The Church of Saints Peter and Paul in South Boston has had its share of both bedevilment and blessings. A grand gray building, a pile of granite chunks pierced by Gothic arches and topped with a copper-clad bell tower, was erected in 1844 and dedicated with extravagant ceremony; four years later, it burned to the ground. After it was rebuilt, it was so popular that another parish had to be established nearby to handle the overflow. But in time South Boston started to empty — slowly at first, and then like a bathtub with an open drain — and Saints Peter and Paul emptied, too. On New Year’s Day, 1996, the Boston Archdiocese desanctified the most eminent Catholic church in the area and shut it down. But last spring Saints Peter and Paul was reborn once more. Cleaned up and cleared out, with additional windows cut through its three-foot-thick walls and the new, secular name of 45 West Broadway, it went on the market as thirty-six luxury condominiums suspended in the building’s soaring open space.
The church is not the only thing in South Boston that is experiencing a resurrection. Across West Broadway, a ratty gangster bar — for years the South Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger’s favorite place for a cold drink — reopened a few months ago as a polished-wood-and-granite sports café. Now, instead of being known as a convenient drop-off spot for dead bodies, the bar is known as the 6 House, which is the nickname for the local police precinct, and among its customers are scrubbed and well-shaved managers from the Gillette Corporation, whose offices are a few blocks away. Next door to the 6 House, a former Irish bakery has risen again as a sushi bar. Not far away, the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center — the largest building ever erected in New England — opened last June on what had been sixty acres of cracked blacktop and obsolete factories. All of South Boston is bristling with construction cranes, growling with backhoes, stickered with for-sale signs and building permits. Up and down Broadway, weary old stores are emptying out and being renewed.
All of Boston, in fact, is as hale as it has been in decades — its economy fit, its residential areas sprucing up, its eternal traffic mess finally straightening out — just in time for its spotlight moment this month as host of the Democratic National Convention. Thomas Menino, the mayor of Boston, made sure that the state delegations’ welcoming parties would be held in an array of neighborhoods around the city, to show off how much they have improved. He was reportedly most excited about the venue for the New York party: Carson Beach, beside the old L Street Bath House, in South Boston. The churn of gentrification in old city neighborhoods is not a novel story, and recently gentrification has arrived, for better or for worse, in neighborhoods no one would ever have expected to revive — Washington’s Capitol Hill, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. But it is an especially surprising turn in South Boston, a place that had always seemed cut off from the cycle of city life, and whose character was, for a century or so, rooted in a mighty, and sometimes violent, resistance to change.
One recent afternoon, I met up with Patrick Lynch, a blond, bright-eyed man who is one of the three brokers for the church condominium project. Lynch was showing Saints Peter and Paul to a lawyer who lived in downtown Boston but was considering a move. Lynch grew up in the housing projects near the church, and his sister was married and his nephew christened there. So far, he and the two other brokers have sold twenty-eight of the church’s thirty-six condos, along with all the apartments in the church’s rectory, next door, which was converted to condominiums last year.
The lawyer was taken with Penthouse 3, a one-bedroom with a stained-glass window depicting St. Gregory. The asking price was $799,000. “Breathtaking,” the lawyer said. “This is worthy of any of the Red Sox. I could see someone like, say, Nomar Garciaparra and his soccer-playing wife in here, couldn’t you?”
Lynch said he could, and, after a moment, led us past St. Gregory and into Penthouse 1, the biggest unit, which has exclusive access to the bell tower. We climbed up to see the view from the tower windows. Seagulls floated past with an eye toward an errant bag of trash on the street below. In the distance, a huge silent boat slid by in the harbor. “This place is the hot thing,” the lawyer said. “I have to tell you, until now South Boston wasn’t even on my radar.” He said that he was originally from Washington, D. C., but had lived in Boston for many years — long enough to know South Boston’s reputation for clannishness and impenetrability, and to remember its past as the epicenter of resistance to busing. That uprising took place almost thirty years ago, but the image it created for the neighborhood has abided. In fact, when the location of the New York delegation’s party was announced, Herman Farrell, the head of the delegation, objected because of the neighborhood’s “history of racial turmoil and tension.”
