North End Old Home and New

Just another UMass Boston Blogs site

November 9, 2012
by mary.simone

Immigration of Italians to the North End began in the late 19th and early 20th century and continued up to the 1950s. Today, the neighborhood maintains an ethnic and cultural identity represented in Italian shops restaurants, and religious feasts. Although there are pockets of aging descendants of Italian immigrants who continue to live in the neighborhood, there are more heritage than native Italian speakers in the North End. The Italian spoken by
North Enders includes standardized Italian, but mostly it is a vernacular drawn from the several dialects of immigrants who once settled there. The vernacular has a limited linguistic range due to infrequent internal interaction with Italian speakers within the neighborhood.1 This paper begins with a brief overview of the social and political factors behind the development of bilingualism in the North End; the factors that sustained bilingualism for
so long; and the factors that have contributed to its diminished use, but not its loss of status in the neighborhood. The evolution and devolution of Italian as lingua franca of the North End can provide some insight into how bilingualism is unable to survive challenges from a changing socio-economic and political landscape without particular scaffolding.
I believe that language is an integral part of the immigrant and the heritage speaker’s identity. In the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century waves of immigrants, including my family came
to Boston from Italy and settled in the North End. I am witness to how the identity of immigrant and heritage speakers are reconciled with English in a community because social, political, and educational scaffolding respect dual languages and cultures. Support for bilingual education has fluctuated widely since the Bilingual Education Act passed in 1968. Readings in this course have confirmed my belief in the value of bilingualism. My background and experience
argue against English-only laws passed in California and Arizona. English only advocates increasingly point to bilingual students’ poor performance on both English and standardized subject tests as justification for dismantling bilingual programs. Since being bilingual has never been a cognitive load on my ability to learn, I would challenge English only leadership to look at how the interrelationship of variables such as teacher pedagogy, curriculum, and community involvement contribute to student performance before they dismantle bilingual programs to replace them with English immersion programs.

The social and political landscape of America today is unlike what Italian immigrants experienced in the North End  during the late 19th and early 20th century. After they arrived, Italian immigrants in the North End attached themselves to the customs and language of the old home as they gradually acculturated to the customs and language of  their new home. Adaptation was facilitated largely by governmental and non-profit institutional support and free  English language education. As a result of multiple prongs  of socio-economic and educational scaffolding, the immigrant in the North End used two languages interchangeably, which enabled him to validate both  American and Italian identities through social engagement within and outside the neighborhood.

There are many factors that contributed to the development, sustainment and diminishment of bilingualism
in the North End.

  1. From 1860 Italian immigrants and their descendants increasingly populated the neighborhood of less than one  square mile. In 1930 its population peaked at 44,000.2
  2. Government and social service organizations such as the public library, the North Bennet Industrial School, the North End Union, the public health clinic, religious schools, churches interacted with residents in both English and Italian.3
  3. In 1920, The Sacco Vanzetti incident raised local government awareness of potential ethnic unrest and violence in the North End after two non-English speaking Italian immigrants were convicted of robbery and murder were convicted and condemned to death based on circumstantial evidence and character profiling as anarchists. It may be that the government were cautious of the risk of imposing a divisive English-only policy
    on Italians which might push the expression of their political and social ideas underground and stimulate unrest.
  4. In 1921, The Committee on Americanism with the support of Mayor James M Curley published a policy of American and English linguistic coexistence with the expressed intention of unifying the “best” values and
    ideas from American and Italian cultures, albeit their real agenda was obtaining a list America of immigrants who declared political allegiance to one country: America.4
  5. Membership in formal and informal social networks required both English and Italian and code switching within and between two languages. Residents used mostly
    English discourse to access the educational and social services they needed for their families, and Italian and/or a mix of Italian, dialects and English for their
    interactions with friends and family. 5
  6. Religious sodalities in St. Mary’s, St. Johns, St. Leonard’s and Sacred Heart churches, fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus, and the Sons
    of Italy, and informal social networks such as families, paesans, men’s social clubs, and “street corner
    society” made code switching common between English andItalian frequent since members of these groups were  intergenerational.
  7. By 1950 the number of foreign born immigrants in the North End diminished by one-third due to limits on
    immigration, and possibly due to lack of housing. From 1940 to 1950 for second and third generation residents to leave the neighborhood ( -34% drop in population for
    ages 24-34; -19% for ages 35-57; and -23.5 for ages  58-67) 6
  8. The Italian American “dialect” in the North End evolved over the years from several Italian dialects to a
    combination of Italianized English or pidgin drawn from the different Italian dialects spoken by immigrant  residents and their descendants still remaining in the neighborhood.
  9. Building of the Causeway overpass in 1950 separated the North End from Haymarket, and increased the insularityof its particular dialect
  10. The numbers of native or heritage speakers and their descendants have continued to dwindle to the present
    day. The linguistic range and repertoire of the remaining Italian vernacular has been further reduced as a result of diminished internal interactions and
    codification of their “dialect,” However, attachment of the neighborhood to the Italian cultural identity has remained strong up to today.
  11. The demolition of the causeway overpass has opened up the North End, making it more a tourist destination for visitors and a convenient residence for professional Bostonians.


