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Boston’s North End, Once Slated for the Wrecking Ball, Perhaps the Best Urban Neighborhood in America

January 22, 2008 History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Travel 25 Comments

IMG_9360.JPGLast week I visited Boston and I specifically made a trip to the North End neighborhood. Before heading on the trip I re-read a portion of Jane Jacob’s classic 1961 book, Death and Life of Great American Cities. Starting on page 8 Jacobs talks about planners and architects and how they’ve learned how cities “ought” to work:

Consider, for example, the orthodox planning reaction to a district called the North End in Boston. This is an old, low-rent area merging into the heavy industry of the waterfront, and it is officially considered Boston’s worst slum and civic shame. It embodies attributes which all enlightened people know are evil because so many wise men have said they are evil. Not only is the North End bumped right up against industry, but worse still it has all kinds of working places and commerce mingled in the greatest complexity with its residences. It has the highest concentration of dwelling units, on the land that is used for dwelling units, of any part of Boston, and indeed one of the highest concentrations to be found in any American city. It has little parkland. Children play in the streets. Instead of super-blocks, or even decently large blocks, it has very small blocks; in planning parlance it is “badly cut up with wasteful streets.” Its buildings are old. Everything conceivable is presumably wrong with the North End. In orthodox planning terms, it is a three-dimensional textbook of “megalopolis” in the last stages of depravity. The North End is thus a recurring assignment for M.I.T. and Harvard planning and architecture students, who now and again pursue, under the guidance of their teachers, the paper exercise of converting it into super-blocks and park promenades, wiping away its nonconforming uses, transforming it to an ideal of order and gentility so simple it could be engraved on the head of a pin.

This neighborhood, first settled in the 1630’s, didn’t fit with the mid-20th century notion of a city. Architects, planners and politicians had written off the entire area, and equally urban areas in cities all over the country, so they could be rebuilt in the new order. Jacobs continues:

Twenty years ago, when I first happened to see the North End, its buildings — town houses of different kinds and sizes converted to flats, and four- or five story tenements built to house the flood of immigrants first from Ireland, then from Eastern Europe and finally from Sicily — were badly overcrowded, and the general effect was of a district taking a terrible physical beating and certainly desperately poor.

Gee, that doesn’t sound so good. Perhaps the planners were correct, wipe it back down to bare earth and start over? Of course, at this point in the early 1940s, the country had been in a long depression with little money for the maintenance of housing stock.

When I saw the North End again in 1959, I was amazed at the change. Dozens and dozens of buildings had been rehabilitated. Instead of mattresses against the windows there were Venetian blinds and glimpses of fresh paint. Many of the small, converted houses now had only one or two families in them instead of the old crowded three or four. Some of the families in the tenements (as I learned later, visiting inside) had uncrowded themselves by throwing two older apartments together, and had equipped these with bathrooms, new kitchens and the like. I looked down a narrow alley, thinking to find at least here the old, squalid North End, but no: more neatly repointed brickwork, new blinds, and a burst of music as a door opened. Indeed, this was the only city district I had ever seen — or have seen to this day — in which the sides of buildings around parking lots had not been left raw and amputated, but repaired and painted as neatly as if they were intended to be seen. Mingled all among the buildings for living were an incredible number of splendid food stores, as well as such enterprises as upholstery making, metal working, carpentry, food processing. The streets were alive with children playing, people shopping, people strolling, people talking. Had it not been a cold January day, there would surely have been people sitting.

The general street atmosphere of buoyancy, friendliness and good health was so infectious that I began asking directions of people just for the fun of getting in on some talk. I had seen a lot of Boston in the past couple of days, most of it sorely distressing, and this struck me, with relief, as the healthiest place in the city. But I could not imagine where the money had come from for the rehabilitation, because it is almost impossible today to get any appreciable mortgage money in districts of American cities that are not either high-rent, or else imitations of suburbs. To find out, I went into a bar and restaurant (where an animated conversation about fishing was in progress) and called a Boston planner I know.

