Smudging at the North End

Passed through the North End on Saturday. It is one of the few areas in Boston in which you can see the original colonial layout and architecture of the town, in the form of the Paul Revere House and some very narrow streets. That’s good. It is better to have a thriving city that’s a palimpsest of generations than a lacquered Historical District with a few millionaire’s homes, and a rebuilt International Style wasteland outside of it.

On my way away, I found this protest — unexpectedly, though I might have expected it, if I had stopped to think.


This is Christopher Columbus Park at the North End. The crowd was small but energized, and the cops who stood by had little to do. No one was interested in an argument; a few tourists gawked (including me, I suppose) but most people reacted by sitting on the grass and eating sandwiches.

Nonetheless, it is a gutsy place to hold a protest. Boston’s North End is an extremely Italian neighborhood, not just for the purpose of restaurants and tourism but in real, everyday life and character. I used to go to a doctor’s office there — the restrooms were labeled in Italian. It’s spoken in the streets as much as English. Why should this matter?

Columbus mattered very much to the Italian communities of the early 20th century. He was established as a kind of proto-Founding Father after the Revolution, although even at the time everyone knew his claim was weak — he never came to the continent, for one thing; he never even recognized the continent. And, of course, there was the genocide. And the enslavement. But the important thing was that he was not British or Spanish. Plus, his Latinized name looks good on a street sign, or feminized into Columbia.

Italian-Americans at the turn of the century had a more immediate concern. They were considered an ethnic rabble by Anglo-Americans, the subject of prejudice and fear, the easy suspect for murders and crime. What they needed was a famous Italian who was key to the heart of the country, someone whose contributions could not be denied. And in Christopher Columbus, they found it. Establishing formal Columbus Day celebrations was a way to establish respectability for Italian-Americans — that is, a way to establish that they, too, were white Europeans.

I wish luck to these protestors, and I hope for a day when Columbus is acknowledged, but no longer celebrated. I also know that there are people who will feel genuine pain and anger if that happens, for genuine reasons. To this, I have no solution; I am always and only just passing through.