Flynn Opens the Door in `Southie'

Boston mayor eased the transition toward integrating public housing on his own turf

IN a small park outside the Old Colony public housing project in South Boston, Linda watches her granddaughter, Kelsie, play in the sunshine.

On a quiet, sunny afternoon, it is hard to imagine the racial tension some residents feel living at this 500-unit housing complex nestled in the Boston community known as "Southie."

But here in this predominantly white, Irish neighborhood, residents do not always take kindly to newcomers. And since Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn pushed forward racial integration of South Boston's three public housing projects here in the late 1980s, white Old Colony residents like Linda (who would not give her last name) have seen an increasing number of African-Americans and other minorities move here.

According to Linda, living at Old Colony has been peaceful. "It's always quiet here," she says. "I have a black neighbor that lives next door, and there's one across the street, and I have been here 15 years and have never had any problem."

Old Colony now has approximately 20 percent minority residents - a major step forward compared to the situation in 1987 when it was less than 1 percent integrated, according to Boston Housing Authority (BHA) administrator David Cortiella.

Racial makeup of the other two Southie developments has also changed. The Mary Ellen McCormack development is now 20 percent integrated (it was less than 1 percent in 1987) and the West Broadway project sits at 35 percent integrated (less than 2 percent in 1987), according to Mr. Cortiella. Mayor's home community

During his 9-1/2 years as Boston's mayor, Mr. Flynn oversaw the integration of public housing in Southie, the mayor's home community, which was once the center of racial hostility during court-ordered busing in the 1970s.

Although the mayor did not initiate the process, Flynn helped maintain racial harmony when housing integration took place in South Boston in the late 1980s.

Helping blacks move into Southie public housing was a crucial issue for the mayor after a 1987 audit of the city's housing department by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD cited a pattern of discrimination whereby whites were given priority over blacks for housing in South Boston.

Facing a loss of federal funds and possible federal-court supervision of the city's public housing, Flynn entered into a voluntary agreement with HUD to end the discrimination. In July 1988, the first two black families moved into the Mary Ellen McCormack development.

In the weeks preceding the move, the Boston mayor met with community leaders, organized a police presence during integration, and urged the news media to use restraint in reporting the sensitive situation.

"I felt an obligation to [the people in South Boston] that I had to level with them, tell them the truth. I said to them around the integration of the housing: `Look, either I'm going to do it or some federal judge is going to do it. Who do you want?' " Flynn says.

"We had a history in this city when politicians didn't want to make those decisions and federal judges made those decisions for them. And so, what I said was as long I was their mayor, I was going to make those decisions and work with them," he adds. Little racial tension

Only sporadic instances of racial tension followed, certainly nothing like the racial turmoil that following a 1974 federal court ruling that Boston schools be desegregated.

African-American residents in Southie generally "don't have time to get into issues of race, bigotry, and hatred," says Louis Elisa, president of the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "They have everyday problems that exist, and they try to resolve them."

Mr. Elisa says housing integration has improved, but more work needs to be done. In fact, although overall minority integration has increased at the South Boston housing complexes, the percentage of African-American tenants is still small, with only 6 percent at Old Colony, 6 percent at Mary Ellen McCormack, and 10 percent at West Broadway, according to March BHA statistics. Today, 174 black families live in the three developments.

"I don't think we have reached the level we need to be [at] in order to say that we have an open public-housing program," Elisa says.

Indeed, the feeling among black South Boston public-housing residents is mixed.

One woman in her late 20s says her pregnant sister, who lives at Old Colony with her boyfriend and four young children, has experienced nothing but harassment from white residents of the housing project. She says that her sister, who also would not give her name, had put in for a transfer out of the project where she has lived for three years.

"These people are very prejudiced. My sister's kids have been teased, had rocks thrown at them, and have been told `go back where you came from.' She's stopped letting them outside," she says.

She describes how her brother's car, while parked out front, has been vandalized three times in a couple of months. Other cars parked there had not been touched, she adds.

"We don't want to walk around. We go straight to the store and come back. Or we have someone pick us up in a car, and we're gone," she continues. "Police officers are not the answer. You don't get any help from the housing police as soon as they see you're black."

But some black residents have a different view.

Mary Mathurin, who has nine children, has lived in Old Colony for four years. She said she was harassed and bothered by name-calling. But now things have changed, and she truly enjoys living in Southie.

"At first, when I came into South Boston, I got into problems with white students," Ms. Mathurin says. "But now I don't have any troubles with white students."

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