Executive broker Toni Gilardi’s family has been in the North End for 100 years. She gives a glimpse into the past and present of this iconic neighborhood.
By: Toni Gilardi
The North End has long been known as Little Italy. Italian immigrants poured into the neighborhood in the early 1900s. My family has lived in this neighborhood for over 100 years. The North End was designed to be a totally self-sufficient, inner-city haven. Families would start a business to fill a need, buy the property where their business was located, and recirculate money back into the local area. We were self-governed, had our own health center (courtesy of my Aunt Elaine Wilson, my mother’s sister, who founded North End Waterfront Health), butchers, fishmongers, grocers and greengrocers, clothing shops and tailors, restaurants, imported goods, schools and, of course, many churches, including several Roman Catholic parishes. We lived by the rule that if you could not get something within walking distance you probably didn’t need it. Not many people had cars (we invented car-pooling…). Over the years the North End has been able to retain its Italian cultural integrity. Sunday was church and family day. I can still smell the sweet scent of garlic and tomatoes as I walk down the street. Every weekend during the summer a society from different regions of Italy would host a festival for their patron saint. My family came from both Avelino, which is near Naples, and Sciacca, Sicily. We celebrated the feast of Madonna Del Scaccorso De Sci-acca better known as the Fisherman’s Feast. Aside from Saint Anthony’s feast, this is the most well-known festival in the world. Today things have changed, people from all over the world now call this thriving neighborhood their home. Even with all of the modern-day changes to our landscape and demographics the integrity of a family-oriented, safe, friendly, and most of all convenient neighborhood still exists. Truly one of the last modern old-world neighborhoods. As for me, I still live and work here. Though I have a car most of my daily activities revolve around this amazing neighbor-hood. Since 1984, I’ve been blessed to have participated in some of the changes that have greatly served this community and its long-time occupants. The population of children and families now occupying this community has almost reached the volume from when I was growing up. Schools that closed as the population had declined are reopening and are at capacity.
By: Catherine Pergolis
SNE: Considering you have lived in the North End your entire life, what are some of the major changes in lifestyle and demographics that you have seen first hand?
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, the North End was mostly all Italian. There were fewer restaurants, many which were small and local. Property values were not anywhere near their levels now. We were isolated from the rest of Boston because of the central artery – it surrounded the whole North End. Eventually the Mayor White Administration created a vision to expand the North End into the Waterfront and revamp the vacant burnt-out buildings and factories, which was called Ghost Town. Properties were sold at a very discounted rate and the buyers intended to develop these properties to renovate the North End. 25 years ago the city began the depressing of the artery and dug the tunnel and put the artery below ground. This gradual yet significant change made things more opened up and easily accessible.
SNE: Do you still perceive the North End as having the same small community feel as it did when you were younger?
Yes, although there have been some changes the community feel is still here. People want to stay here, they meet their significant other and decide to stay and raise their families here. We have everything we need here and that was the whole premise when I was growing up. We are a self contained, self made neighborhood and it remains that way today. You don’t even need a vehicle! Our grammar schools are doing unbelievable, in fact we opened another grammar school because more families are having children and staying in the city! The kids live and grow up with their friends in the same neighborhood. Things have changed but they also haven’t; this is a more modernized and more diverse version of how we grew up.
SNE:Due to Covid and other changes in lifestyle, how has business for rental companies, landlords and real estate brokers been impacted?
Property owners are not ready to let go of their properties because they are afraid they’ll get priced out and won’t be able to come back. Covid is a very short term situation and people have equity that they do not want to give up. The North End is very strong, as soon as restaurants were able to open, within 24 hours they were at full capacity. It is very unfortunate that some younger people who were furloughed have left the city and moved back to their parent’s house in the suburbs, or a vacation home in the Cape, Maine or New Hampshire. Currently we do have an oversupply of rentals, most of them are smaller, without access to outside space and being that this is now your residence and most likely your work space it becomes a little crowded. But this will change because Covid is short-lived
SNE: How are these businesses dealing with vacancy rates? Are they struggling or holding it together?
The businesses that own the property where they have their business will be okay. Landlords that have commercial space will have a hard time negotiating the rent with their commercial tenants because they still have to keep the lights on and pay the bills. Unless the commercial properties get assistance from the government, they’re going to struggle. Seeing some restaurants close has been very sad because they’ve been around for a very long time. Landlords who were counting on their residential rental income are stunned about their vacancy. We have a .02% vacancy, which is almost nonexistent, for over 20 years. My advice to any landlord who is feeling this crunch is that you have to spend some money to get these properties up to par so that they are rentable and even if it’s not what you’re used to getting in rent, spend some money and renovate the property. To avoid vacancy it is always smart to put money into the properties that are going to give you back money.