In 1860, Italian immigrants moved into the North End  and within 20 years had replaced almost all the Eastern  European Jews and Irish living in dilapidated tenement houses. In 1890, the population of the North End was so  predominantly Italian that it was dubbed “Little Italy.” A  historian during this period noted his consternation and disdain that Italian had replaced his mother tongue of English.   Nowhere in Boston has Father Time wrought such ruthless changes,
as in this highly respectable quarter, now swarming with Italians in  every dirty nook and corner. In truth, it is hard to believe the  evidence of our own senses, though the fumes of garlic are sufficiently
convincing. Past and Present confront each other here with a stare of  blank amazement, in the humble Revere homestead, on one side, and the  pretentious Hotel Italy on the other; nor do those among us, who [know]
something of its vanished prestige, feel at all home in a place whereour own mother-tongue no longer serves us. 7

Any disdain that Americans had for Italian immigrants during the late 19th century was countered with benevolence from social service organizations and wealthy philanthropists who funded programs that taught English to Italians to help them adjust to their new life in America. By 1910 the North Bennet Industrial School turned into a settlement house due to the rising rate of immigration. In order to help newly arrived immigrants to transition into
the neighborhood, the North Bennet School began offering English classes for immigrants in 1909 and by 1911 served 1100 students.8

Any disdain that Americans had for Italian immigrants  during the late 19th century was countered with benevolence from social service organizations and wealthy
philanthropists who funded programs that taught English to Italians to help them adjust to their new life in America. By 1910 the North Bennet Industrial School turned into a settlement house due to the rising rate of immigration. In order to help newly arrived immigrants to transition into the neighborhood, the North Bennet School began offering English classes for immigrants in 1909 and by 1911 served  1100 students.8
In 1921 the Committee for Americanism of Boston published “A little Book for immigrants in Boston.” The book listed 42,932 Italian born immigrants and 29,884
“natives who are children of fathers born there” or heritage speakers.9 Most of these Italians lived in theNorth End. The tone of the book is fatherly, even patronizing. Mayor James M Curley, who was the son of anIrish immigrant, wrote the introduction to the book.
My Friend,
This little book is written for you. It is a guide book and text
book to help you over the rough places in this new land, to show you
something of our ways, to tell you how to make a home here among us, to
make you feel less lonely, less of a stranger here, and say to you that
you are among friends in a friendly land.
Many of our Boston people are just like you and have had to learn
the things you must learn to be happy and contented in your new home.
They were born in other lands, some in your own land, and they spoke,
like you perhaps, a language other than ours when first they came here;
but in time they went to work; learned to speak, and read our tongue,
learned our ways of working and living, learned something of our laws
and customs and fitted into our life, becoming valuable assets to this
You are now living in a land where the people rule themselves in
a democracy, which is a government of the people, by the people, for
the people and, in order that our government may rule with justice and
honesty and that the citizens who chose the makers and administrators
of our laws, may do so wisely and knowingly, we maintain schools and
libraries for the education of all, day schools for young people and
night schools for young and adult; and these are for you and your
children to use that you may fit yourself and them for the tasks of
American citizenship, that you may learn to know your rights and
privileges as a citizen and what is equally important, understand your
duties and responsibilities.
Life in this republic under our government is a system of give
and take among freemen; and in return for the opportunities and
advantages the country offers you, it expects a return from you of
obedience to the law, loyalty to the flag, a willingness to work in
peace and helpfulness with your neighbors and an effort to make the
land you live in better, happier and more prosperous.
All these things you will learn in this little book and if at
times you are puzzled to understand all that is written in it, if there
is any advice and help you need that you cannot find there, I want you
to come to the Committee for Americanism in its office in the City Hall
Annex, where you will find friends and advisers able and willing to
solve your problems. This committee wishes to keep track of you from
the day you land here until you become a full-fledged citizen, in order
that you may be guided in the right roads you should follow, and
safeguard you and your family until you are able to go alone. Do not
hesitate to come to them in your day of trouble; for they feel, as I
feel, that in helping you to become a good American citizen we are
helping Boston, Massachusetts and the United States. That this book may
be of use and benefit to you and every stranger within our gates is my
sincere hope. Use it and follow its advice freely and our city will be
the better for your betterment.10

