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“Street Corner Society” revisited

On Jan. 8 of this year, Mario Di Leo and I visited the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Cambridge. The library is home to the archival records of the North Bennet Street Industrial School.

The records run from 1880 to 1973, and include administrative, financial and personnel reports; information on the various school programs (such as Shaw House and Caddy Camp); studies of immigration and Americanization in the North End; letters, scrapbooks and photographs; and a lot more.

SCS_1943 englishMario and I were looking for something in particular: folder IIAviii:39, titled “Correspondence re: “Street Corner Society,” 1944.” To explain why we were looking for this folder, I’ll have to say something more about “Street Corner Society,” as well as the Catherwood Library Kheel Center of Cornell University, which holds additional information about the North Bennet School, “Street Corner Society,” and the North End. I’ll return to the folder after I do this.

While I am sure that some of you have read or heard about “Street Corner Society,” the book is not well known in the North End — nor is it well liked by those who do know it. In fact, it appears to have been largely forgotten in the North End. Yet, to those outside of the North End and in the field of urban, anthropological and sociological studies, the book is considered a “classic.”

It has seen four editions since its publication in 1943, sold over 200,000 copies, and it is still read in introductory courses on sociology and anthropology. It has also been translated into German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and most recently — in 2010 — into Swedish. The scholar who wrote the introduction to the Swedish translation, Dr. Oscar Andersson, visited Boston and the North End two years ago to speak about the book.

What is it about “Street Corner Society” that cause Dr. Andersson and others to hold it in such high regard?

William Foote Whyte

William Foote Whyte

The author of the book was William Foote Whyte (1914-2000). Born in Springfield, Mass., Whyte spent most of his boyhood in New York State. Shy but precocious, he excelled in his studies at grammar and high school, and graduated with honors from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He then applied for and was awarded a prestigious junior fellowship at Harvard University in 1936. This gave him a salary and permission to take any courses at Harvard that he wanted.

His one task was to pursue a research project of his own choosing. He chose to study the North End. Whyte was interested in the North End because he was interested in how “lower class” societies functioned. At the time, the North End was considered a “slum” by many in the middle and upper class because of its immigrant population, its crowded tenements, and its tough street life. Whyte was also personally interesting in learning how the “other half lived” because he regarded his own middle-class live as limited in outlook and somewhat boring.

In February of 1937, after he had found an apartment in the building where the Connah Store is now located (it was a restaurant at the time), Whyte went to the North Bennet Street Industrial School to speak with the local social workers there.

Founded in 1879, the school had been incorporated in 1885 as a “settlement house,” and still functioned as such at the time — an organization and place dedicated to integrating immigrants into the wider society through education and job placement.

North End March 1939 (photo courtesy of Boston Herald through NorthEndWaterfront.com)

North End March 1939 (photo courtesy of Boston Herald through NorthEndWaterfront.com)

The most famous Settlement House in the United States is probably Jane Adams Hull House in Chicago, but Boston had several at the time, including the well-known South End House, and, in the North End, the North End Union and the North Bennet Street Industrial School. The founder of the North Bennet was Pauline Agassiz Shaw, daughter of Louis Agassiz, a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard (and whose accomplishments are too numerous to list), and step-daughter of Elizabeth Cabot Cary, one of the founders and the first president of Radcliffe College. (You can see now why the Schlesinger Library holds the archives from the school.)

At the school, a Ms. Gomes introduced Whyte to a 29-year-old man who he referred to as “Doc” in the book. (All names in the book including street names are pseudonyms; he refers to the North End as “Cornerville.”) Doc would become Whyte’s friend and guide for the next 3-1/2 years that he would live in the North End. Doc also seemed to serve as Whyte’s alter-ego since Doc possessed many of the qualities that Whyte admired and felt he lacked in his own upbringing: street smarts, popularity with the ladies, and physical toughness.

Whyte took a lot of his material about the dynamics of street corner “gangs” from hanging out with and observing Doc crew on North Bennet Street. Whyte also studied groups of North End men who hung out at the settlement house, from which he made his famous distinction between corner and college boys.

