Christian Trotta’s North End years pass four at a time.
For the passionate soccer fan and devoted North End lifer, the quadrennial World Cup helps divide history into chapters. It’s the lens through which he’s watched his neighborhood change.
He was only 12 years old during the 1994 World Cup, but the memories still play on the pitch in his mind: The DJ set up on Hanover Street at 10 a.m. the day Italy took on Brazil in the World Cup final, and the raucous all-day party began.
“I’ve never seen Italian-Americans so proud of their heritage,” he said. The people who were from here? They still lived here. And when Italy lost that day, they comforted each other. “You knew every single person on that street.”
Here, some say that day in 1994 was the old neighborhood’s symbolic final whistle. Even the geography was changing, and the well-documented gentrification that continues to alter the North End’s distinctive culture today was just kicking off.
‘Ever since they took down the expressway, it’s never been the same.’
Twenty years later, Trotta looks around Hanover Street’s crowded Cafe Dello Sport during a semifinal game between Argentina and the Netherlands. He recognizes eight faces.
Change like that doesn’t happen during a 90-minute soccer match, of course. The Italian population has thinned gradually over the last century. But in the North End, where the old shops hang photos of Italy’s soccer triumphs from their walls, each World Cup is as good a time as any to note the continuing changes.
“It’s kind of like a beacon for people — for Italy fans especially,” Philip Frattaroli, the 32-year-old president of the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council, says of the World Cup.
In 1994, he said, that meant television cameras camped at Caffe Graffiti.
“That was an old neighborhood place,” Frattaroli said. Now, like seemingly every storefront on Hanover Street, it’s a restaurant.
“Yeah it’s changed,” says John Gagliotta, smoking on the stoop outside the gelateria he co-owns, the heel of a loaf of Wonder bread dangling in a bag for the sparrows. “There’s no more Italians.”
That’s not quite true. For one thing, Gagliotta, 67, is Italian. For another, it’s not hard to find longtime North Enders lingering in cafes and on quiet side streets. But point taken: The neighborhood is different today.
It’s not the Italian enclave it was in the early 20th century, when nearly everyone here was Italian or the child of Italians. A Boston Redevelopment Authority analysis of the American Community Survey estimated that only 234 Italian-born residents remained by 2011. Between 1990 and 2011, the foreign-born population — mostly Italian immigrants — dropped from 17 percent to 11.
Gagliotta, who has spent the last 21 years in the North End, said the changes have been mostly good, though he misses how things used to be.
He recently moved from up the street to an apartment building around the corner from his shop that he says is like a cemetery: Nobody stops to say hello in the elevator.
Ask the guy leaning on a mailbox — “Jack,” he said, “just Jack” — about that 1994 tournament and he whips out his iPhone to find a picture of his son Jamie, a teenager then, celebrating an Italian victory in the early rounds.
“That’s when you knew your neighbor,” said the 58-year-old, standing a few steps from the Prince Street row house that was $3,000 when his grandparents bought it. But he’s not a neighbor anymore either: He and his wife moved to Winthrop two years ago, driven out by the climbing rents. Younger, more affluent families moved in. Even after adjusting for inflation, median income increased about 15 percent between 1990 and 2011, according to census data compiled by BRA researchers.
Camped out on this corner twenty years ago, “I’d be saying ‘hi’ to a hundred people,” he said. But today, surrounded by crowds of people with strollers and cameras and maps guiding them to Paul Revere’s house, “there’s not a lot of people left.”
But soccer can still bring them back.
In Johnny & Gino Hairstyling on Hanover, an Italian team picture and a photo of the mobbed street in 2006 hang opposite the barber’s chair. That was the last year Italy won the cup.
By then, a lot of Gino Colafella’s friends had moved out of the neighborhood, even as his barber shop was thriving and he was cutting Mayor Thomas Menino’s hair.
“Now they want to come back and they can’t afford it,” said Colafella, 64.
Whether they knew it or not, those old neighbors were on the verge of getting priced out in 2006. The Big Dig was complete. The Central Artery overpass that served as a physical and psychological divider separating the North End from downtown had come down.
Instead of pouring out of their houses, people poured into the North End from all over.
They rode around on car hoods and dumped water on each other to stay cool, but somewhere between ’94’s disappointment and ’06’s celebration, the World Cup went from a North End block party to a city-wide celebration.
Trotta said, “2006 was the first time you ever saw non-Italians wearing Italian jerseys. Ever since they took down the expressway, it’s never been the same.”
Frattaroli said the good that has come is fairly obvious: The beautiful greenway that replaced the dark, rough area under the old overpass; the young, affluent families who arrive intent on staying in the city.
“It’s not as Italian as it was, but it’s still a good thing to see,” he said.
The downside is obvious, too: Businesses that cater to tourists threaten to push out those that make the North End a true neighborhood.
“That’s something as a council we’re trying to fight,” Frattaroli said.
Colafella still loves living here. He arrived from Italy in 1967, walked into the barber shop in 1971 and never left the neighborhood. It felt like Italy, he said, and like the streets were his living room.
“Years ago, it was more like family,” he said. “Now, people come here to eat. . . . But I still love it. If I want some peace and quiet, I’ll go to New Hampshire.”
The neighborhood isn’t the only thing that changed. So did the World Cup.
Colafella won’t have to hunt around for a satellite feed to watch the game on Sunday — it’ll be on in every bar and restaurant in the North End and beyond.
Italian 7, a Hanover Street shop that has long been a go-to for area soccer fans, no longer has to hand-make Italian flags. Much of their business now focuses on once-obscure European club teams instead of national team pride, said co-owner Marius Savino, 32.
Even though Italy exited the tournament early this year, the fans — mostly strangers to those who never left, but drawn inexorably anyway by the World Cup’s beacon — still came to the North End for their ancestral home country’s group-stage games.
“When Italy plays,” Colafella said, “This place is electric.”
Even bridges and tunnels and time can’t change that.