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Coming to America – Again: A Tribute

North_End,_BostonAccording to Census figures, the foreign (and mainly Italian) born population of the North End in 1930 was 18,686 (67%) out of a total population of 27,818.

In 1950, it was 4,779 (29.7%) out of a total of 16,064. However, in 1970, there were 6,303 (62%) people who listed “Italy” as their country of birth, out of a total population of 10,134. While the census show dramatic drop in the overall population of the North End, both in terms of the total population and that of the foreign born, the percentage of new immigrants to native born Italians was roughly the same in 1970 (62%) as it was in 1930 (67%). In other words, there were a lot of Italians coming to the North End after World War II.

This is no surprise to many of us from the North End and the Boston area, because we are either from the post-World War II wave or know somebody from it (I was born here, but about 30% of the kids I went to school with at St. Anthony’s were right from Italy). However, it does come to a surprise to many in the academic world because they assume that immigration from Italy to the United States occurred only before WWII and not after it – or if it did, it was insignificant and insubstantial.

Part of this academic assumption rests on the fact that Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act), did cut off the massive flow of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe into the United States. The law restricted immigration from all countries to 2% of the number of people from those countries living in the United States in 1890. This meant, of course, that the percentage of immigrants coming from Northern Europe would remain higher than those coming from other countries, including those from Southern and Eastern Europe (e.g. immigration from Great Britain and Ireland fell 19%; immigration from Italy fell 90%!). World War II slowed even this permitted immigration to a trickle, and we can see the effects of this in the census data for 1950, where only 29.7% of the North End’s population was foreign born.

Exceptions to the law for reuniting families and for refugees were made in the mid-1950s, and then the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 completely removed the old quota system and instead allowed immigrants in on the grounds of their skills and family relations to U.S. citizens, with a maximum of 170,000 per year per country (not counting those with family relations). This lifting of the restriction applied to Italians as well as others, and results in the North End show in the 1970 census.

Overall, it is estimated that about 200,000 Italians came to the United States after World War II to live permanently. The patterns of this post-War immigration were the same as for the North End as they were for the U. S. as a whole, and is typically divided into two post-War waves: one from 1945 to about 1985, and another from 1990 to the present.

The first post-War wave (1945-1985) is really very much a continuity of the pre-War immigration. Many of the new immigrations from the first post-War wave had family living here in the U.S (and the North End), and war-torn Italy was still very much the land of La Miseria, still a hard place to life (though not necessarily an easy place to leave). Thus, in general, the post-War immigrants often came from desperate conditions, came as a family, and came finding support with relatives and paesani in the United States.

Immigration slowed a little in the 1980s. Italians stayed in Italy or migrated from the south to the north, or to other parts of Europe. The Italian economy was much stronger than at any time in the last two centuries; education levels were much higher; and Italy was attracting immigrants not bleeding them. But with economic and political stagnation increasing in the late 90s, the so-called “brain drain” of Italy began as Italians came to the United States (and elsewhere) seeking professional employment opportunities.

These “new” Italian immigrants were coming from a different Italy and to a different America. They came as individuals or with small families and they did not settle in Italian enclaves like the North End, which, as we know, and in any case, were fading away – though slower for the North End than for other Italian neighborhoods. They viewed the Italian/Italian American culture that emerged out of the old immigrants as a bit old fashioned, out of place, and unfamiliar. Yet they made connections, particularly in the North End, where they come to shop or eat or watch soccer. So there is a connection here too.

The first wave of immigration, from, let’s say 1880 to 1930, established the foundations of what would become Italian America. The next wave, from about 1945 to 1985, replenished that first wave, adding numbers to and reinforcing Italian values and ideals. The most recent wave, from 1990, is not so much replenishing the older population (as they are relatively small in number, perhaps 1,000 in the Boston area), but in their own way reinforcing it – and Italian Americans in general – by new efforts.

The best example of this is Bostoniano. Its creator, Nicola Orichuia, is a member of the “new” immigration. As he told me when I first spoke to him last year, his admiration for the old wave Italian immigrants and what we contributed to the building of America prompted him to follow and write about the Italian American communities in America. One of his premier goals for the website and magazine is to build a bridge between the old and the new immigrants – as well as between the various old immigrant communities in the Boston area. We already know a little more about one another because of Bostoniano.

I won’t tell Nicola’s life story here. For one I don’t know it all; for another, even if I did, I have not asked his permission to do so (and he is my ‘boss’ after all). But I wanted to mention what he has accomplished and is accomplishing with this website and magazine. It is a tribute to Italians of both old and new immigrations. For this we thank him.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.

One comment

  1. Sarah Salvo Blood

    We are enjoying reading your articles in the Bostoniano about the Italian experience in America, particularly the North End. We have great memories having lived there for five years during the 70’s as do my daughters. Just last week we were talking to my Chinese neighbor about “Street Corner Society”. What triggered our discussion was her telling us how much she has enjoyed visiting the North End while having some fresh pastry and coffee early in the morning and observing the interaction among the men at the cafes, and also the narrow winding streets and buildings’ designs.