Boston’s oldest neighborhood, the North End is the northernmost point of the Shawmut peninsula.
Historic Boston maps show a time when the city was nothing more than a spidery island with high tides sometimes cutting off modern downtown from the rest of the mainland at what was know as Boston Neck, roughly located in the South End at the intersection of Washington and E. Berkeley Street. Prior to english settlement, high tides would rise and threaten to cut off the North End, then the smallest of the three Boston hills from the rest of the oak covered hills and surrounding salt marsh.
The original North End encompassed the area between present day Salem, Commercial, and North streets. The North End we recognize today extends well beyond the original boundaries. Sandwiched between Boston Harbor and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the North End now stretches up from Christopher Columbus Park to the TD Garden.
Known as Boston’s unofficial “Little Italy” the North End is one of the Hub’s smallest neighborhoods encompassing just one square mile of land jutting out into Boston Harbor. Although small in size it has played and outsized role in the cultural, commercial, political, and even criminal history of the city. Over the past 400 years, the area has been home to a once thriving native American settlement of the Massachusett tribe, early colonial African-American communities, waves of Irish, Eastern European Jewish, and more recently, Italian immigrants.
The story of the North End is a story of immigrants. The first Italian immigrants came late by New England standards beginning in the 1860s before Italy officially unified in 1871. Most of our early Italian immigrants would’ve identified with their home region instead of the burgeoning “new” country. Early Italian immigrants from Genoa primarily settled in a three block area off Fulton Street, adjacent to the old Menorah Products Inc. slaughterhouse. The building, now subdivided into condos still stands at 112 Fulton Street. The Genoese were followed by the Campanians who are followed by the Sicilians, the Avellinese, the Neapolitans, and the Abruzzesians. Each group settled in their own area within the North End, creating separate enclaves within the greater neighborhood.
On January 15, 1919, a 50 foot tall tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses exploded on the North End industrial waterfront, causing widespread destruction and taking lives of 21 people and injuring another 150. Located near 529 Commercial Street, the blast was initially believed to be the result of a terrorist attack. “A case of sabotage by political anarchists” was the main argument by attorneys for US Industrial Alcohol, owner of the storage tank. The resulting investigation and legal hearings involving 125 lawsuits was the longest in the history of the State courts at the time. It ended in 1926 with a conclusive judgment. The tank had been improperly designed and its failure was due entirely to structural weakness, not a terrorist attack.
By 1930, almost all North End inhabitants were Italian but remnants of earlier North End communities remain to this day. Signs of the Jewish community that occupied the North End in the 19th century abound as Jewish immigrants led a surge of development to rebuild dilapidated tenement buildings as well as new construction of synagogues, storefronts, and community centers along Salem Street between 1865 and 1895.
A quick walk up Salem street from Cross Street today, brings you past Salmagundi’s Hat Shop, Pauli’s, the tucked-away North End Fish Market and straight through the heart of the old Jewish settlement. Salem Street at one point had the nickname “Shalom Street”. In 1903, there was a prominent synagogue Shaarei Jerusalem, on Carroll place, whereupon the street became Jerusalem place. Bova‘s Bakery at 134 Salem Street, was originally a grocers called the “Greenie Store.” This was the very first of many Rubinowitz or “Rabb” family grocery stores. It survived at this location through 1908. The Rabb family chain of grocery stores would eventually culminate in New England‘s largest grocery chain, Stop & Shop!
The North End has a seedier side made famous by numerous books and movies. Throughout the 20th century the Anguilo brothers, made men in the Patriarca crime family, were the leading members of the Italian mob in Boston. Born and raised in the North End, the Anguilo’s consolidated the gambling racket in the city for the influential Patriarca group which controlled Boston, Worcester, and Providence Rhode Island. This consolidation led to a long and bloody turf war throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s with the Winter Hill Gang, New England‘s top Irish mob syndicate, and the Irish-run bank-heist outfit known as the Charlestown mob. The movie “black mass“, based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, follows Whitey Bulger in the decades following the conviction of Howie Winter. With a brother, Billy Bulger running the Statehouse and a childhood friend, John Connolly working for the FBI in Boston, Whitey was able to leverage his informant status to target his rivals while growing his own illicit operations.
While the government’s crackdown on organized crime ended the more prominent rackets in the US, many of the infamous landmarks are visible today. A walk past Regina’s Pizza will bring you past the old Prince Street headquarters of the Anguilo family. This location was famously raided by the FBI in September 1983 leading to the arrest and conviction of Gennaro Anguilo and the beginning of the end organized crime in America.
Getting to The North End
Finding parking on the street can be a hassle because spots are limited luckily there are several parking garages is available near the North End including Government Center parking garage and garages on Commercial Street. Some restaurants in this area may provide valet parking for customers but you should call ahead if you’re driving in. Commuter rail to North Station/ TD Garden. Greenline stops at North Station and Haymarket. Blue line ends at Bowden which is a quick 10 minute walk from all the cannoli you could ever want.
Things to do in The North End
The north end is easily Boston’s most walkable and historic neighborhoods. Head over to North Square to visit the Paul revere house. While not built by the revere family, the original three-story house was built around 1860, which makes it the oldest house in downtown Boston and the only time frame bird building in the north end. The freedom Trail cuts through the heart of the north end passing by the Paul revere house the old North Church and Copps Hill burial ground.
A food tour of the North End is highly suggested. You could start with breakfast at the North Street Grille, Anthony’s Cafe, or a big quick bite at Pauli’s. Follow it up by grabbing a slice or two each from Regina’s on Thatcher Street, Ernesto’s on Salem Street., and Galleria Umberto on Hanover Street, as you head down to Christopher Columbus Park and the North End waterfront for a picnic and pizza taste test. Midday espresso with Boston’s best cannoli and biscotti from Maria’s on Cross Street. will help you beat the crowds and lines at Mike’s and Modern Pastry over on Hanover. Seafood for dinner at The Daily Catch or Neptunes and finish it up with dessert and more espresso from Caffee Paradiso, open until 11PM on Hanover Street.
On the last Sunday in August you can take part in Saint Anthony’s feast. The largest of north ends summer parades begin in August 1919. Is the largest Italian religious festival in New England and was named the “feast of all feasts“ by National Geographic magazine.
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