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Foot Tour No. 2: The Old City -- North End Portion

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I finished up the Old City tour with the North End portion, in the middle of a weekend in which I mostly did nothing else other than work. I had never spent much time in the North End before, other than darting in for a meal or two here and there. It has a reputation for being a tourist magnet, and so I’ve tended to stay away. However, I found it quite delightful. I got a gorgeous day, perfect for wandering, and enjoyed myself the most so far of any of the foot tours.


47. Quincy Market

Why, yes, it is always that crowded with tourists. There are street performers who do shows in front of the steps. The shows seem to consist of thwarting busy professionals when they are trying to dart into Quincy Market to grab something to eat in the middle of a 14-hour workday. NOT THAT THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME. Anyway, the building was built in 1826 in the Greek Revival style. The book says it’s sometimes called “New Faneuil Hall.” It’s not called that anymore, that I’ve ever heard. It’s always Quincy Market.

This photo was just for jlrpuck, that’s all.

48. Union Oyster House

Aw, look, it says “ye olde!” Anyway, I have heard this is the oldest restaurant in the country. The book doesn’t mention this. It just refers to it was “Boston’s renowned sea-food restaurant.” The restaurant, as you can see from the sign, dates from 1826, but the building it sits in dates from the early 1700s. “The lower floor contains very old semi-private eating-booths, and a small bar at which Daniel Webster used to drop in for a toddy on cold days.” The book states that “several other excellent restaurants in the vicinity are located in less historic buildings.” The area immediately around Union Oyster House is not considered to be a great restaurant area these days. There are some bars around there, but not any place remarkable to eat. I will say that my parents took me here for my 24th birthday, which happened to coincide with the eve of my graduation from law school. That is a very warm memory. And I cannot believe it was five years ago already.

The Union Oyster House is located opposite Boston’s Holocaust Memorial, which obviously did not exist in 1937.

49. Boston Stone

The Boston Stone, dating from 1737, was “used as the starting-point for the measurement of mileages from Boston.” The book says it “is embedded in the back wall of the last building on the right, just around the corner of the side alley.” I looked all over for this stone, walking up and down the street, ducking into alleys, and I could just not locate it. I could have sworn I’d seen it before, but maybe I’m just entirely wrong. So here’s a photo of the street instead.

There was a film crew scoping the street out, which I totally understand, because I love this street. Also, here’s a photo of the Ebenezer Hancock house, the only house left in Boston associated with John Hancock. The book doesn’t think it important enough to mention. I find that weird, but I’ve loved Hancock ever since “Johnny Tremain,” where he is a handsome young man beset by constant headaches, and my love is only increased by his character in “1776,” when he has that great line where he tells Adams, “I’m still from Massachusetts.”

The book moves me from here into the North End proper. Not long ago, this wasn’t a walk you could really do, because the highway cut directly through the center of the city. Thanks to the Big Dig, the largest public works project since the pyramids in Egypt, the highway has been re-located to underground, and the North End has been reunited with the rest of the city by a series of absolutely gorgeous parks called the Rose Kennedy Greenway (after John, Bobby, and Ted’s mother). The Big Dig hasn’t helped traffic that much and, in fact, terrifies me for the portion of it that’s under the Harbor, but I am absolutely in love with the Rose Kennedy Greenway. On hot days in the summertime, little kids dart through all the fountains in bathing suits, giggling. On the particular Sunday I did this tour, people were sprawled at benches and tables all up and down the park, reading the paper and drinking coffee. It’s almost a utopian slice of public space.

Hanover Street

Hanover Street was in 1937, and still is, “the main thoroughfare of the Italian North End.” The book tells me that the North End used to be “favored by wealthy sea captains.” I never knew that. As the book explains, “the finest houses are gone.” The book tells me to look for “old wooden dwellings, flush with the street between cheap modern brick tenements, Italian food stores, and clothing shops.” But I didn’t see any. Nowadays, the North End is full of notoriously narrow streets (some of them so narrow you can’t fit a car), lots of gentrified apartments (its proximity to the Financial District helps), and TONS of Italian restaurants (the ones on Federal Hill in Providence are better, fyi). The book says that “the North End is one of the most congested sections in any major American city,” and it still maintains a claustrophobic feeling, from the tight parking situation to the flocks of tourists that make the sidewalks virtually un-navigable.