“Oh, I know, I know,” the lawyer said. “But the attraction now is, one, proximity to the subway; two, proximity to downtown; three, value. That’s what’s on my mind.”
“We’re getting a lot of people looking who’ve never been in the neighborhood before,” Lynch said.
“By the way, what’s with the for sale sign on the building next door?” the lawyer asked, pointing to the rectory. Lynch explained that a South Boston native who owned the unit was being transferred to California.
“Well, he’s an idiot for selling,” the lawyer said. “Things here are going to go nowhere but sky-high.”
South Boston is the peninsular thumb of the Greater Boston mitten, just a few hundred yards from the center of downtown but cut off by the murky water of Fort Point Channel and a crosshatch of rail yards. Broadway is the bone that runs through it east to west. North of Broadway, there are the dark brick carcasses of extinct businesses, a hodgepodge of stores and services, plain triple-decker houses shoulder to shoulder on small streets, and a thousand empty acres of developable waterfront property, punctuated by the seaport projects, including the Federal Courthouse, the World Trade Center, and several glossy new office buildings that look as though they’d got lost on their way downtown. On the east end of the peninsula, where the harbor widens, there are leafy residential streets leading down to a beach.
Boats in Boston Harbor skirt the neighborhood; airplanes coming in and out of the city fly over it; any tall building in the financial district casts a shadow across it — still, getting to South Boston had always seemed like a chore. According to Thomas O’Connor’s “South Boston: My Hometown,” when the city was first settled, people made their way to South Boston in rowboats, if they made their way here at all. A toll bridge was opened in 1805, but few people used it; it wasn’t until a free overpass was built to the neighborhood, in 1826, that South Boston started to grow. With water on three sides, it attracted heavy industry; iron foundries, locomotive factories, glassworks, shipyards, and sugar refineries opened on the flatland near the harbor, and workers moved into wooden housing that popped up at the foot of the peninsula’s steep green hills. By the mid-eighteen-fifties, South Boston had sixteen thousand residents, most of whom were new Irish immigrants.
This happened to be at the peak of anti-Irish sentiment in Boston, a bitter period when the old Yankee establishment tried to repulse the wave — thousands each year — of Irish immigrants, and, failing that, to make life in Boston as uncomfortable and unwelcoming as possible by restricting which jobs, housing, and services the Irish could apply for. South Boston, which was absorbing many of the immigrants, felt the brunt of the hostility; residents suspected that the fire that destroyed the Church of Saints Peter and Paul was set by anti-Catholic arsonists, or, at the very least, that it burned unattended for hours because of deliberate neglect. So the neighborhood turned inward. When heavy industry sputtered out in South Boston, people took jobs in the neighborhood with the city and the public utilities. There was a self-containment and insularity to South Boston that was pronounced even by Boston standards — that is, even considering that Boston was, and is, an unusually fragmented city composed, in a sense, of fiercely separate little towns like Brighton, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Charlestown. This separateness was intensified by the fact that South Boston was so physically isolated. Because it is a peninsula jutting out into the harbor, pointing away from the rest of the city and toward, say, Ireland, you didn’t pass through it on your way anywhere, and so the only people who came to South Boston were the people who lived here. In 1959, the elevated Central Artery — a massive contraption that, running parallel to Fort Point Channel and the rail yards, carried the interstate over downtown — added one more barrier between South Boston and the rest of the city.
