From the EastBoston.com archives
© 1997, 2023. All rights reserved by the author.
Every part of East Boston has a familiar name. Every part except one: The Paris Street Flats. Call it the accidental neighborhood.
Little known except perhaps to the most reclusive government researcher, The Flats extends from Porter Street to Neptune Road and is bound by Bennington and Bremen Streets if you follow maps used by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a few others push the boundaries by a few blocks.
The Flats is a distinctly residential neighborhood today afflicted occasionally with traffic and other mild urban problems such as dirty streets. It is defined not by its location but mostly by its people. However, despite its history, character and work-a-day charm, the Flats suffers from an identity problem.
“I’ve never heard it called ‘The Flats’,” says Sam Tassone who has lived most of his life on London and Chelsea streets. “Over a number of years if someone asked you: ‘What part of East Boston do you live? You’d say Orient Heights, Jeffries Point, Eagle Hill but you’d never refer to it as the Flats.”
Whomever had come up with the name The Flats probably had a good reason. The Flats were the last part of East Boston to be “land-filled” in the 19th century if you don’t take into account the massive fill undertaken for Logan International Airport. “It wasn’t the most affluent and prosperous,î says Michael Laurano, Jr. East Boston’s eminent historian and lawyer. “It was filled land. It was the least well-built and it wasn’t one of the first areas settled.”
This neighborhood without a name is actually very familiar to most of the more than 32,000 people who live in East Boston. It’s the neighborhood between the airport and Eagle Hill, between Day Square and Maverick Square Very few of its houses deviate from the standard triple decker archetype. The development company that spurred house-building proceeded as if everything was placed on a grid. Vinyl siding promoted during the energy crisis of the early 1970s as efficient cover most of the homes.
But the neighborhood is solid. Owner occupants take care of their homes. Newcomers mix with old. Children can be seen everywhere.
“In general it’s not a bad neighborhood,” says Angelo “Butchie” Sicuranza of Angelo’s Market on Chelsea Street. Sicuranza’s family has run corner grocery markets for more than 40 years.
Once lined with storefronts, Chelsea Street, the main thoroughfare is now leafy thanks to a politically inspired tree planting program initiated in the 1970s. A much less imposing Sacred Heart Church lies at the center of this neighborhood. The Salesian Boys and Girls Club serves as an oasis for its youth. The south end of the Flats borders the Sumner and Callahan tunnels with which is shares an uneasy history. Many of the Haymarket-like push carts moved to Chelsea Street after they were displaced to build the city’s first harbor tunnel. Among its gathering places are the East Boston Community Information Center and the numerous variety corner stores.
On the other side, a remnant of Works Progress Administration, a carefully cut stone wall, represents another useful border as well as a rich New Deal legacy. A parking lot operates where a four-track railroad once transported goods from East Boston’s docks. A highway cuts the neighborhood off from East Boston Stadium and the Airport T station which would be used more often by residents if it weren’t isolated.
The Flats is home to thousands of families most of them as working class as their Irish, Italian and Jewish forebears. It was the neighborhood of the public-spirited Grossman family which went on to start the Mass. Envelope Company. Today Steve Grossman works in the Democratic National Committee in Washington. It was also the home to the late Anthony “Sarge” Giannetti the World War II veteran and his florist shop, a lonely Republican in this most Democratic of precincts whose public spirit and dedication transcended any partisanship. The Flats edge up not far from where Michael Valerio’s pizza shop began before he started the Papa Gino’s chain. It’s where Tello’s, the clothing chain, first opened up shop. From fashion to food and even music — Sal Baglio the guitarist also heralds from Paris Street — the nondescript neighborhoods Flats has more than a few native sons and daughters.
Continuing its tradition as a gateway for upwardly mobile immigrants, the Flats section is lined with pockets of newer Hispanic homeowners and renters all who seem to get along says Sicuranza. “With the Italians you knew everything they ate,” says Sicuranza, the son of Italian grocers, describing the product changes on the shelves of his stores. “With the Hispanics you have to engulf their culture. It’s a learning curve on both sides.”
About the only differences in the homes occupied by the new generation of immigrants and those of yesteryear is the vinyl siding. Most of the houses are still triple-deckers unmoved by any need for urban renewal.
However, the housing stock poses another problem. Unlike Eagle Hill which has attracted droves of new homeowners with an eye for rehabilitating Victorian detail, the Flats’ housing stock wasn’t designed with aesthetics in mind. “It is always and will always be a working class area,î remarks Laurano, “It is an area least likely of being gentrified. Eagle Hill — a lot of those of are diamonds in the rough. For Jeffries Point, that’s also true but down around the Flats, the (homes were built) for Emma Lazarus’s teeming masses”.
While the languages spoke in those homes of the teeming masses may have changed from Italian to Spanish, the number of the homes hasn’t over the last 10 years — even though East Boston’s population once hit the 70,000 mark. According to Census figures, two population tracts in the Flats only saw a slight increase in both owner-occupied and renter-occupied units between 1980 and 1990.
Domenic “The Hawk” Petrola, a retired liaison officer for the US Navy, recalls the time when he and his friends used to sling rocks on the waters known as the mudflats, just beyond the Conrail tracks where the East Boston Stadium is located. The tracks, recalled Petrola, were local kids would engage in a little mischief — pilfering coal, bottles and rags which fetched many a nickel. “During the depression, we used to steal coal and bring it home to Chelsea Street or sell it by the bucket,” remembers Petrola who wouldn’t say if he ever was caught by his parents and received the customary slap to the back of the head. Petrola soon discovered the demands of hard work as he peddled newspapers by the tunnel.