The “Little Book” was a “how to” survival manual for immigrants in Boston. It providing them lists of information about their rights to schools, access to social
services and employment opportunities. It invited them to seek help and support from the Committee on Americanism about various public services and benefits. An important function of the committee was to keep tabs on immigrant
populations in Boston. The Sacco and Vanzetti incident happened in 1920 only months before the publication of this book. The incident involved two Italian immigrants who barely spoke any English, who where charged with robbery
and murder based on circumstantial evidence. Their anarchist political affiliation was presented at trial. The “little book” advised immigrants to declare their allegiance to America. However, the tone of the advice was welcoming and conciliatory. The book explained that they could declare their patriotism to America without surrendering their Italian heritage and language. Linguistic and cultural conciliation should be the goal of both bilingual education programs and English only immersion programs.  It is hard to learn a new language well; hard for a tired workingman to go to school in the evening; hard sometimes to renounce his old allegiance and become a citizen in a new land. But the hard things are often the best to do. They bring their reward. Labor are hard, but without labor we should all starve. And what does the immigrant renounce when he takes the oath of American citizenship? He
renounces his political allegiance to a foreign ruler; but he does not renounce his mother tongue or the legends and stories of his childhood. He does not renounce the songs of his fatherland or the scenes and memories of his youth, his love of kindred, and his pride in a sturdy ancestry. America does not ask such a sacrifice of sacred ties from any of her immigrant citizens. America is made up of many
kinds of people, not of one kind only. We are all derived from the Old World and venerate its noble traditions. We are the children of one great human family, trying to live here in friendship, under a new  conception of government.11

The “Little Book” encouraged immigrants to find common ground between their particular cultural values and those of their new country. It emphasized the dual responsibilities of the immigrants to learn English and maintain their native language. It also asked immigrants to declare allegiance to America and preserve the language and customs of their native homelands. Moreover, it
congratulated the immigrants for their courage to learn the new ways, and to assume responsibility for the welfare of the family who would remember and appreciate their efforts.

…[The immigrant]… can be to his own children an
example of all that is best in both countries. He can keep
alive in their hearts a respect for the people from whom they sprang.
Even if his ancestors were poor and uneducated, they may have had
strong traits of character. His country may have had a great past
and produced many heroes who defended its liberty as our heroes
defended ours. His children will be better men and women if they
preserve this spirit of reverence and this attachment for those whose
struggles made them what they are. At the same time he can enter into
the life of the new country and share the enthusiasm of his children
for their interests here. In that way he will serve as an interpreter
between the old and the new. He will be the companion as well as the
guide of his sons and daughters. When he has passed away, each of them
will say, “I am proud of my immigrant father. He gave me every
advantage. He never forgot the home in which he was born across the
seas, but he learned to love the new home here. He spoke English with a
little accent, perhaps, but he was as good an American as any man I
Proponents of bilingual education have accused English-only leadership of racist and anti-immigration sentiments. They argue that an English only policy in schools deprives minority language speakers of many
beneficial psychological, interethnic social, educational, and health outcomes which bilingual education provides them now and which they will need to experience to be able tobetter assist future minorities. 13 Immigrants in the North End received these positive outcomes through community services provided within the schools by government and nonprofit agencies working in the neighborhood. Although the schools were not bilingual,Italian was frequently spoken in school and in the neighborhood. Overall, the communityidentity was culturally and linguistically homogeneous but some degree of bilingualism thrived at home as well as in the schools.

