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‘North End Stories’ chronicles neighborhood's Italian heritage

Posted by Roy Greene  January 6, 2012 03:29 PM

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Jeanne Dasaro hopes to build her website, North End Stories, into a vibrant chronicle of the neighborhood's history.

Each picture takes just a few seconds to snap, a single moment in history. But photographs can unlock a lifetime.

It is these stories that are the driving force behind Jeanne Dasaro's plans for her still-growing multimedia website, North End Stories. Dasaro, a social entrepreneur, artist and activist hopes to build it into a vibrant chronicle of the neighborhood's history.

But that will take time as she builds it on nights and weekends, working by day as the co-founder and chief operating officer of The New Prosperity Initiative, which, Dasaro says, is “a media organization that publicizes the efforts of individuals and organizations working to build social and economic prosperity.”

Among the tales already posted on North End Stories are those of neighborhood changes seen through the eyes of John Rossi and Peter DiPaolo of DiPaolo & Rossi Meat Market; of the long-standing Polcari’s Coffee told by Bobby Eustace and Nicki LaBonte; and of Dasaro’s own father, Alphonso “Butch” Dasaro.

There also are photographs, videos and articles dedicated to preserving the history of the North End, Boston’s evolving but traditionally Italian-American community.

“Each photograph comes with a story, and a moment to reflect on old memories, remember good times and bad,” said Dasaro, 30.

The site, she says, was inspired by the residents at Casa Maria, an apartment building for senior citizens in the North End. On her visits to see her parents there, Dasaro says residents would stop her looking to chat.

“After a few weeks of such encounters, I felt that these stories should be captured and preserved, especially since many people in the building are well over 80 years old,” she recalled. “As they pass away, their stories will be lost and these anecdotes about the neighborhood will be lost with them.”

And so she set to work pulling together stories about the past and the present, gathering old pictures, taking others herself and filming videos of North End folks reminiscing.

Dasaro found a photo of her grandfather repairing fishing nets, a reminder of the days when fishing boats were floating on the Harbor instead of yachts.

She also interviewed Peter DiPaolo and John Rossi of DiPaolo & Rossi Meat Market on Salem Street, who, according to Dasaro, both emigrated from Italy to the North End in the 1970s. Dasaro said they taught her about changes in the way the neighborhood’s buildings are divided, a reflection of its changing demographics. DiPaolo told her that many apartment buildings now been subdivided with interior walls to create more, but smaller spaces, a reflection of fewer and smaller families in the neighborhood.

A former resident of the North End herself, Dasaro is one of three generations from her father’s family to live in this neighborhood after her great-grandparents emigrated from Sicily in the early 1900s. Although she grew up in Michigan, Dasaro spent every August in the North End for the “Fishermen’s Feast” put on by the Madonna del Soccorso society, which she says was founded “to serve as a community hub and shrine to the saint that guards their lives while out on the seas.” Dasaro’s great-grandfather was one of the founders of this society. She moved to the North End full-time in 2004 but left for Dorchester in 2007.

“My interview with my Dad was pretty memorable,” she said. “I have heard many stories about our family and the neighborhood growing up, but this project has allowed me to learn so much more about my father.”

In that interview, for example, she learned for the first time that her family formerly lived on Clark Street. Dasaro had always remembered going to their apartment on North Street when she was a child, and never knew her father once lived elsewhere.

She feels “the project has brought the family closer together.” But family members aren't the only people to whom Dasaro has talked. The website has videos of current business owners and people born and raised in the North End as well. In all, she has conducted interviews with 14 people so far. She hopes to complete about 100 interviews over the coming year.

“I’ve seen some places open, I’ve seen some close,” said Nicki LaBonte of Polcari’s Coffee on Salem Street. “I see a lot of changes, but nothing serious.”

LaBonte and owner Bobby Eustace are featured in a video on North End Stories for their coffee shop, opened in 1932 by Anthony Polcari.

“She was very easy to talk to,” said LaBonte, when asked about his interview with Dasaro.

Dasaro launched “North End Stories” in July, and plans to continue adding more multimedia pieces in the days to come.

“I hope the website will help personify the neighborhood and let people know how unique of a place it is, while also shedding more light on Italian-American culture,” she said.

She encourages those with a story about the historic North End to contact her on the North End Stories website: http://northendstories.com/

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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