SNE: Have you rented or sold significantly less apartments in the North End this year than years past?
Our sales volume is actually up, our rental volume is about 60/40, so we’re about 40% down in rental occupancy.
SNE: As a real estate agent, have you seen people not renew their leases and move out of the city to the suburbs considering they have to work from home?
Yes, many young people up to almost 30 years old moved home. Couples that were trying to work and function in their house with kids and doing school online without open space for the children have left the city and moved to the suburbs to get that extra space because things were too cramped. It can be very difficult to function in one room with kids doing different school work and two adults trying to work from home. Because our company is statewide, we had access to suburban properties and we sold quite a bit. We haven’t seen bidding wars in the suburbs in a very long time like we did recently. I’m not sure how happy they’re going to be in the suburbs, you can’t just erase being a city person – especially when you lived in the North End!
SNE: Are college students a big part of these real estate companies’ business and how have they been impacted by students deciding to stay home this semester?
We don’t really rent to a lot of students, most of our rentals are all postgraduates. However, it has definitely affected other sections of Boston that depended on the student population like Allston and Brighton, even the Back Bay for international students coming in. The North End has not been severely impacted by this.
SNE: Have you spoken directly to landlords? If so, what are they concerned about?
We speak to our landlord’s everyday, twice a day. Their concerns are mainly to get the properties rented and we are doing everything in our power to make sure that they get rented. Our sources of advertising have changed the structure of the way that we are allowed to advertise. Zillow and Craigslist now charge real estate agents to advertise. The best advice I can give the landlords is that if you are in the unfortunate situation where you have a vacancy, take advantage by renovating and upgrading your property so that we can come back in, re photograph it and get it back up there. Then, as the world comes back to a normal state, you won’t have a vacancy for very long. Just relax, fix your property, stay strong and don’t panic.
SNE: How do you foresee banks stepping in to help business owners in the North End?
I hope they do but I also hope that they help property owners. The city has not allowed landlords to evict tenants during the Covid public emergency, so if there is a tenant who can prove they lost their job, they have not had to pay rent for the past 6 months. Landlords still have to pay bills, taxes and insurance. The city and banks need to make some concessions to form a solution to help landlords with high vacancy rates. Perhaps they can reevaluate the property values to lower real estate tax. Banks can maybe forgive some amount of interest over a certain period of time and put it on the back end of the mortgage. These suggestions would comply with regulations from the city and the state.
SNE: Many apartments in the North End are small, how has this impacted social distancing regulations?
Many small one bedroom units have not been a problem because it is either one person living there or a couple and there is no need to social distance. After September 1st, we had the most three bedrooms available that we had seen in 20 years. Three separate people bring three different sets of friends and family members and significant others back to the apartment. The dynamics of three unrelated people living together in a small apartment are difficult. People are very aware of what they are touching and taking extra precautions.
SNE: Do you know of any new buildings being built with different codes and floor plans due to social distancing?
No, it is too early for this. Construction was shut down for months and it reopened in June and home construction and infrastructure projects were more popular. It may not be cost efficient when this is a potential short lived situation. Once there is a vaccine and a better way of dealing with illness and people have a choice, social distancing in large buildings will be difficult.
SNE: If tourists do not come back due to the lack of travelling, how will the restaurant business respond? Do you foresee restaurants not being able to pay rent or mortgages and therefore closing?
The North End has always been a destination, especially in the summertime when there are tourists from all around the world. The North End lost a lot of revenue from not having the annual festivals and because there have not been a lot of people walking the Freedom Trail and stopping for lunch. On a Saturday night, as much as social distancing will allow, the North End is very busy and everybody follows the protocols. The problem will happen in the winter. As it gets colder, things will be more difficult if more seating is not allowed inside.
SNE: If restaurants close their doors, do you agree that it will take years to fill those empty buildings due to lack of interest to spend money from consumers?
If we go to the extreme and things turn out to be a disaster and we are shut down, things will be like the 70’s all over again. It will take a long time for restaurant owners to recover. If the restaurants are not able to pay the landlords, the landlords will start getting in trouble. It’s a trickle down domino effect. Bars are hurting and some are closing because they have enormous rents and it’s impossible to social distance.