Shifts Begin to Appear in Boston's Venerable 'Southie' Community

Close-knit, mostly Irish neighborhood attracts attention from popular movie and developers

Two things prompted me to visit South Boston.

The first was the movie "Good Will Hunting" - the story of a math genius-in-the-rough who lives here and is "discovered" after he solves a near-impossible problem left on a blackboard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he works as a janitor.

The second was St. Patrick's Day. South Boston is well known for its Irish character. It's not surprising that Vice President Al Gore is expected to show up here next week for an annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast.

For someone who has lived in the Boston area for more than a decade, I didn't know much about "Southie," as it is affectionately called.

"If you don't live here, there's really no reason to come here. There's no movie theater, no major shopping, and the T [subway] is at the very edge of town," one resident explains.

A teenage boy puts another spin on it: "If you don't live here, maybe you shouldn't be here."

For the most part, though, people are pleasant, if a bit suspicious of outsiders, not to mention a reporter with pad and pen in hand. Many offer opinions about their hometown, but few give their last names. Insular, working class, and Irish are descriptions often tagged to Southie. Ice hockey is the sport of choice for kids. For adults, it's politics.

A distinctive quality defines this neighborhood of 29,000: What some refer to as pride, others might call unshakable tradition, or, resistance to change. It means that residents band together and overturn a proposed plan for a 70,000-seat pro-football stadium (last year). Or, win a case to prevent a gay contingent from marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade. In 1996; the Irish Republican Army, by the way, did have a spot.)

As a reporter, I might be tempted to write about racial flare-ups in the housing projects, brawls, alcoholism, and drugs, especially among young people. Last year, a rash of teen suicides hit Southie; six youngsters hung themselves. Seven more died from drug overdoses.

The shake-up caused this community, known to not air its dirty laundry, to look inward rather than blame outside influences. Several residents speak of heroin in the housing projects, places demographers have listed as among the poorest white urban neighborhoods in the US. There is a tier of young people who feel their future is bleak.

Grudges may be held for long periods, sometimes for generations. "People in Southie can be real territorial," says Bill Cleary, a mover who works in Southie. The resentment over school busing - generally accepted as a colossal failure - still reverberates 23 years later. More recently, forced integration in housing projects has resulted in racial rifts.

But too much has made this closed-in community an example of fix-it-yourself independence to harp on the bad. Southie pride perseveres. Given the poverty that exists here, the crime rate is remarkably low. One new resident tells the story of a group of drunken youths who tipped over some large flower pots in front of his house. Within 20 minutes, several men had the youths back there, cleaning it up. "Everybody knows everybody," he says simply.

In "Good Will Hunting" Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is a Southie orphan living in one of the more rundown parts of town. The portrayal is "right on," according to some here; others resent the fact the movie only shows a junky slice of South Boston.

Yet the film also captures a sense of belonging. At one point, Will declares to his friend Chuckie that he plans to stay in Southie for the rest of his life. Mr. Damon, in a recent interview with The Boston Globe, explains: "South Boston is known throughout the country. It's a closed-in neighborhood in a lot of ways, and that's very representative of Will. A lot of people who grow up there don't leave, which is an aspect of it that really appealed to us in terms of making it believable that Will would want to stay."

A walk around town is revealing.

Historical landmarks dot the area. Telegraph Hill marks a win for George Washington in the Revolutionary War; St. Augustine was one of New England's first Roman Catholic churches; Old Colony Village was the first public housing project in the United States.

Monstrous reminders of an industrial past crowd the northern part of this peninsula. Iron foundries, refineries, machine shops, and shipyards are symbolic of a pro-union stance that keeps this conservative neighborhood Democratic.

Wood-frame triple-deckers dominate the residential landscape, some displaying plaques with family names in English and Gaelic. Many homes have shamrocks in their windows; Irish flags are common. The question "Where are you from?" often refers to Ireland, rather than other parts of the US.

Caroline Gray moved here five years ago from Ireland's midlands. "There have been a lot of young Irish immigrants, especially in the last four to five years," she says. "A lot have gotten green cards."

Some of the wealthiest politicians live in modest dwellings. Artists occupy lofts in places developers are eyeing. A church or tavern is always nearby. The waterfront and Castle Island promenade make for wonderful beachfront walks.

Then there's the main drag, Broadway. Its east side, particularly, offers delightful tidbits of small town life. Little-league photos are displayed in storefronts. In the window of the public library, a flier promotes "South Boston's Most Beautiful Red Hair Contest." Flanagan's Supermarket - the last-remaining store of a metro chain - thrives. Not far away is one of the last-remaining candlepin bowling alleys in New England.

But it's clear that change is underway here. And like everything in Southie, it won't come without political debate. Real estate prices are going up, as in other parts of Boston.

Since her arrival from Ireland, Ms. Gray has contributed to the boom in home fix-ups. "There are a lot of young couples buying and moving in now," she says. "Before you could live here for a lot less. Rents have gone up 40 percent in the last couple of years."

A major redevelopment along the waterfront - known as South Boston Seaport - promises to change 1,000 idle acres to the north into maritime, industrial, and commercial ventures. A new convention center is set to be built by 2003. Residents have insisted that a "buffer zone" be part of the master plan. Some wonder how it will play out, especially during a time when Boston has its first non-Irish mayor in 75 years.

"It will bring more traffic," laments Theresa, a government worker. "Once they establish things, they're going to start buying off peoples' homes - families that grew up here and would usually stay here."

Given the 10- to 20-minute drive into downtown Boston, many wonder if the steady stream of young professionals moving in will quicken. "Do people now look at it as a trendy place? It's not, it's a family neighborhood," says Maryann McLeod Crush, president of MGM Properties and mother of two young children. "New people have always come here to live."

She walks a fine line because her business is real estate, but being born and bred in Southie, she speaks for many when she says it's important to preserve the flavor. "I think it's a wonderful thing that you can live in the city and bring up your children in a safe neighborhood."

The "L" Street Tavern, where Will Hunting and his buddies hang out in the movie, attracts curious visitors. But across the street a new book-lined cafe, Cafe Biblioteca, has just opened up. An upscale condominium three blocks away from the Old Colony housing project is listed for $159,000.

US Rep. Joe Moakley (D), who lives here, is often quoted as saying that it used to be you had to be upwardly mobile to leave Southie but now you have to be upwardly mobile to stay in Southie. Several people say media attention fuels attention and subsequent "invasion."

"I can certainly identify with people who don't want to be overrun by development ... but not all change is bad. It's a balancing act," says Jay Hurley, business manager of Ironworkers Local 7 and a third-generation resident. Development means opportunities, he says. (Seaport plans promise 17,000 construction jobs and 48,000 other jobs over the next 20 years.) South Boston's waterfront could use more enhancement. A happy medium is what people are after, he says, as he introduces two of his children as "real Southie kids." "We want to see the end product as something to be proud of."

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