50. Paul Revere’s House

This house was already a hundred years old when Paul Revere moved into it, and it “is the only 17th-century structure now standing in downtown Boston.” There are conflicting reports about whether the house was built in 1660 or 1676, with the book favoring the latter date because of evidence that a previous structure on the site was destroyed in the fire that tore through Boston in 1676, and that the house was rebuilt that year. In 1908, the Paul Revere Memorial Association restored the house and opened it to the public. I will let the book discuss the architecture, which, as you know, is the author’s favorite topic: “Characteristic of the medieval influence which dominated all seventeenth-century architecture in Massachusetts, it has the overhanging second story with ornamental drops or pendrils, the small casements with diamond-shaped panes, and a simple floor plan with massive end chimney.” You can tour the house, which I did in high school. I didn’t go inside on this trip. The book tells me the house consists of “four rooms and an attic,” and that most of its furniture is not Revere’s.

A bit of the North End for you:

A new building, which looks so out of place to me.

Another newer building, up against the cheap brick tenements from the early twentieth century that the book complains about.

A street, decked out for a feast. They are always decked out for a feast here.

Salem Street

The book describes this street thus: “Narrow at best, it is so crowded with pushcarts laden with fruits and vegetables that locomotion is difficult. Here is the heart of the Italian quarter, noisy, garrulous, good-natured, and vital.” As you can see, that is no longer the case. Salem Street is a bit off the beaten path, and no one would be here at all were it not for the very famous church on it.

51. Old North Church

You know the poem, right? Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere… Well, here, is the steeple where the two-if-by-sea lanterns were hung.

The church dates from 1723. The steeple present today is not the one where the lanterns were hung. That one blew over in 1804. Its replacement was blown over by Hurricane Carol in 1954, so this steeple is twice removed from the original. The first replacement steeple was lower than the original by 16 feet. I have no idea if the second replacement steeple is still lower than the original. However, whether lower or not, today the steeple of Old North Church still dominates the skyline of the North End. When you look out over the North End, it’s a bunch of flat buildings with a steeple rising from the middle of it. It’s obvious to see why it was the steeple that was chosen for the patriots’ signal.

Prior to my doing this foot tour, I had never been inside the Old North Church. It’s kind of lovely. The book snipes that it is “obviously the product of untrained men,” but I thought it was pretty in there. I spent a while wandering through it and learned a lot that the book didn’t bother to tell me about.

The four cherubim around the organ were pirates’ booty, seized by a Boston privateer and donated to the church.

The pews are little boxes that cost something around $10,000 a year in our money (I think; I didn’t take notes).


Lafayette said this bust was the best likeness of George Washington he had ever seen.

This just amused me.

As for the story of the lanterns, they were hung by Robert Newman, the caretaker of the church, as a signal to Revere and a whole coterie of other riders who spread the alarm (most of them more successfully than Revere, who was already so closely guarded by the British army that he didn’t get very far before he was captured). The lanterns shown for less than a minute, but it was enough for everyone—revolutionaries and British army—to see, in part because the British had imposed a curfew, so the sudden lighting of the church steeple after dark was startling in a city that should have been silent and still.

Joseph Warren was a young doctor active in the Revolution, who was killed at Bunker Hill. According to “Johnny Tremain,” he and Revere were good friends. The fact that Revere named a son after him would seem to support that. My favorite scene in “Johnny Tremain” is actually between Revere and Warren, when Revere is heading out on his famous ride, and Warren teases him about falling off his horse: “He was always ragging Revere about falling off horses. It was some old joke between them which Johnny did not know, and both the men suddenly began to laugh. The mood between them had been heavy when Johnny came in, but now it lightened. They parted as casually as any friends who believe they will meet in a few days. But each knew the other was in deadly peril of his life. It was ten o’clock.”

