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In Boston’s North End
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By Erla Zwingle Photographs by William Albert Allard

In the face of change, the tight-knit Italian-American North End keeps the accent on good friends and good food.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Outside Johnny & Gino Hairstyling on Hanover Street, the late September morning moved from soggy clouds to brilliantly clear, with a fresh breeze off the harbor and sun glinting from the gold-leafed domes of Boston’s colonial buildings. Inside, Johnny “Shoes ” Cammarata was putting the finishing touches on Rico Federico’s trim, while assorted customers waited their turn.

“I was born here,” Johnny is saying in his broad Boston accent, “but I had to speak Sicilian at home if I wanted to eat.” This would be an important point: His silhouette is clear evidence that his enthusiasm for talking is matched only by his passion for home cooking, not surprising for a man who was born on the kitchen table. “And I’ll die on the table,” he says cheerfully, “with my face in a plate of lasagna. With two meatballs, one on each side.”

Why would a barber be nicknamed Shoes? Because his father was a cobbler, obviously. “We were all called Shoes,” he said. “Joe Shoes, Frankie Shoes.”

He gave intermittent snips as he talked, pausing frequently. “My brother Joe was in Special Class,” Johnny said. “My father used to say, ‘Joe, I’m so proud of you. You’re in Special Class.’ And I’d crack up. Joe’d say, ‘If you ever tell, I’ll kill ya.’ My father didn’t know it was basket weaving. . . .” Parental discipline? Swift and accurate. “My father split my head,” Johnny says, breezing on. “He took the hammer—he was a cobbler, thank God he wasn’t a butcher! I was supposed to clean the shop. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Didn’t do it. Bam! Hammer on the head. “Now go see your uncle”—he was a barber. He cut around the spot and took a lemon and squeezed it on my head. How I ever lived. . . . I said, ‘You didn’t even think twice, Pa.’ I loved him. I LOVED him.”

I always had to stop by Johnny’s shop, even if it was way up at the end of Hanover Street. I’d perch by the big window by his chair, and he’d start: “Whaddya wanna know?” There was always an assortment of clients and friends who seemed to regard Johnny and Gino’s place as a spare room to their own homes. After only a few days I had heard the theme song and its variations: “We never locked our doors. . . .” “Everybody knew everybody. . . . ” “It was safe. . . .” “Everybody shared. . . .” And Johnny’s favorite phrase, which soared as a sort of cadenza above the swelling chorus: “We had nothing, but we had everything.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic Magazine.

Will embracing newcomers dramatically change the old neighborhood? Take a stroll through our forum board.

In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Peddocks Island, located in the southern part of Boston Harbor, served as home to a thousand Italian POWs during World War II. Among the prisoners, around 50 lucky ones were recognized as “trustees.” Trustee status was earned by those who demonstrated good behavior, kept themselves tidy, and followed orders. Being a trustee allowed those prisoners to go places in the prison off-limits to others—such as the recreational facility—and may have even enabled them to jump in the water for a swim. But the most coveted privilege for trustees was the Sunday ferry ride to Boston’s North End. A military ferry would take them to the Italian families who sponsored them and return to Peddocks before dark. Those trips gave the trustees an opportunity to go to Sunday Mass, eat a home-cooked Italian meal, and talk about their life back in the homeland. In the year after the war ended, some 50 marriages took place between those POWs and the daughters or relatives of the sponsoring families.

Boston’s North End Website
An all-inclusive site with some general history of the neighborhood, as well as restaurant and shop listings, entertainment suggestions, and community happenings posted with date and location.

Italian Pride: Celebrating the best Italy has to offer
A father-son team writes about what makes them proud of their ancestors, as well as their Italian heritage in general. You can read their sentiments on Italian culture and history, places, people, and food.

The Best of Boston
This online travel guide includes hotel information, and a restaurant and entertainment guide, as well as travel advice for car rentals, planes and airports, etc.

The Boston Globe
Boston’s largest daily paper maintains a comprehensive website.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
The official website of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism lists a variety of vacation-related information.

Living North End Boston
This site is the North End’s official website with tours, links to area attractions, dining options and local news.


Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Italian-American Family History. Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997.

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. The Italian American Family Album. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Malpezzi, Frances M. and William M. Clements. Italian-American Folklore. August House Pulishers, Inc., 1992.

Richards, David A. J. Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity. New York University Press, 1999.

Sowell, Thomas. Ethnic America: A History. Basic Books, 1981.


Exploring America’s Historic Places. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Ellis, William. “Boston—Breaking New Ground.” National Geographic, July 1994, 2-33.

Barnard, Charles N. “Back to Boston.” National Geographic Traveler, Sept./Oct. 1990, 64-79.


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