Read an Excerpt
From the book's preface:
The North End I found in the late 1970s was still an intact, self-contained neighborhood of multi-storied brick tenement houses with walk-up apartments, a vibrant community where people walked the streets and elders gathered on corners and in parks speaking regional dialects of Calabrese, Napoletano, Siciliano, and Abruzzese. Open-air fruit and vegetable stands, family-run bakeries named "Boschetto," "Drago," and "Parziale," meat markets, pastry shops, religious society clubhouses with figures of patron saints painted on street-level windows, and corner barbershops lined the narrow streets, reminiscent of the rural southern Italian villages the immigrants had left behind at the turn of the century. . . .
The idea of preserving the neighborhood's history came to me as I listened to a woman recounting how she had to leave school at age 14 to help support her large family, a story similar to my mother's own childhood experience in New Haven. When she articulated what it felt like to step on a scale for weekly weigh-ins under the watchful eyes of officials while wearing a lead-filled undergarment fitted by her parents so she could satisfy the labor-law weight requirements for working children in 1925, it inspired me to start my own kind of neighborhood history project.
Encouraged by Jim, I began interviewing the elderly in either English or Italian. These tape-recorded sessions took place during my many visits to their old-fashioned cold water flats where we often conversed at kitchen tables warmed from the heat of an opened oven door, sipping espresso,or talked in living rooms decorated with pictures of saints, or--during summer months--conducted our conversations amid their rooftop vegetable gardens. Some interviews were recorded during casework conversations at the Drop-In Center, during those troubling moments when old people faced eviction from their homes--the distressing underside beneath the glitter of the "New Boston" not reported by the news media. Prior to the skyrocketing values of real estate and condominium conversion in the North End, the idea of facing a sudden steep rent hike or being evicted by the landlord was unfamiliar and hardly understood in Italian-speaking households. In my daily walks around the neighborhood, I also recorded lively street conversations in local parks and on corners where the elderly gathered, in their cellars where they made wine, and at their summertime religious festivals.