolitan.
Most of the Italians are gone now, driven out by gentrification
and soaring real estate values. And while their legacy is visible
everywhere—in colorful pastry shops, noisy restaurants and boutique
grocery stores—it's a prettified version of the way things used
to be. An "Italian stage set," Richard says.
Newer residents talk about the North End's distinctive character,
its Old World charm. Older residents shrug when they hear that.
Back when it was their neighborhood, there were only a handful of
restaurants. But for them, the North End has never been about restaurants
or shops, let alone about authenticity or character. It's about
the connections between people. The shared history, the church,
the thousand kindnesses and petty grudges that bind neighbors together.
Today the North End may look something like it looked 50 years ago,
but it's a different place.
The Molinaris don't blame anyone for that. They say the changes
started long ago, part of a natural process for an immigrant neighborhood.
"People come searching for a better life," Ben says, "and
they move in the direction of acquiring more things, bigger houses
and so on." Sitting in Starbucks, talking about the old days,
the brothers' conversation begins to sound less like a lament for
a vanishing neighborhood, and more like a tribute to the way things
are supposed to work in America. But then Ben pauses. "A lot
of the good was jettisoned in the move toward wealth. It's hard
to hold onto your values. You have to look back as well as forward."