“Why in the world are you down in the North End?” he said. “Money? Why, no money or work has gone into the North End. Nothing’s going on down there. Eventually, yes, but not yet. That’s a slum!”
“It doesn’t seem like a slum to me,” I said.
“Why, that’s the worst slum in the city. It has two hundred and seventy-five dwelling units to the net acre! I hate to admit we have anything like that in Boston, but it’s a fact.”
“Do you have any other figures on it?” I asked.
“Yes, funny thing. It has among the lowest delinquency, disease and infant mortality rates in the city. It also has the lowest ratio of rent to income in the city. Boy, are those people getting bargains. Let’s see… the child population is just about average for the city, on the nose. The death rate is low, 8.8 per thousand, against the average city rate of 11.2. The TB death rate is very low, less than 1 per ten thousand, can’t understand it, it’s lower even than Brookline’s. In the old days the North End used to be the city’s worst spot for tuberrculosis, but all that has changed. Well, they must be strong people. Of course, it’s a terrible slum.”
“You should have more slums like this,” I said. “Don’t tell me there are plans to wipe this out. You ought to be down here learning as much as you can from it.”
“I know how you feel,” he said. “I often go down there myself just to walk around the streets and to feel that wonderful, cheerful street life. Say, what you ought to do, you ought to come back and go down in the summer if you think it’s fun now. You’d be crazy about it in the summer. But of course we have to rebuild it eventually. We’ve got to get those people off the streets.”

Here was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him the North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for city neighborhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him the North End had to be a bad place.

Boston’s North End, like St. Louis’ Soulard or Old North neighborhoods, were very overcrowded during the years of the depression when many people migrated from rural settings to urban centers seeking employment. Overcrowding, not to be confused with high density, can and did lead to many diseases. The older buildings often lacked modern plumbing which would have helped offset disease.  At the time the experts claimed the only thing to do was to clear cut the entire area — including all the streets and alleys — and start over from scratch.

In the 1950s Boston cut out a strip of the North End to create their overly popular Central Artery highway.  This highway project cut off the North End from downtown and the rest of the city.  The highway also became congested quickly which eventually led to the “big dig” project.   Despite being cut off from downtown, or perhaps because of it, the North End avoided the wrecking ball.
Boston, St. Louis and all older cities do well with their older street pattern and mix of uses.  As you will see, this is very compact, and not for everyone.  Of course, not everyone aspires to a 2-story Colonial ranch in the suburbs with a 3-car garage.  The inner core of our region, basically the entire City of St. Louis, should grow increasingly urban as it once was.

Here are a few of the pictures I took in Boston’s North End:
















I’m looking forward to a return visit when the trees green up and more people are out and about.


Currently there are "25 comments" on this Article:

  1. Brad Mello says:

    Great pics Steve — you forgot to mention though that you can get the best damned Italian food on almost any block in the north end — at really reasonable prices. You see buildings, I see FOOD!

  2. john says:

    Notice many more cars are in the pictures than people. Few citizens in this country are willing to acknowledge that their dependence on autos and cheap oil is destroying our future. Their personal needs come first and persuade our leaders that these needs must be publicly financed. Whether it’s a highway, widened arteries, bigger parking lots, more horespower, American’s are in love with this addiction. As Alan Greenspan has written ‘I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.’ Remember that every time you use your car instead of your feet or bike.

    [SLP — The density of the North End is part of the solution.  There are many more people here than cars — it was just really cold outside and in the middle of a work week when I was there.]

  3. Urbanian says:

    JJ’s observations are nearly 50 years old now. What is the current public perception of this area? Is the rent still a bargain? How does this area compare to others in the NE?

    [SLP — The rents, like all of Boston, are not a bargain. Now that the Central Artery is gone this neighborhood is an easy walk to the CBD. Bostonians are very proud of the North End.  The narrow streets and diversity of shops that JJ like so much nearly 50 years ago remains.]

