It's just one-third of a square mile, home to maybe ten or twelve thousand people and countless small restaurants, cafes and shops catering to the neighborhood. I'm just back from a three-hour walking tour that just scratched the surface of this small yet appealing community. If you're a long-time resident, chances are you know your shopkeepers and they know you, as well as knowing the people you pass on the street or see in the cafes - the locals, that is, if you can spot them amidst all the tourists.
I'm talking about Boston's North End, after having enjoyed the fun and informative, although somewhat pricey ($48), North End Market Tour. Even though I've been to the North End dozens of times, wandered into a number of the shops and eaten at many restaurants, I still learned things about this most European of neighborhoods. I've shopped at Salumeria Italiana numerous times before, but Polcari's Coffee was a find (lots of herbs and spices, reasonably priced), as was Maria's Pastry Shop a bit off the beaten Hanover Street tourist track. The tour included a fair amount of samples, from high-quality balsamico to the All Souls' Day ossi dei morti seasonal specialty.
Our guide clearly knew not only all the shopkeepers, which you'd expect, but lots of locals we passed in the street as well. The streetscape was charming enough to be worth a schlepp in by public transit, but not so yuppified/tourist-afied to have become a Disneyland caricature of itself (as so many hot urban neighborhoods end up). If you want to know what "sense of place" is all about, there are few communities that offer a better example.
Learning the "secrets" of local food stores and special products made me think how great it would be if someone put together a similar market, grocer and restaurant walking tour of ethnic downtown Framingham. It's not quite as charming, it might not last 3 hours and certainly it wouldn't attract enough people to run six times/week, but an occasional tour in conjunction with other activities could do wonders in revealing the "mysteries" of ethnic stores for the rest of us. Patriots Day weekend, anyone?