^ East Boston today : watching fireworks on Boston harbor from the park on Brigham Street
—- —- —-
If you live in East Boston today, you may perhaps realize how lucky you are to be a part of my favorite Boston neighborhood.
Is this Eastie’s Golden Age ? I think it is. But let me reminisce a bit for those who think Eastie’s Golden Age lies in the past : when my Aunt Elizabeth came back to East Boston, for my Mother’s funeral, after living in Cleveland for 50 years, she and I drove around Eagle Hill, where the Mugglebee family had lived since moving up from Porter Street after the Tunnel construction took their cold water flat. Elizabeth recognized every street, every house, even every business — the Brooks Street drug store was still there ! That was hardly the whole story. Back then — the 1970s — Pat Moscaritolo’s Dad still had his liquor store on Bennington, Tony the Baker was still cutting customers’ ties at his spaghetti-and-meat balls eatery on Sumner Street; Mangini’s was THE restaurant in Orient Heights — Bill Bagley’s drug store the hot spot near Dom Savio — and Gus Serra had recently been elected a State Representative in one of the most intense campaigns I have ever been part of.
East Boston then was seen as an Italian city; but it was also Irish, French Canadian, even Scottish, German, and Jewish as well. It was a family place. People didn’t just vote, their entire families voted — five, six, seven, ten, even twelve as a bloc. There was division aplenty in that Serra campaign, yet soon after, there was amazing unity (on Eagle Hill, anyway) as Irish kid Dennis Kearney, running for a State Representative seat newly created, defeated all of Charlestown with a solid vote from just 20 percent of the entire district.
Today, hardly any of that East Boston remains. School Committeewoman Elvira “Pixie” Palladino, Anna DeFronzo, Louis Buttiglieri, Frank Ciampa, Filippa Pizzi, Tony Marmo, Mario Umana, Mike LoPresti Junior have all left the premises; and today the names one meets on the streets of Eastie are just as likely to be Hispanic, Arabic, Brazilian, or newcomer-young people as not.
Yet long-term East Boston activists remain, and they — we — are a major and respected part of a community that engages more languages and cultures, cuisines and work schedules than I witness in any other part of the City. We are a City all by ourselves. We see innovation, noise, dog parks, the Greenway, sailing at Piers Park (!), a brewery (!!), modernist condominiums, ancient three-deckers, suburban ranch homes, hills as steep as those of Positano, and the awesome views from the dead end of Gladstone Street; the beautiful brick homes on Orient Avenue so high above the airport one actually looks down on planes landing there.(Up top of Orient Heights you’ll also find much of Eastie’s established leadership : John Nucci, Carlo Basile, Salvatore Lamattina, Paul Travaglini, Tom DePaulo, Nick Lanzilli, and Dom Amara (my friend of almost 50 years).
The East Boston that my Aunt returned to had hardly changed in those 50 years. No one cared to build in it, except for suburban-style homes in parts of Orient Heights, because no one was moving into Boston, they were moving out, away from a center city that had no vision of what a center city should or could be. There are many who like things that way : no change, only stability. But life is change, and change means noise and flux and new things replacing old things, the unfamiliar overtaking the familiar.
The trick is to like the unfamiliar, the noisy, the restless, and, in East Boston’s case, the many varieties of it all. This we now have.
We live with harbor fog, three yacht clubs, jet engine screams, criss-crossing traffic in Maverick Square, bumpy road surfaces, a speedway on upper Bennington Street, the Bremen Street dog park, Excel Academy; the impossibility of driving through Saratoga Street as it crosses Chelsea Street; banquets at Spinelli’s, block parties (Montmorenci Avenue, Zumix End of Summer !), festivals of all kinds; art exhibits at the Artists’ Collective on Border Street; events and meetings at Maverick Landing, many of them sponsored by the activists of NOAH (Neighborhood of Affordable Housing); and even some after-life : respects to the dead at Joe Ruggiero’s Funeral Home.
We also live with under-performing schools, neighborhood associations that face all sorts of development proposals, parking squeezes, and sometimes violent crime. I have a dear friend who was almost killed a few years ago by a mugger whose family I also know. Most of us have a crime story to tell, though few, I hope, have experienced the sort of shock I just told you of.