What balanced out the narrow opportunities of the neighborhood was a vivid sense of community and a defiant pride. Those were the qualities that, in spite of the meanness of life here, made it, according to the writer Michael Patrick MacDonald, in his harrowing memoir, “All Souls,” “the best place in the world.” South Boston was ever more homogeneous — by the nineteen-fifties it had a population of nearly sixty thousand people, who were overwhelmingly Irish, Catholic, and working class. For diversion, there was the church and the local schools: every parish had sports teams and theatre groups and social clubs, and the crowds at South Boston High School football games often numbered ten thousand people or more. The neighborhood voted together, and with determination: it is said that if you were from South Boston the first thing you did when you came of age was register as a Democrat. South Boston has long had one of the highest voter turnouts in the city and a disproportionate presence in Massachusetts politics — including, at one point in recent years, Ray Flynn, the mayor of Boston; William Bulger, the president of the state senate; and the late John Joseph Moakley, the area’s longtime congressional representative and the head of the House Rules Committee.
That same hometown loyalty had an extralegal upshot as well. South Boston produced its own mob, headed by James (Whitey) Bulger — William Bulger’s brother. Whitey Bulger, who has been a fugitive since 1995, when he was indicted on federal racketeering charges, was well known to be a murderer (nineteen victims, at last count), an extortionist (he used intimidation to control a score of South Boston businesses), and a drug trafficker (he profited from the easy flow of heroin into the area). Nevertheless, he was esteemed in the neighborhood as something of a gentleman and, more important — as the countless residents who refused to inform on the Bulger gang explained — one of their own. Even at its worst, and certainly at its best, South Boston was a romantic place — a sort of sentimental evocation of a small town, with its own rules, its tortured intimacies, its layered loyalties. It was a complete world, to which the rest of Boston was just a satellite. Much of the time its residents didn’t even call it South Boston or Southie; they referred to it simply as “the Town.”
Now, with change galloping through the neighborhood, you are still aware of the character of the Town. There are so many local civic organizations that they are listed in a book; so many neighborhood fund-raisers each week for widows and sick children that one South Boston resident told me he hardly had a night at home. One recent afternoon, I walked up and down West Broadway with Brian Wallace, the Democratic state representative for the Fourth Suffolk District, which comprises South Boston and a chunk of nearby Dorchester. Wallace is small, round, smart, and cheery. He likes to say that he started in politics at the age of six, handing out leaflets for John Powers’s state-senate campaign; when I asked him if he grew up in the neighborhood, he chuckled and said, “Do you think I could be in politics in South Boston if I hadn’t?” Walking around with him is an unhurried affair. Every few yards, he sees someone he wants to talk to: the head of the local redevelopment authority, then the guy who dresses up as the Revolutionary War figure at South Boston’s Fort Independence, and then a stream of constituents, grammar-school classmates, business associates, friends. Everyone was on a nickname basis — nicknames being a Southie tradition, an inside joke that distinguishes someone who was raised in the Town from someone who just stumbled in the other day. A few years ago, Wallace compiled a list of several hundred local nicknames for a huge neighborhood celebration, the 2000 Great Southie Reunion: Wing Nut Coyne, Mousey Feeney, Pinhead Richardson, Squarehead Lydon, Beefy Boyle, Porky Welch.
It was a hot day, and the little grease slicks on West Broadway were shimmering in the midday light; we ducked into the shade of a doorway whenever Wallace stopped for a chat. Each doorway reminded him of what the business there used to be: he said the employment office had been a bookie joint; the Quiet Man Pub had been the Royale Cafe;, a popular spot with kids from the Old Colony housing project; the raw gray dirt of a vacant lot being readied for construction was where the West Broadway projects had been. Wallace added that things were changing so fast in the neighborhood that he found it hard to believe. What had once been a town so intimate that everyone knew everyone, could talk to each other about Porky and Beefy and Pinhead, was becoming just a place — a nicer place, but just a place, populated by strangers. He mentioned that he always consulted voter lists from previous elections when he campaigned, but that when he ran for office in 2002 the lists from the last two elections were of no use to him, because so many of those voters had moved. In a place like South Boston, that kind of shift is seismic. “I always hand out leaflets at bus stops,” Wallace said. “So for this campaign I went to the stop at L and Fourth Street — that’s a big stop. I went early in the morning and gave out a hundred and three brochures. I knew only three out of the hundred and three people. Four years earlier, I would have known a hundred out of the hundred and three.”