About halfway through his stay in the North End, Whyte married Kathleen King, and the two moved to a new apartment at 477 Hanover St. Their first child, Joyce, was born while they lived there — so she is a North Ender of sorts. During the second portion of his study, Whyte studied patterns of bookmaking in the North End, as well as the social interactions in what he called the “Cornerville S & A Club,” i.e., the Hanover Associates. Finally, Whyte got to know the Langone family; he was on friendly terms with Joe II and Tina, along with their children and friends. (The Langone’s are referred to as the “Ravello’s” in the book.)

Whyte left the North End in the mid-summer of 1940. The member of the Hanover Associates gave him a farewell party. In his autobiography, “Participant Observer,” in which he spends three chapters describing his time and work on the North End, he says that when he left he “never felt so much that he was leaving home” (p. 107).

9782707152879Whyte submitted two full studies of the North End to fulfill his Harvard fellowship requirements, and then went on to the University of Chicago to complete a Ph.D. He combined his two fellowship studies with his work on bookmaking, the Hanover Associations, and the Langone family to create the book we now know as “Street Corner Society.” His main argument was that the North End was not the “slum,” and that its people had a social organization, which while different from that of the American middle-class was nevertheless well ordered.

Whyte knew that his book had left out some important dimensions of North End life, such as the churches, the religious societies, and not least of all, the family. After Chicago, he taught for a year in Oklahoma, and then got the opportunity to return to the North End to study family life.

However, on his second night back — living again in the apartment above the Connah Store — he became ill and had to be rushed to the Mass General Hospital, where he was diagnosed with polio. He spent the next two years at the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia, where he only partially recovered. Although, he went on to have a successful academic career, with “Street Corner Society” establishing a reputation that would last his life, he never returned to expand his study on the North End.

Whyte spent most of his subsequent career at Cornell University, from which he retired in 1994. Because of this connection, his family left all of his academic papers with the Catherwood Library Kheel Center.

There are well over 4,000 pages of his typed notes and manuscripts, newspaper clippings, and other material related to “Street Corner Society” and his years in the North End. His detailed field notes contain endless information about daily life the North End in the 1930s, as Whyte was meticulous about recording the conversations he had and the events he observed. The Cornell archive also contains Whyte’s unpublished novel about the North End, which he apparently wrote in Georgia while undergoing therapy for his polio.

Due to my own interest in “Street Corner Society,” I have been doing research in the archive for the last four or five years, and it was during one of my visits that the library staff told me about Dr. Oscar Andersson and the ongoing Swedish translation. We connected through e-mail and phone, and began to help Oscar and his editor, Weddig Renquist, by locating the relevant material in the archive for Oscar’s Introduction. Then, when Oscar came to Boston in June of 2010, I was very happy to show him around the neighborhood when he first visited. (He could not stay away, and came back again last summer.)

It was also in the process of my research that I got in contact with Mario Di Leo. I plan to write more about Mario in the future, as his life in and dedication to the North End deserves more than what I can say here. But let me note briefly that he served as a director of Boxford and Maplewood Camps, and he was a counselor at the Shaw House with Mr. “D.” Mario, in fact, saved my life at Boxford Camp when I attended the day camp as a boy.

I fell into the deep end (before I knew how to swim) and Mario spotted me and alerted the lifeguard, who pulled me out. So it was quite an event for me to see Mario again, after many years, at his home in East Boston in March of 2009. We spoke about “Street Corner Society” and his work at the North Bennet. He had met Whyte as a young boy, and he had a lot of insight into his work, and a keen interest to share that with me. He was on hand when Oscar gave his talk in the North End, and — as I said at the beginning of this essay — he was with me at Schlesinger on Jan. 8, when we looked at folder #IIAviii:39.

That folder contained correspondence between Henry Shattuck (then president of the school), Henry Greenough (a member of the board of directors), and George Greener (the director of the school). Shattuck had just read “Street Corner Society” and was sending copies to Greenough and Greener to hear their opinion on it. The file also contained Greener’s response — which was not flattering. I’ll save the details of Greener’s response for a future essay, because to understand it we need to understand a lot more about “Street Corner Society” and William Foote Whyte. What I hope to have done here is to raise your interest and curiosity about the book. The book and the subject are worth writing about because “Street Corner Society,” like it or not, is a part of the North End’s history and even of its international renown. We don’t want to forget it or that.

