Ask anyone about Boston’s North End, and you’ll get solemn intonations about the historic Freedom Trail that runs through the narrow streets, breathless raves about the endless number of mouthwatering Italian restaurants lining the main drags, and…probably not much else. Recently, however, this classically Old World neighborhood has taken on a distinctly more modern and diverse vibe. The trattorias, salumerias and open-air cafes where residents gather to drink espresso and swap stories are all still there and thriving, but they’ve been joined by businesses that would once have been quite out of place in the North End.
In the mood for a pint of Guinness and a tasty plate of bangers and mash? Looking for a hip boutique selling vintage dresses, the perfect pair of designer jeans or high-end cosmetics? Then welcome to the new North End—a neighborhood embracing the idea that one cannot live on calzones and cannolis alone.
Alison Barnard was at the forefront of the North End’s commercial facelift, when she opened her denim store Injeanius (441 Hanover St., 617-523-JEAN) two years ago on a rare quiet stretch of Hanover Street. She says that the North End fit her business plan for a number of reasons. “It’s a close-knit community, and as such is very safe for women—consequently, a ton of women live down here,” she says. “Young women, conscious of how they look, living in an area where there were no real boutiques—it seemed like a perfect fit.”
So perfect, in fact, that Barnard has thrived sufficiently to open a second shop—a more mature, nightlife-inspired boutique called Twilight—a couple blocks down at 12 Fleet St. (617-523-8008). She says both shops have drawn an audience ranging from college students to senior citizens and the locals have adopted the shops wholeheartedly. “I see lots of familiar faces as I walk the streets of the North End,” Barnard laughs. “Sometimes I feel like I know each and every female who lives here.”
On Hanover Street, where Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry loom like twin Sirens, seducing passers-by in to gorge themselves on their delectable range of Italian pastries, it would seem like reckless folly for a new bakery to stake its claim. However, baker Sandy Russo—proprietress of the just more than a year old Lulu’s Bake Shoppe (227 Hanover St., 617-720-2200)—feels that her establishment fills a different niche than the aforementioned titans.
“We specialize in the Americanized stuff—cupcakes, brownie squares, cheesecakes—done in an old-fashioned way,” she says, before adding, “Of course, we do have to have some cannolis and Italian cookies, or you lose a lot of business on this street!”
Russo, a chef-turned-baker who’s lived in the North End for 20 years, says that her shop’s location toward the front of the neighborhood’s busiest commercial street has been phenomenal for attracting tourists, but that it’s been capturing the hearts of the everyday residents that’s given the most satisfaction. “People here are very loyal to their favorite bakery, but since we have a different focus, we’ve been able to get along. When we opened, there was a little resistance, but I’m feisty,” she laughs. “We won them over.”
Restaurateur Dan McMyler’s North End establishment—an Irish pub called Goody Glover’s (50 Salem St., 617-367-6444)—may seem like an anachronism in a neighborhood that stands as Boston’s equivalent of New York’s “Little Italy.” However, the nearly two-year-old gastropub actually could be called an “extreme throwback” for the North End, which was, in the 1800s, a heavily Irish neighborhood.
“We wanted something different in this space,” says McMyler, an Irishman himself. “So, I did some research, found out about Goody Glover [an Irish woman from the North End who was the last woman hung as a witch in Boston, in 1688], so we became an Irish pub.”
McMyler says that about “80 percent of our business is probably locals—a lot of restaurant workers and young professionals.” While he says some of the neighborhood’s diehard Italians had concerns that Goody Glover’s would “somehow dilute the integrity of an Italian neighborhood, we don’t play up the Irishness. We don’t fly the flag, or anything.
“People sometimes raise their eyebrows at change, “ says McMyler, “but it’s good for the neighborhood to have a place where you can just get a burger or a reasonably-priced martini. I think we’re a sign of the times.”
For Lorrinda Cerrutti—who opened retro-chic boutique The Velvet Fly (424 Hanover St., 617-557-4FLY) with business partner BethAnn Hoyos one month ago—being situated in the North End was a perfect fit with the overall concept of the shop. “We’re a mixture of modern and vintage fashions, and that’s really what the North End is—it’s an old neighborhood with a lot of younger people moving in all the time,” says Cerrutti.
The Velvet Fly resides at the quieter far end of Hanover, past many of the neighborhood’s well-known restaurants—where many a business has failed in the past due to lack of exposure. (Barnard, for one, recalls that when she opened Injeanius, she was warned that “people won’t go down that far.” “But I knew that women will walk an extra block to check out a store they’ve read about,” she says, grinning.) Cerrutti feels, however, that “More businesses will be coming down here, and so will people.”
Just across the street from The Velvet Fly, resides another of the North End’s newest businesses—A Matter of Face (425 Hanover St., 617-74-BLUSH), a beauty boutique owned and operated by Paula Tierney. Tierney says that the North End has been tremendously welcoming to her—not just customers, but also the business community.
“On my first day in business, I think almost every woman business owner in the neighborhood came in to welcome me—and quite a few of them bought stuff,” Tierney laughs. “Two gentlemen who’ve lived in the neighborhood forever offered to put up ad flyers down around the waterfront—these are people I don’t even know.
“Other businesses send customers my way, and I do the same,” she adds. “That’s what makes this area really thrive—there’s a great deal of cooperation and support.”
The North End isn’t total nirvana for retailers—all the shop owners bemoan the lack of parking in the neighborhood, and there’s still the struggle to get visitors to keep walking down Hanover Street once the glut of restaurants begins to thin out. But overwhelmingly, one gets the sense that these newcomers to one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods are excited about the transformative effect they’re having, and anxiously awaiting new neighbors to join them in making the North End about more than just garlic, grappa and gnocchi.
“The diversification of the North End is
great,” says Barnard. “More people will be
coming here than ever, because they have
more reasons to do so—history, retail, great
food. A rapidly transforming neighborhood
like this is just a really fun place to be.”
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