But every City neighborhood has its grave difficulties. For the most part, today’s East Boston is a story of dynamism and community. And great food.
What other Boston neighborhood has a Rino’s Place ? A restaurant so crowded, with foodies from all over, that I almost always have to settle for take out. Awesome food, authentic country Italian cooking, in huge huge portions, priced reasonably, in a smallish room on the first floor of a three decker (!) sited right in the middle of an entirely residential area ! (If one is really lucky, one can dine at Rino’s with house-music DJ Chris Puopolo, who owns a two-fam almost around the corner.)
Hispanic restaurants, you say ? Eastie has more than one can count. I’ve eaten at El Pinol, Angela’s Cafe, El Paisa, Bohemio’s, and Punto Rojo, and there’s at least five or six others that I intend to get to. Plus the Brazilian Olivieros steak houses (two locations). (We do lack a good seafood joint. D’Amelio’s Off the Boat, now moved to Revere Street in Revere, is much missed.) There’s also Hispanic cultural blow-outs at Veronica Robles’s digs at 175 McLellan Highway — everybody participates, even State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Francisco Urena, who, yes, lives among us.
What can I praise about Jeffries Point that you don’t already know ? Former City Councillor Diane Modica still lives on a narrow street in the ‘hood. Do does the legendary MaryEllen Welch. There’s three, maybe four, must-visit eateries (Cunard, Reel House at The Eddy, Marketplace Cafe, TacoMex); water-frontage if you live on the Marginal Street side of Webster Street; cute two-level row houses on Everett Street; Zumix and its musical magic; Senior events at the DeFronzo Center hosted by Pat D’Amore, Frances Piantedosi, Lulu Montanino, and Jean Rutledge; outdoor movies in Brophy Park, courtesy of Mary Cole; condos and more condos, some of them brokered by Ryan Persac or Andrew Pike; Chiarra’s auto repair shop on Maverick; friendship and food at the Italian Express on Sumner Street; several European-quality food and drink markets (have you visited the one on Everett at the Corner of Cottage ?); Renee Scalfani and her posse hanging out on middle Sumner Street; tiny row-house cul de sacs like Cheever Court and Webster Avenue; and the many delights that await you in Piers Park. (If you like sailing, Jeffries resident Alex DeFronzo is there to get you started, boat and all.) And what about watching Boston Harbor Fireworks from the park next to Brigham Street ? Plus a yacht club with a playground right next door.
I say that these are great years for Eastie, and they are; savor them, because things are changing enormously. The Hispanic families that live six and seven to an apartment, whose adults work crazy hours, are in many cases saving money so they can buy a home elsewhere, away from MS 13 and its dangers and from poorly performing public schools. The Boston building boom inundates Eastie with young, well paid professionals who will surely continue to buy up homes that come onto the Eagle Hill market (even more thoroughly than in Jeffries Point). The old Italian, Irish, and French Canadian-name families get older and older. In much of Eastie’s central part one finds them — children long since moved away — on the voter lists, age 75, 80, 85, 90, even 95 and 100. Soon they will not be with us.
There are plenty of younger people from similar families still living in East Boston, but for those not lucky enough to have inherited home ownership of a single on middle Bennington or on Monmouth, a two on Moore or Homer Street, or a three on Lexington or Princeton Streets, skyrocketing rents have pressured them to the uttermost. How long can families earning the Boston median income — $ 58,000 — continue to support rents upward of $ 2,000 per apartment ?
No one knows the future; yet the East Boston that I see in year 2037 will surely feature more five-story, poorly built tenement-like “units” than formerly, less parking than needed, almost no new single family homes with a driveway. Can the current bustle and jumble of Maverick Square, including a bar like Eddie C’s, survive the tech world’s love of spread sheet order ? I wonder.
Will the young, single people of Jeffries Point stay in Boston as they marry and have children ? Past trends say “no.” About the only feature of 2037 East Boston that I will faithfully replay our neighborhood’s tradition is our immigrant presence. East Boston long ago became the City’s major port of entry for immigrants, and it still is that. Newcomers from the Middle East, Central America, Albania, Romania, and Brazil make their presence known. Where will 2037’s immigrants come from ? Probably from everywhere, as usual and as it should be in a neighborhood — and a nation — made by immigrants, of immigrants, and for immigrants.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere