Southie: memories of an Irish-Catholic neighborhood

The recently concluded trial of James “Whitey” Bulger has stirred memories of living in South Boston, better known as “Southie,” once a landmark neighborhood of Irish America.

The 83-year-old Bulger, former leader of the notorious Winter Hill Gang, was convicted on 31 of 32 counts of murder and racketeering. He ruled Boston’s Irish underworld for most of the 1970s and 1980s from a Southie bar called Triple O’s, skillfully playing his FBI contacts against the city’s Italian Mafia and other criminal gangs.

I lived in Boston from 1985 to 1992, including three years in Southie. Bulger’s younger brother William also lived in the neighborhood and was president of the Massachusetts Senate. Raymond Flynn, the Boston mayor, was another Southie resident.

Back then the city’s busing crisis was finally drawing to a close. Most of the court battles and violence focused on South Boston High School, a block from my apartment. [See Stephen Burke’s blog/novel “The Chieftains of South Boston.”]

It was impossible to walk the streets of Southie without hearing stories of the Bulger brothers, Whitey the gangland criminal who allegedly handed out Thanksgiving turkeys to the poor, Billie the intellectual lawmaker known for hosting an annual St. Patrick’s Day political roast.

I enjoyed the working-class grittiness of Southie, a stub of peninsula jutting into Boston Harbor. There is a great waterfront park called Castle Island (a variation of the Kerry town) and fingers of ship channels and industrial slips. It was a great place to go for a run. I worked out at a public community center named after former Mayor James Michael Curley, an Irish-American legend.

I loved the Irish Catholic feel of Southie. There were three parishes within a few miles: Sts. Peter & Paul, St. Monica/St. Augustine’s and Gate of Heaven — “Gatie” as it was affectionately known — where I attended Mass. If you whispered a “Hail Mary” each time you passed a statue of the Blessed Mother, the prayer would stay on your lips the length of any walk through Southie.

Of course, this was before the 2002 Boston Globe investigation that uncovered widespread clergy sexual abuse of children throughout the Archdiocese of Boston.

St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston, 2008. Image from Boston.com

St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston, 2008. Image from Boston.com

There was a joke in Southie that everyone living there was in the CIA: Catholic, Irish and alcoholic. Booze, drugs and Whitey Bulger fueled a lot of crime in Southie, especially its public housing projects. I remember seeing a mural on the wall of one tenement, the Fighting Irish mascot with the middle finger extended on one hand and a clenched fist in the other. The Irish republican math equation “26 + 6 = 1” was common graffiti.

Many of the alcoholics and drugs addicts in the neighborhood were striving for sobriety in places such as Answer House and Gavin House, which taught the fundamentals of 12-step recovery. David Foster Wallace later immortalized Boston A.A. in his 1996 book, Infinite Jest.

I remember the Aer Lingus flights swooping low over Southie to land at Logan on the other side of the harbor. The Irish tricolor was as ubiquitous as the stars and stripes; the shamrock as common as the stylized “B” of the Boston Red Sox.

Southie was a place of police sirens and church bells, of shouted rage and hearty laughter. I worked at the University of Massachusetts/ Boston in nearby Dorchester. My neighborhood was full of cops, firefighters, longshoremen, teachers, pressmen, iron workers and commercial fishermen. Many of the moms were much too young, and kids were on every corner.

Whitey Bulger fled Boston in 1994, about the same time U.S. News and World Report reported Southie had one of the highest concentrations of white poverty in the nation. But young urban professionals, or “yuppies,” already were beginning to discover the neighborhood before I moved to Texas in January 1993. By the time U.S. Sen. John Kerry was nominated for president at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, the transformation was nearly complete, drawing media attention at the time.

Nine years later, the AP reported during Bulger’s trial:

Triple O’s, a hole-in-the-wall bar where Bulger allegedly collected unpaid loans, is now a sushi bar. Across the street is a Starbucks.

Or here is what the City of Boston says about Southie:

Once a predominantly Irish-Catholic community, in recent years South Boston has become increasingly desirable among young professionals and families who are attracted to the neighborhood’s strong sense of community and quick access to downtown and public transportation.

My wife and I traveled to Boston in March, a few days before the annual St. Patrick’s parade and a month before the Boston Marathon bombing. We stayed at the Seaport Boston Hotel, on the north side of Southie near downtown. What used to be the hard-scrabbled industrial waterfront is now filled with upscale hotels, condos, restaurants and shops.

I didn’t get to see much of my old neighborhood during our short stay. It didn’t matter. The Southie I remember had changed a long time ago; for good, for ill and forever.