A recent trip to Boston’s North Square

E_p12_street_photoThe man dressed in 18th century American costume is standing in historic North Square, an integral part of the North End district in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s the city’s oldest residential community having been settled in the 1630s. The North End, and North Square in particular, was home to crucial events and influential people in early American history.

In the background of the picture, on the left side, is the home of Paul Revere, the famous American patriot who in 1775 warned the Colonial militia of the approach of British forces. His warning occurred on the eve of the American Revolution which culminated in the independence of the colonies from Britain.

One of the defining factors of the American Revolution was the imposition of the British Stamp Act, a hated tax which was supported by Governor Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts. His home was also in North Square and was raided by citizens protesting the tax.

There are five intersecting streets in North Square, and on the corner of two of them, Sun St. and Moon St., diagonally across from Paul Revere’s house, there have been several churches since 1649. The Old North Meeting House was the first and its Puritan minister was Increase Mather, an important figure in his day. Unfortunately, along with his son Cotton Mather, he became negatively associated with the Salem witch trials of 1692 by defending the judges and refusing to denounce the trials. The Old North Meeting House burned to the ground in 1676 along with Mather’s House. Paul Revere’s house was later built on the site of Mather’s house. A second church was built but burned down in 1770. The present church was built in 1833 and for the next 38 years was known as the Seaman’s Bethel, a non-denominational chapel where sailors worshipped. They were ministered to by a famous orator of his day, Father Edward Thompson Taylor. He has been described as one of the most original and effective pulpit and platform orators America has produced. He inspired the character of Father Mapple in the Herman Melville novel, Moby Dick. In 1871, the church expanded and became today’s Sacred Heart Italian Catholic Church.

Prior to 1788, North Square was called Clark’s Square and was a bastion of English gentry with English gardens and Georgian mansions. After the American Revolution, people of English origin gradually moved to “better areas” since the North End was becoming too crowded and more commercial with development of nearby waterfront docks.

From the 17th to the 19th century, the North End included a community of free African Americans. One notable resident was David Walker, who worked in the early 1800s as an outspoken African-American abolitionist and anti-slavery activist.

The next massive wave of immigrants was the Irish who came after the great potato famine of 1846. Between 1865–1880, the North End was almost exclusively Irish Catholic. Very close to North Square was the home of John F. Fitzgerald, the first American-born Irish Catholic mayor of Boston and father of Rose Kennedy, mother of US President John F. Kennedy. Fitzgerald helped John Kennedy win his first seat in Congress. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the Irish became successful economically and like the English, began moving to “better places” in the Boston area.

Between 1865 and 1895, there was also a substantial Jewish community which financed a lot of construction in the North End.

By 1890, there was such a large influx of Italian immigrants, the North End became known as Little Italy. Italian bakeries, restaurants, small shops and groceries flourished. New immigrants sold fruit, vegetables, wine, cheese and olive oil. By the 1920s there were Italian physicians, dentists, funeral homes and barbers. In the 1950s and 60s, as the Italians became more affluent, many moved on to greener pastures. However, unlike the English and Irish, they kept their businesses in the North End. Today there are nearly 100 business establishments. The area is lively and charming with great restaurants, cafes, shops and residences. Italian festivals and processions are still celebrated in the streets.

A visit to Boston’s North End with its many attractions is a highlight to anyone’s Boston experience.