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.

13 comments

  1. Nice article, Jim. Street Corner Society was a very interesting book and a landmark of it’s genre. Margaret Mead pioneered this kind of observational sociology/anthropology with her Coming of Age in Samoa.
    Of course the other group Whyte completely ignored was women and that is understandable because women were little valued in the North End culture of the time.
    The chief corner boy protagonist “Doc” was based on Ernie Pecci who hung around BeeGee’s social club on Prince St. Everyone who knew him, including my uncle Mimmie, said he was a great guy and a lot smarter than any of the college boys.

    • Hi Nick,

      Thanks for your note. Yes, it is amazing to think how this book about the North End has been, ranking right up there with Mead’s book. In Whyte’s response to am article by Marrianne Boelen criticizing him for not discussing the family, he said that a) there were not many women on the street at the time to speak to, and b) if he went up to talk to them in their apartments their parents would think that he wanted to marry them! But the field notes show that he did speak to women because there are some interviews there. His wife also spent a lot of time with North End women; they taught her to make pizza! It is too bad she did not write anything.

      Do you know if there is anyone still around who knew Pecci? I know he has two sons. Do you know what happened to them?

      Best wishes,

      Jim

    • Roberta Lombardozzi

      I grew up in the North End. I lived at 36 prince st ( 1st floor). I knew beegee and your uncle mommie very well. I have fond memories of my childhood

  2. Suzanne Iannella

    Thanks for discussing street corner society which profiles my father as chic morelli n the book. All the names are fictious but my father, the late Boston City Councillor had told me that Mr. Whyte, the author, never told the North end boys that he was writing a book. They were all pleasantly surprised when they found out.

    • Suzanne Iannella

      No we did not meet when Oscar Andersson came to Boston. Unfortunately, I was in Italy during his visit, but my brother Chris Iannella attended. Perhaps, we will meet one day. I love Street Corner Society.

  3. Thank you Suzanne. Did we me a few years ago when Oscar Andersson spoke at the Nazarro Center?

    I have been reading Whyte’s papers, notes, and letters. I don’t think he knew he would end up writing a book at the time. He was on Fellowship at Harvard and write two 100 page reports about his observations in the North End before he left Boston for Chicago. Those reports are in the archive but still unpublished. I think it was after he left the North End that he got the idea to combine those reports with other observations to make the book Street Corner Society.

    I also found a letter in the archive from a man who says that his own son was inspired as to the value of college by reading about your father in Street Corner Society.

    Best wishes,

    Jim Pasto

  4. Jim, my uncle told me Ernie’s family moved to Medford along with so many other North Enders including my father’s nine siblings. That is all I know.
    I have wonderful memories of Mario DeLeo from my years in Shaw House. I even spent a weekend at D’s farm in Vermont where I found out what a pasture patty was.
    The NY Times had a review a couple of weeks ago of a new biography of Louis Agassiz who was a brilliant lunatic. It’s a shame no one has written a biography of his daughter, Pauline, who was a giant in the fields of social work and early childhood education. Sounds like a good project for you.
    Nick

    • Nick, I had heard the same. The field notes state that Pecci had moved to Medford with relatives back in the 30s, but for a short period of time, and then came back to the North End till he left in the 50s. I wonder if the sons are still there.

      I feel the same about Mario. I was at D’s too. He had the unheated bathrooms out near the garage.

      I’ll take a look at that biography, but I don’t know if I’m the one for Pauline’s – though I agree that it should be done and I’m surprised it has not. Maybe someone is working on now.

      Jim

      • Jim, Pauline Agassiz married Quincy Adams Shaw the richest man in Massachusetts and possibly in the United States. He made his money in the Hecla and Calumet Copper Mines. Pauline used his money to found a progressive nursery school in the Back Bay, the North Bennett Street Industrial School and Shaw House which was an after school program for the working poor. I remember her picture in the entrance hall of the NBSIS.

        • I had read about her in the one article that I know of, but I did not know much about her husband: he has quite the Yankee name. I went to Shaw House too, but I don’t remember the picture. They are moving the school over to the top of North Street, the police building.