  4. Matt says:

    Awesome photo series, Steve. I am truly jealous that you’re such a globe..err…nationtrotter. Boston looks like one of the most beautiful cities this country can offer.

  5. matthew says:

    This summer when I was visiting the North End with my wife, whom used to work in one of the little hardware stores there after attending BU, I happened to overhear a large man in sweatpants walking along the sidewalk talking on his cell phone asking the party on the otherend of the phone how much to collect from someone. The actual wording was: “Should I get $2500 and no vig?, right got it”. Obviously, this little bit of eaves droped information made my whole trip to Boston complete. I must have talked about that guy for two weeks straight. That is a great little neighborhood.

  6. Dole says:

    The North End does have great Italian food. Rent is no bargain, as rent is not a bargain anywhere in Boston! I long for the STL real estate prices! Rent ranges from $1,000 for a tiny studio in a bad neighborhood to $5,000 for a 3-bed 3-bath condo..of course you can spend as much as you want. Many young professionals must have roommates if they have any hope of affording this city……………..The educated people have only a faint trace of an accent, many lower class “southies” have an accent so thick I need an interpretor.

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    Not enough parking or open space! 😉

  8. john w. says:

    My great-grandparents were immigrants who lived in the north end, and my grandmother grew up there. My grandparents eventually moved to an outlying residental neighborhood called Everett, and that is where my mother grew up. We would visit my grandmother in Boston every summer when I was a kid, and we’d go down to the festival days (Catholic Saint’s Days) in August. I’m familiar with much of urban Boston, but the North End always hold great memories because of the festival days (http://www.wbur.org/news/local/italianfeast/slideshow.asp). We should be relieved that the conventional planning ‘wisdom’ of the day never unleashed it’s destruction on this treasure. Urban Renewal should always have been Urban revitalization, such as what JJ described witnessing in the late 1950s, and never the inhumane slum clearance policy hatched in ivory towers. Even Corb would have recognized that much.

  9. northside neighbor says:

    How much would one expect to pay here to rent a nice 2 BR apartment or purchase a single family townhome?

  10. Dole says:

    Northside Neighbor: The real estate costs 2-3 times that of St. Louis. Think of a similiar property in STL, and double or triple the price.

  11. northside neighbor says:

    Well, then I think our brand of urbanism sounds like a pretty good deal, especially for younger, creative types! We ought to be promoting the idea of living in St. Louis to priced out Bostonians.

  12. Brian says:

    When it was low-rent, the Edmund Bacon-types said turn it into a suburb. Now that it’s high-rent, the Wendell Cox types say that’s why suburbs are better. Not surprisingly, both of these kinds of critics were auto-centric. But sadly, such critics can still win when the gentrifying urbanites falling in love with the walkability of their location still opt to keep their car-based lifestyle. If lifeless streets are inevitable, suburban design may be safer. But as Jacobs also wrote, cities (and even suburbs for that matter) remain places filled with strangers. Thus, unless you want to hand over your streets devoid of people (thus building roads, not streets), we need urbanism to truly live any outside our private houses and cars. Streets are outdoor rooms, and North End definitely has the walls.

  13. Howard says:

    Soulard was overcrowded beginning in the 1880s, not Great Depression. According to Census records, the area was largely populated with extended families (3-4 generations) living in the same 2 bedroom units that today house two roomies. Disease was a problem. Two decades later, as during the Depression, suicide among men was rather high.

    [SLP — Disease was often an issue not because of the density or overcrowding but of a lack of clean water and decent sewer systems.]

  14. allison says:

    Steve, you should ask the old-timers about the Great Molasses Spill in the early 20th century. A vat of cooking molasses exploded, and due to the over-crowding, actually killed a bunch of people before flooding.
    And, I worked in the BEST hardware store, Salem Street True Value 🙂

  15. dude says:

    It is a trip back in time and don’t bother driving to it and looking for parking. Get off at the Haymarket T station and go on foot. I was there in 2000 for the first time and the big dig was alive and well. Navigating that area was a nightmare back then. Monday, a one way street going south. Tuesday, the same street now one way going north. Wednesday, the street is gone. My cousins probably exaggerate though. It is great to see a lot of it was spared from the wrecking ball but it may be a product of preserving national treasures like the old north church rather than the genius of good urban planning.