Petrolaís life on tiny Washington Avenue in the Flats is not untypical of the closeness of the neighborhood. “Between Porter and Marion there were a good twelve stores,” he remembers. And what sticks in his mind is the strong Jewish presence.
“There were Jewish meat stores, hardware stores, Jewish bakeries and a couple of Italian bakery shops,” he says.
Adds Laurano: ìI can remember in the 1950s there were a lot of Jewish furriers and I can remember riding that end of Chelsea Street, on both sides of Chelsea with furs hanging out of the windows it was always fewer and fewer and then there was two and then there was one and then they were none.”
As the Jews moved on the Italians assumed the same ethic of a simple life that centered around the family. It was the kind of neighborhood where doors were left unlocked and Italian old timers would plant a garden at any which small spot they could find, where the same Italians would dry their tomatoes on rooftops and a making wine was not only an art but an autumnal rite. The minority of owner-occupants continually refurbished the insides of their homes.
This was made easy because, unlike today, one parent was able to stay at home. And because cars were not as numerous as today, people tended to gravitate around the Flats.
“Traffic was always bad but there wasn’t that many cars,” notes Joanne Capone. “Today you have three kids you have five cars.” And so too today parking is sometimes a problem.
The old days were better in some ways says Capone. “Today’s neighborhood lacks friendship and people put their garbage out early. Years ago parents used to go out and sweep their sidewalk today it’s nobody. We need a Little City Hall because when you go and complain in City Hall, forget it.”
Yet Capone is a big booster and says East Boston benefits as the gateway to the city and having Logan Airport as a neighbor that provides jobs. ìIím content with where I am. Where are you are going to be able to buy a home? People got to buckle down. Lets make the place look good.”
Making the place good hasn’t always been a priority of city government. According to Laurano, the Flats have benefited only from benign neglect.
“Certain areas of the cities were once marked for a form of passive renewal by way of the city not concentrating on them. I rather suspect that if any part of East Boston was it was the Flats that was not worth saving.”
It wasn’t until Mayor Kevin White, a progressive mayor on the make, discovered East Boston’s virtue as a crucial piece of his broad citywide coalition. Among other public improvements, White planted trees that 20 years later tower over Chelsea Street’s triple deckers.
But the Flats, the neighborhood with no one knows by its name, survives because of its institutions rather than the spoils of politics. And, in turn, institutions survive because of outstanding individuals. Laurano says one such individual who made his mark on the Flats was the late Monsignor Lawrence B. Killian, pastor of Sacred Heart in the 1960s.
“He was one of the more interesting figures of that area,” recalls Laurano. “He was born to a wealthy family. He graduated from Harvard and the University of North America in Rome and was a classmate of Cardinal Spellman.”
Moreover, Killian was an Italophile and like the Italians was an avid gardener. “He never got over his days in Rome. He loved the Italian language and while he had the mental ability to rise to a position of more prestige he wanted to be at Sacred Heart.”
Laurano recalls Killian going “door to door” getting them involved in the Church and making precinct 5 solidly Catholic one. It was Killian, said a Laurano, who was to determined to rebuild Sacred Heart Church after a tragic 1965 fire. “Msgr Killian said that he found a church there and intended to leave one before he left.”
The physical plant of Sacred Heart, which tore down its grammar school and rectory years after the fire, is a shadow of what it used to be. But the neighborhood is still intact and the church is a key part of neighborhood life. “If it was not the silk stocking district in one sense, the Flats were rich in another sense,” adds Laurano.
Just a few footsteps from where the Sacred Heart Rectory once stood Brent Banulis found a solid neighborhood on Morris Street. Banulis, and his wife Carolyn, moved to East Boston 20 years ago and in 1982 purchased their home. A copy editor for the Boston Globe’s renown sport pages, Banulis is a true believer in the neighborhood’s potential. “The promise of better things is really what drives the area,” opines Banulis. “You look at the corner stores and the people and you find stability.”
But what you don’t find is a public space that defines the Flats as a neighborhood. “That’s why we don’t have an identity,” says Banulis.
“The stumbling block ís not airplane noise or such, it’s whether people of different income levels can work together for public areas.”
That obstacle can removed if only people make a long term commitment to get involved says Banulis. As part of a mitigation measure offered by the Central Artery/Tunnel project, Bremen Street, the outer edge of the Flats is slated to benefit from a multimillion park that will buffer the neighborhood from new tunnel traffic. In addition the Greenway Coordinating Council along with several public agencies, plans to link the Bremen Street Park to a proposed East Boston green belt that begins at Harborwalk in Jeffries Point and runs north to Belle Isle Marsh.
For Chelsea Street resident Capone, the Bremen Street Park will be a major improvement to the Flats — one that leads her to predict that property values will rise. “You’re getting big improvements because there are a lot of people coming back. They all work in Boston. I think they can’t afford the suburbs anymore.”
She adds: “I hope what they are planning for the future comes true. It’s going to be a beautiful town.”
If it does, The Flats will have finally arrived.
© 1997. All rights reserved by the author.