It is easy to pinpoint the moment when South Boston began to change: it was June 21, 1974, when Judge W. Arthur Garrity ruled that the Boston school system displayed “segregative intent.” He prescribed a busing plan for the entire city, but he had a particular interest in South Boston, which was ninety-nine percent white. The busing plan called for African-American students from nearby Roxbury to be brought to Southie, and for South Boston students to be sent in the other direction. Much as residents might be nostalgic about the era preceding Judge Garrity’s order, South Boston in the mid-seventies was a downcast place — economically inert and socially stagnant, a place where mobsters and drug dealers had taken a ferocious hold. A 1965 study by the Boston Redevelopment Authority reported that nearly half of the neighborhood’s housing was in bad shape and recommended that twenty-two percent of it be torn down. Most of the local school buildings had been erected before the turn of the century; the report called for six of the fourteen to be demolished immediately. At the time, Boston was in the midst of an urban-renewal binge, ripping down strip-club districts and slums and slapping up glassy plazas and municipal towers in the hope of refreshing downtown. Many of those projects were misbegotten and badly designed. That might have been why South Boston’s residents resisted the proposed renewal plan, or their resistance might have been more a function of the neighborhood’s increasing stubbornness and rejection of change. And then came busing, which combined every provocation to the neighborhood’s character: a plan imposed by outsiders, and bringing scores of outsiders into one of South Boston’s bedrock institutions, its schools.
The result was bruising and hysterical: In South Boston, crowds met the school buses from Roxbury, picketing, chanting, throwing rocks. There was a stabbing at the school; an infamous incident in which a South Boston teenager lunged at an African-American man with an American flag; and rumors that South Boston gangs were supplying local teen-agers with guns to attack the Roxbury students. As J. Anthony Lukas noted in “Common Ground,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Boston’s busing crisis, the scene was as inflamed and hostile as the one that had met the first school integration, nearly twenty years earlier, in Little Rock.
Besides the conflict between blacks and whites, busing also represented, for many in South Boston, a conflict between those Irish who had remained loyal to their roots and those who had become “Yankeefied.” Both Judge Garrity and the then mayor of Boston, Kevin White, who reluctantly supported the busing decision, were Irish, which made the imposition all that much harder to take.
It was years before South Boston schools were quieted. At some point, the energy for stoning buses faded and the inevitability of the court order took hold. Many people came to accept integration, but many others resolved their distaste for it by moving their kids to parochial schools — and many just left the neighborhood. This happened throughout the city: during the period of Judge Garrity’s supervision, the number of white students in Boston’s public schools dropped from forty-five thousand in 1974 to 15,842 in 1987. But South Boston’s exodus was the most dramatic. Its residents moved out of the Town, the place they had probably intended to stay in forever, and into the suburbs south of Boston, such as Quincy, Weymouth, Holbrook, Brockton. The population of South Boston declined by twenty per cent.
It was during the busing upheaval that the future of South Boston was probably cast. In 1976, just two years after Garrity’s decision, the Tall Ships made their way past Boston, and the best place to view them was South Boston’s Castle Island, a green park on the harbor. It must have been a shock to visitors from other parts of the city to be in this sequestered neighborhood, mostly unseen and unknown, and assumed to be dingy, forbidding, dour — and to find a splendid park and three miles of beach, lined by pretty houses with picture windows, all an easy distance from downtown. Then in quick succession came a hat trick of projects that further changed South Boston. First, in 1985, there was a federal court order to clean up Boston Harbor; fifteen years later, the harbor was clean, and the neighborhood with the most access to it was South Boston. Two years after the harbor restoration was ordered, Congress approved funding for the largest and most complex public-works project in the country: the Big Dig, which would dismantle the Central Artery and replace it with a huge underground highway, thus removing one of the ugliest and most intrusive hurdles between South Boston and downtown. (The project is now in its final stages.) In addition, the Massachusetts Turnpike was extended into the neighborhood, making it possible, for the first time, to travel at high speed from South Boston to the rest of the world. Finally, in 1997 the state approved plans to acquire sixty gloomy acres near the harbor and build on it the new convention center — a sleek, white, wave-shaped building that would anchor development of the thousand vacant acres around it. At the same time, word got out that property in South Boston was priced well below that in the rest of the city, where housing was expensive and in short supply; suddenly, crumbling Southie buildings that hadn’t had a new owner or a coat of paint in years were being bought and sold. The neighborhood’s reinvention had begun.