  16. Tino says:

    Northside neighbor:

    The cheapest thing for rent right now in the North End is a 750 sqft 1-bedroom condo for $1,250.

    The cheapest 2-BR rental is $1,800, but most 2-bedroom rentals are in the $4K-$5K range.

    The only non-condo residential property currently listed is a 3-bedroom, 1.5-bath SFH at 169 N. Washington Street for $1.15M.

    There are 101 condos currently for sale: one studio at $200,000; cheapest of 15 1-bedrooms is $270K; cheapest of 61 2-BRs at $300K; cheapest of 6 3-BRs at $690K; and 2 4-BRs at $790K and $2.49M.

    [SLP — I’d be willing to bet that had the area been cleared in the 50s/60s as planned that today’s market value would be nowhere near it is today.  These prices must be taken in context with the region they are in.  What is important here is to note that compact urbanism does have its place — the free market clearly demonstrates that in this case.]

  17. Nick Kasoff says:

    What a stupid area. I didn’t see a Walgreens in any of your pictures. How can you have a decent city neighborhood without a Walgreens?

    [SLP — LOL, actually in Boston I saw more CVS than Walgreens.  The area did have a White Hen Pantry convenience store in an old building.  I stopped into a small locally owned (presumably) pharmacy that was quite busy.]

  18. maurice says:

    It is a great article, but for all the praise Steve, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the crowded sidewalks with the board signs leaving little wheelchair access. Also, in some of the pictures of the corners, not every corner is ADA compliant (odd, why would they do one corner of the sidewalk, but not the other?). The street lights in the middle of the sidewalks, etc.

    Even in a vibrant, “best urban neighborhood” there are problems!

    [SLP — Much of Boston has accessibility issues.  The “T” station where I was staying was getting redone to bring it into compliance.  Train platforms are also bad.  The North End area has vary narrow sidewalks and issues to be sure.  It is still better to work through the details than to wipe entire areas back to grade and starting over — as would have been the case.]

  19. Cities were never too dense, they simply lacked the technology to provide adequate services like sanitation. St. Louis should be as dense as it once was for many reasons. Saying it was too crowded, and that’s why people left, is misleading. They left because the Federal Government paid them to do so.

  20. maurice says:

    I disagree about the lack of technology. The romans built many of the systems we still use like aquaducts and sewers. New York City and Boston both are quite old and they have thriving urban centers. They rise and they fall, they rise and they fall.

    I think it would have been better to have said that they powers to be didn’t have the foresight or will power to put those systems in place.

  21. Jim Zavist says:

    Between here and there, both physically and economically, lies Pittsburgh. This is an interesting article about a similar neighborhood in PA.: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08023/851282-28.stm

  22. john w. says:

    With the federal government creating the low interest home mortgage financing program, and Levitown-esque suburban style en masse land development coupled with the construction of the the interstate system following 1956, Doug’s comment is blunt but true.

  23. I am going to have to agree with you on this one for sure.

    We love the N. End!

  24. maurice says:

    But I still say the technology was there to create dense cities that would survive.

    Having said that, we can’t also forget that the late 40’s and 50’s were full of service men who gave much in the service of their country and the suburban spread, financed in part by the government in some way, shape, or form kept them happy voters.

  25. GMichaud says:

    The north end looks like a nice urban neighborhood. That the destruction of the city so necessary for the expansion of the suburbs didn’t occur was fortunate. It would be interesting to know how mass transit serves the north end. That scale of building, the 4 and 5 story row house, common in cities like Paris also, has mostly been eliminated in St. Louis. I also like how the grid has been gently modified to produce vistas and inviting curves.


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