And then, on my way out of the North End, I got caught up in a random parade.



Current Location:
rocking chair
Current Music:
"Amazing Race"
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On September 28th, 2009 01:35 am (UTC), frakup commented:
Sometimes I still have a hard time thinking of (historical) Boston as a real place. It's all stories and myth to me as someone who has never lived any place with serious history. Still enjoying this very much!

p.s. The photo link to the bust is a repeat of the one of the pew.
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On September 28th, 2009 02:09 am (UTC), earlgreytea68 replied:
Oops, fixed now!

And it's nice to live among the historical buildings all the time. It reminds you that it really did all happen, you know?
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On September 28th, 2009 01:42 am (UTC), stormarrow commented:
Ahhhh Quincey Market. Where I first had bubble tea as a child, and a place that my family always goes to when we visit my sister. My parents lived in Boston for years while my Dad went to Tufts, and my sister went to BU and now works for them. This is the best city to visit imo. =)
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On September 28th, 2009 02:10 am (UTC), earlgreytea68 replied:
It's a great city to live in, too. ;-)
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On September 28th, 2009 10:39 am (UTC), stormarrow replied:
I'm not a snow person or a cold weather person really (the weather in Jersey is bad enough lol) so i don't think I could live there (besides that, I'm more of a country/suburbs person lol). But I love visiting.
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On September 28th, 2009 01:47 am (UTC), azriona commented:
Oh, but the Rose Kennedy Greenway is lovely! I remember seeing the drawings of it ten years ago when it was still a highway, and you had to cross under to get to the North End from Quincy Market. And thinking, "Nah, that would be nice, no way will it actually happen." And there it is. :)

But my question is - did you stop in Mike's Pastry for cannoli?
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On September 28th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC), earlgreytea68 replied:
Isn't it, though? I remember having the same thought, that it was never going to happen. I'm so pleased I was proven wrong on that front.

I actually did not stop for cannoli. I know, I fail. But I did buy myself fresh mozzarella from a little shop.
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On September 28th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC), azriona replied:
*sigh* Okay, fine, I forgive you. THIS TIME. But next time you're up there, I want one chocolate-dipped cannoli, or you will never hear the end of it.
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On September 28th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC), beatlejessie commented:
These walking tours just reaffirm the fact that I need to visit Boston some day! I love old cities, and everything I've seen from all of your pics and tours just looks lovely :)
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On September 29th, 2009 12:37 am (UTC), earlgreytea68 replied:
Thanks! Boston's really beautiful, you should definitely visit if you can!
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On September 28th, 2009 07:38 am (UTC), capemaynuts commented:
I so love your walking tours. I wish i could find a tour book like yours for my area. It would make a great project for my dd's Girl Scout troop. So much fun to compare 1937 and today.
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On September 29th, 2009 12:38 am (UTC), earlgreytea68 replied:
They do have one for every state, and I actually managed to find the one for Rhode Island (my home state) on Amazon. If you search WPA and your state's name, you might have luck. And, if you buy the re-print and not the authentically old one, you could probably buy used for fairly cheap.
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On September 29th, 2009 04:38 am (UTC), ladymcclellan commented:
The Quincy market would then bear a striking resemblance to the Public Market in Seattle. Everyone here adores the market, but if you work downtown you can't go there for lunch unless you know the owner of the place you are going, they have your food ready for you, they save you a seat, and you are willing to elbow aside tourists like a professional hockey player. Even then it is PACKED with tourists mid-day of every day of the week. So if you ever come to Seattle (and if you do I've got a spare room for you), I'll take you to the market in the morning right as its opening, that's when its the best. Maybe the Quincy is the same?
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On September 30th, 2009 12:28 am (UTC), earlgreytea68 replied:
It is always packed with tourists. However, while there are sit-down restaurants, the most crowded--and the places I'm going to--are the fast food ones. It's weird.
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On October 1st, 2009 12:36 am (UTC), earlgreytea68 replied:
Yes! Come back! I'll show you all of this! This is what I did while you were flying back to St. Louis (boo)!

Um. Look at the chest hair in your icon. Mmmm....
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