Most North End residents were inside yesterday, keeping dry over steaming cappuccinos, when it finally happened: The concrete barriers were pushed aside. The first pedestrians paused, sheltered by umbrellas, and stepped onto the sidewalk. And just like that, history reversed itself as Hanover Street reopened through the site of the old Central Artery.
The neighborhood's main street, which once ran all the way to Scollay Square, was cut short a half century ago by the construction of the elevated highway. In another Big Dig milestone -- one that neatly symbolized the reconnection of the North End to the rest of the city -- a 250-foot extension of Hanover Street, between Cross and Blackstone streets, opened to traffic yesterday.
It marked the first time since the 1950s that pedestrians and drivers could pass directly from the cafes of Hanover Street to Haymarket's fruit and vegetable stalls.
''It's giving us back what they took 50 years ago," said Arthur Puopolo, 76, a North End resident for 30 years. ''I feel the same way about [the Central Artery] that I did about the Berlin Wall -- it never should have gone up in the first place."
Only the westbound lane, leading away from the North End, is currently open to cars on the new stretch of Hanover Street, but a broad sidewalk, dotted with old-fashioned lamps, allows foot traffic in both directions. Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello said the eastbound lane will open to traffic in late fall or early winter. Also this fall, work will begin on the new North End parks that will border both sides of the street.
Police assigned to the intersection said there was less confusion than expected, despite heavy rains that flooded Cross Street, because new signs pointed the way to Government Center. Another stretch of road -- 1,000 feet of the new Surface Artery between Sudbury and Clinton streets -- also opened yesterday, on land that was covered by highway ramps until recently.
Longtime North End residents said the changes sparked memories of childhood, when Sunday was ''promenade day" on Hanover Street, a chance to meet with friends and catch up on neighborhood gossip. The crowds would then stream down the street to the Casino theater, where North End families paid 10 cents to watch Italian movies.
''That's why Hanover Street was so important to us," said Nancy Caruso, a neighborhood activist who rode in the first car on the road yesterday. ''It was a chance to get out of the house, which had no air conditioning, to meet with your neighbors and see all the kids and have a little enjoyment. It took your mind off real life."
Pasqualino Petrino, 84, a North End resident since the 1938, recalled when Hanover Street was lined with stalls selling everything from fruit to shoes. The road ended at Scollay Square, where there were ''bars, lots of soldiers, lots of single girls," he said -- and the famous burlesque show for 25 cents.
''This is much, much better," he said, peering down the reopened street from under a restaurant awning. ''Before, you could see nothing."
Businesspeople said they expect the new road to bring customers. ''We think it will be an incredible help, because people can see us now," said Scott Imbrogna, manager of Piccola Venezia restaurant.
But some North End devotees worry that greater access will mean even more congestion. Waiting for a taxi in the rain on Hanover Street, Ana Soto said she hopes more people will walk to the neighborhood, instead of driving, to help preserve the old-world feeling of the place. ''It feels like living in Paris or Rome," said the Tufts professor, who shops in the North End weekly, but never drives there.
After years of negotiating Big Dig detours, some drivers were slow to believe that the change would be permanent. ''It's much better now, but you never know -- tomorrow they could close it again," said Jamal Abdi, 21, an East Boston livery driver.