English-only proponents dispute the effectiveness of bilingual programs based on the failure of students tof ulfill required performance criteria on standardized
tests. There is no conclusive evidence that language minority students who are taught in bilingual programs are better able to achieve educational standards. Yet, some
educators conclude that too many children in the general population have been left behind and can not catch up to grade level standards to justify continued funding of bilingual education on the state and national level.14 But
is the Gordian solution to cut funding for bilingual education a remedy or punishment for students with low performance scores in English and other subjects? In the 21st century all teachers in urban areas will
be required to teach culturally and linguistically diverse students in the mainstream classroom. 15 Shouldn’t the argument about reform be based on building a learning context that serves the cognitive and cultural needs of
these demographics? And if the conciliation of the best pedagogies and curricula from English immersion and Bilingual programs is impossible, then should we examine how socio-economic scaffolding for teaching English to
multicultural and multilingual students could contribute to language learning as it did in the North End?

Bilingual programs should include recognition of the “uniquely owned subjectivities” of all students in order to achieve productive educational outcomes that benefit
dominant and minority groups in an increasingly multilingual world.16 Educators who wish to dismantle bilingual programs should direct their attention away from
dismantling bilingual programs, and focus on reforming the curriculum and pedagogy of not only existing bilingual programs, but also English Immersion programs. In fact, no ethnocentric pedagogy has a place in the classroom. English
pedagogy should be informed by knowledge of diverse linguistic backgrounds and cultures of students. Reform for bilingual programs could include:

1. Inclusion of meaningful texts with context embedded
content to reflect to the subjective realities of all
students thereby encouraging self-expression and group
2. Cognitive engagement of students in productive
activities based on comprehensible input relative to
their personal identity, culture and socio-economic
3. Development of not only foundation but critical
thinking skills such as decoding and discourse
strategies to help them negotiate academic challenges
in the classroom and standardized tests, in real life
situations, in the community, and in the world outside
their neighborhoods.
4. Development of teacher knowledge to include diverse
pedagogies in order to address differences in student
learning styles, gender, race and culture, and to
activate of student’s prior knowledge to lessen their
cognitive load.
5. Engagement of schools with the social and cultural
issues important to students, families and the
community to sensitize school personnel such as school
principals and superintendants to student variations
in social class, ethnicity, gender and language to
ensure that school policies and procedures respect
best serve their populations.
Political and economic circumstances shape the conflict between linguistic diversity and linguistic uniformity during different historical periods.20 Not manyresidents of the North End are bilingual today because
immigration from Italy stopped, urban renewal displaced residents from the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is no longer disconnected from Boston. If we want to serve the educational needs of our multilingual and multicultural
students, schools will need to reform teacher pedagogy, and curricula, and communities will need to provide the socioeconomic scaffolding to schools that immigrants value as important.


1 Wardaugh,R.An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
(Blackwell Ltd.:Oxford,2010)(6th ed., pp. 1-53.

2.Nichols, Guild. “North End History- the Italians: Part 5: Boston’s
Little Italy, 1900-Today,” North End History by Guild Nichols, entry posted
October 2011,
3 Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930 Aspiration, Acculturation
and Impact, in the Harvard University Open Collections,

A little Book for Immigrants in Boson (Boston: City of Boston Printing Department,
1921), 1-103,
5 Whyte, William Foote, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum.
4th ed. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1993
6 Frasca,Robert, “The Renewal of the North End of Boston” (master’s thesis,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1959), p. 9.

7 Nichols,Op.cit.

8  North Bennet School,
9  A little Book for Immigrants in Boston (Boston: City of Boston Printing
Department, 1921), p.9,

11 Ibid.p.99.

12 ibid. p.100.
13 Padilla, A et al. (1991).“TheEnglishOnlyMovement:Myths, Reality,and Implications for Psychology”.

14Ravitch, D. and Macedo, D.“Should Bilingual Education be abandoned? YES: Diane Ravitch/NO: Donaldo Macedo.”(1994).
15Jim Cummins, Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education, 2001), and 1-363.
16 Macedo, D.“The Colonialism of English-­Only Movement”in Educational Researcher.(2000)
17 Fivos Christidis, A. “Policies for linguistic and
cultural diversity in the European Union.” (2005).


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