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Immigration and Roslindale
by Deborah Levenson-Estrada

Hurdy Gurdy Man.jpg

Born in 1880 on a ship traveling from Italy to New York, Marino Persechini settled in Roslindale in 1900 where he became a legendary hurdy-gurdy performer. To support his growing family, he hauled the heavy organ to downtown Boston where he played for small change.

He performed until age 94.

     A residential and commercial community known today for its many ethnic groups. Roslindale is part of the shifting landscape of neighborhoods and immigration that was once a section of colonial Roxbury.  Following independence, elite Yankee Protestant entrepreneur families found Roslindale’s hills, forests, and waterways an ideal location. They established expansive estates with orchards, pasture for sheep whose wool supplied Lawrence's mills, and farmlands.

    The first 19th century immigration to the area provided the cheap labor for these holdings.  Born in Ireland in the late 18th and early 19th century, Irish women and men fleeing the mid-century potato famine came to Roslindale and found work as field and stable hands, blacksmiths, domestics, haulers, laborers in construction and more. Testimony to their presence are Irish surnames--such as O’Brian and Cahill--on the headstones of the small Tollgate Cemetery near Forest Hills, established in the 1860s to meet the needs of these immigrant Catholics.  The numbers of Irish immigrants grew in the 1870s because of renewed depression and the political persecution of Irish nationalists. Numbering over 2300 towards the end of the century, they were the largest foreign-born group in Roslindale. At the center of their community was the new Sacred Heart Church, established in 1893 by Father John Cummins, a popular figure who spoke alongside abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in support of Irish Home Rule and helped put Roslindale on the map of Boston’s Irish politics. As elsewhere, once an ethnic community prospers, more immigrants settle there. One hundred years later Irish-born priest Father Gerry O’Donnell would be giving mass and hearing confession in Gaelic at Sacred Heart for the newly arrived from the west of Ireland, where Irish is still spoken.

     With Boston’s annexation of Roslindale in 1873, the area became known as a “garden suburb,” where residents could escape the city’s crowded neighborhoods and industrial areas.  With improved train transportation, Sunday day trippers arrived to picnic on the slopes of the Arnold Arboretum, established in 1872.  The Boston Herald advertised Roslindale as the “choice outlaying district,”  and it was recommended  to TB patients for what was known as the “climate cure. “ By 1890 the Yankee estate owners had gone into real estate, clearing tracts of land then sold in parcels for building both well-to-do residences  and modest homes.  Bostonians, including first and second-generation immigrants, soon settled on the neighborhood’s tree-lined streets, put in gardens, and raised small farm animals in their yards.

    In addition to the Irish, Germans and Italians were part of the 19th century immigration.  Of the roughly one thousand Germans who lived in Roslindale by the 1870s, most were Protestants who came with business experience and professional skills. Their financial resources allowed them to establish Germania Hall (a German cultural and community center), open the German Lutheran Church on Kitteridge St in 1887, and promote classical music and the German language. Smaller numbers of Italians arrived toward the end of the century with skills and culture--especially opera--as well, but fleeing abject poverty, they brought little money. They often found work clearing land and in the building trades. Others used their wits and artistic talents to earn a living.

    Throughout the twentieth century Roslindale was a middle and working-class neighborhood.  The German immigrant presence faded with World War 1, and that of Italians and Irish remained steady. Especially in the wake of World Wars I and II, and military coups in the 1960s and 1970s, Greeks and Arabic speaking Syrian-Lebanese settled here.  Primarily Catholic, they enriched the area with the churches and festivals of Eastern Orthodoxy, and with their bakeries, repairs shops and small groceries. When Roslindale businesses and property values took a dive in the 1970s, largely due to the spread of shopping centers and the racialized fears of busing that led to “white flight,” it was immigrants who revived Roslindale.  In addition to the Greeks and Syrian-Lebanese were Haitian and Dominican professionals and workers who started to come in the 1950s to escape social turmoil.

    Haitians have brought the richness of their culture, and the buoyancy of a tight-knit community evident in worship centers such as the Eglise Baptiste du Tabernacle, Kreyol language professional services, and the vigor with which they have organized relief for recurring crises back home. Dominicans, along with smaller groups of Colombians and Central Americans, have broadened the use of Spanish in the neighborhood and introduced Latino music to its streets. Opening bodegas, barbershops, and other small businesses, Dominicans have been part of the rejuvenation of Washington Street, an avenue replete with a mural of David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez, Dominican Red Sox stars.

    As of 2016, the foreign-born made-up 29 percent of Roslindale’s population. The neighborhood’s diversity is especially evident in the vicinity of Roslindale Village–or the Square as many residents call it–where merchants hail from Albania, Algeria, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Jamaica, Japan, Haiti, Hungary, Italy, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Senegal, Syria, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

----Deborah Levenson


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