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A Modern History Lesson in the North End

Last July, I wrote about North Ender Cotton Mather and his involvement in what is called the “First American Revolution” of 1689. The “second” and more renowned American Revolution took place almost a hundred years later, and it too involved North Enders, like Robert Sexton and Paul Revere, playing a key role. That story is well-known, but it deserves retelling. However, I’m not going to do that here, at least not this year.

Rather, I’d like to point out, truthfully, how oblivious I was to the history and historical sites I walked past every day as a kid.

I knew the history; I studied it in school. But the sites themselves seemed part of a different world, that of the tourists and the visitors to the North End. In fact, I first went into the Old North Church — a site I probably had walked by almost every day before that – when I was about 17, and only then to show it to my cousin Julie who was visiting from Idaho. I really did not know what to tell her about it.

I think my friends were the same. As I said, it is not that we were ignorant of the history, and it is not that we disrespected the American past that nurtured us in the society of the present. But for us, the North End was really a place of the present and the living, not of the past and the dead. We were looking toward the future and hoping for a better one. We were involved in our daily lives, in school, sports, Shaw House, family, and all the other things that make life — alive, living, and vital. That history and those buildings were far from those goals.

This is the only reason I can think of to explain why we did not pay much attention to the historical sites in the North End. Today it is different. Those sites seem more integrated into the present of the North End, maybe because the Italian life of the North End has now moved closer to being a thing of the past.

In this sense, we were like those people of the past, in the North End, who lived in their present and looked toward the future: the ones like Mather and Revere who made history. Maybe we North Enders did not create a country, but we left an impact: the North End itself, as it became and as it remains, a special place, a place of the past and the present.

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.