Walking through South Boston these days is like walking in and out and ahead of time, being able to see what used to be and what is soon likely to be. On one block you might see faded Gaelic graffiti, Aer Lingus ads, and posters declaring “now here ottara’s of foxford real irish loaf baked in ireland,” and on the next a cluster of sparkling new storefronts and no indication at all of what the area used to be. The old bad things in the neighborhood — the aversion to outsiders, the antagonism to change — are being shaken loose, but some of the best things about the community are slipping away, too. In the past, if you grew up in South Boston you knew that you could afford to stay here. But between 1980 and 1990 the median home value rose from twenty-four thousand dollars to a hundred and forty-one thousand, and has certainly gone up from there; the first million-dollar condominium sale took place earlier this year. The cheapest, sagging triple-deckers now offer developers the delicious prospect of condo conversion, and a lot of lifetime residents, particularly the elderly, are being priced out of their own homes. More alarming is the fact that among young men in the neighborhood, starting in the late nineties, suicide and heroin use soared.
The most recent transformation of South Boston has coincided, almost exactly, with the revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — a scandal that was first exposed in the Boston Archdiocese. The financial toll on the Church, and the disaffection of many Catholics, in addition to the fact that so many had already left Boston, has diminished what had been an unassailable force in the city. Every day, it seems, another church closes, another parochial school is shut down, another parish folds. There used to be seven major churches in South Boston. For years, there was a tradition in the neighborhood of going to Mass at each of the seven on Holy Thursday, walking from one to the next — what people in the neighborhood called “making the seven churches.” Now one of those churches has closed, and two more will soon be closing.
Not long ago, I roamed around South Boston with a newcomer to the neighborhood. Samuel Hurtado, a slim, doe-eyed young man with sharp shoulders and dark hair, moved from Mexico to the United States eight years ago in order to become a priest. He didn’t take to the priesthood, so he left the seminary and found a job at an after-school program in South Boston. He had never been in the neighborhood, or the city, before. He decided to work in social services, focussing on Hispanic families in the South Boston projects, which, until 1987, when the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development forced the Boston Housing Authority to integrate them, were almost completely inhabited by whites. Now the projects are more than half Hispanic and African-American. For some people who have been in South Boston forever, this is a case of the vise tightening from the bottom and the top: the fancy houses are being taken over by outsiders, and so are the projects, where nearly every old-school South Boston politician grew up. Hurtado knew that the immigrant community faced resistance, but he liked the challenge. He said that he had read the history of South Boston and realized that it was originally settled by unloved immigrants, who had made it their own exclusive place. He explained that he had grown up in a tight-knit neighborhood in Mexico, and that the dynamics there were just like what he was finding in South Boston — the tradition, the closeness, the wariness of change. “I realized that I understood this place,” he said, “and that we were somehow making history.”
We stopped at Old Colony, a squat brick project near Carson Beach, on the southern edge of the peninsula. A bunch of kids were whacking a tennis ball with a broom handle, running invisible bases in the dusty courtyard. A husky, red-faced man in a Red Sox uniform stood on the sidelines, shaking his head at each wayward swing of the broom handle. He had just come from a Little League tryout and was lamenting how few kids had turned up. “Years ago, things were different,” he said to Hurtado. Then he yelled at the kids, “Hey, that’s an error!” He turned back to Hurtado. “Like I said, things were different.”
Hurtado smiled. “Everything is always different.”
The man let out a beery burp and said, “That’s what they say.”
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