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NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH | SOUTH BOSTON

Same Old Southie

As much as South Boston has changed and gentrified and yuppified, it has, in truth, not changed much at all. Still gritty, still old Boston.

As much as South Boston's demographics have changed, its neighborly feel remains strong. Stanley Saniuk of Quincy, who grew up in Southie, still likes to visit Mul's Diner. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)  More photos
As much as South Boston's demographics have changed, its neighborly feel remains strong. Stanley Saniuk of Quincy, who grew up in Southie, still likes to visit Mul's Diner. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)  More photos
By Anthony Flint
May 29, 2005

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This is the second in a series of articles exploring area neighborhoods.

When Jim Tucker and Edwin Bradley moved into a renovated Victorian in South Boston nearly three years ago, they were relieved that they didn't encounter the dirty looks, or worse, that they had anticipated. Just a short walk from South Boston High School, where the scars of busing still linger, a biracial gay couple had managed to do the unthinkable in this notoriously insular bastion of Irish-Catholic, old-school Boston: They had quietly blended in.

Neighbors introduced themselves - some already knew the pair's names - and both men met a dozen more people while walking their boxer, Apollo Creed, in the park around the Dorchester Heights Monument. "Suddenly we were part of this little neighborhood," says Bradley, a waiter at Mistral. "It felt good."

There was, however, the curious matter of parking: the nasty note they got when they squeezed the BMW into a tight spot - accepted practice in the South End or Beacon Hill but an affront to the owner of the Ford LTD who felt hemmed in. (At least it wasn't a dragged key on the finish or a slashed tire, other common methods of communication). There is the resistance to resident parking stickers, because some residents register cars outside the city to save on insurance. Or the double- or triple-parking on Broadway. And, of course, the cones, lawn chairs, ironing boards, and trash barrels that come out any time there is a hint of snow, set down in shoveled-out parking spots like stakes in a land rush.

The Tucker Bradleys, who are now married, did what most newcomers reluctantly do when faced with this custom: They got themselves a bright orange cone, marked it with their address, and plunked it down. "When in Rome," says Edwin.

But their experience perfectly captures the current status of what's often called the "towne," a mile from downtown Boston and assumed by many to be in the late stages of gentrification. Southie is changing. Yet Southie is not changing very much at all.

True, the demographics in this neighborhood of 30,000 have been transformed over the last 10 years, and home prices have surged right up to the million-dollar mark common in the Back Bay or South End. A sushi restaurant and a wood-and-brass bar are in the block formerly occupied by the Triple O's, a bucket of blood frequented by members of James J. "Whitey" Bulger's gang. Hip young urbanites are snapping up lofts in renovated industrial buildings or fixing up row houses and landscaping postage-stamp-sized gardens out back. A Jaguar parked on the street no longer automatically means a rich uncle is visiting from the suburbs.

But South Boston is also a place that struggles with poverty, crime, drug addiction, and youth suicides. It is a place where the new Silver Line bus to the waterfront and downtown was rejected because it would interfere with double-parking on Broadway. It is home to two dollar stores, a Rent-a-Center and a Goodwill thrift store, sub shops, a day-job center, a store that sells only cash registers, a half-dozen nail salons, and more bad Chinese food per capita than perhaps anywhere else on the East Coast. Famously, the organizers of Southie's St. Patrick's Day parade won't let gays and lesbians march in the event. Resentful kids as young as 12 have been known to assault people they think are yuppies, in what police say may be a gang initiation rite.

Whatever the future holds, Southie is not the province of the super rich, and that's appreciated. It's always been its own distinct neighborhood, and that endures to this day.

"I have trouble seeing it becoming the South End," says Jeremy Dellaria, a partner at Salon Marc Harris on Newbury Street who moved from Chelsea to a condominium on F Street in 2003. "You see the gentrification, but it's to a point. It's still got the old guard, and I don't think they're going anywhere."

As Boston's changing neighborhoods go, South Boston is often compared to Charlestown, the South End, or Jamaica Plain - working-class neighborhoods that have been transformed and in some cases, like the South End, turned into some of the most affluent parts of an increasingly affluent city. In the process, established residents get displaced, sometimes in a hurry, leading to much agonizing over affordable housing and socioeconomic diversity. For the scale and pace of these changes, however, Southie is more like Dorchester - bigger than Charlestown and evolving more slowly, block by block.

In the classic gentrification pattern, architects, artists, gays, and young professionals discover a run-down neighborhood, buy real estate when it's still a bargain, and spark a run on contractors, who take on months-long renovation and restoration projects. Commercial gentrification usually is quick to follow - an initial rush of coffee bars and exciting bistros, followed by a kind of sheepish regret as the dry cleaners and hardware stores disappear. Shawmut Avenue in the South End turned its final corner when Tony's fruit and vegetable store got the boot, and everyone bemoaned the fact that the very things that attracted them to the neighborhood were being chased away, replaced by art galleries and real estate offices. It's easy for a place to lose its soul.

South Boston has long been an obvious target for just this kind of change. It's close to the financial district, the South End, Back Bay, Chinatown, and the Theater District. It has two stops on the Red Line and easy access to Interstate 93, and now it has its own exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike, right along with Weston. The Congress Street interchange for the Pike is a short drive down D Street from the center of Southie, and the trip to Logan Airport through the Ted Williams Tunnel is a five-minute breeze. South Boston has Castle Island and Carson Beach, breakfast at Mul's Diner, and exquisite pasta at Sal's. The waterfront at the neighborhood's doorstep, already home to a new convention center, is set to get commercial development that may include a Nordstrom's and a Barneys.

But South Boston won't follow the traditional gentrification script. The sushi joint, Teriyaki House, has high symbolic value, but the truth is, the neighborhood hasn't seen anything close to the cultural transfusion that has happened in Charlestown or the South End. Longtime residents think of it as an island - it's a peninsula shaped like a horse head, with lots of landfill on the north side, where the waterfront is being developed - and its historic isolation endures. Another difference is that, for the most part, it didn't go from being an affluent neighborhood to hard times and then back to affluence, like the South End. With some exceptions in the mansions on East Broadway, Southie has always been a working-class place, with affordable housing for dock workers and those who reported to the factories, the Gillette complex being the modern-day survivor. It became an unpretentious, lunch-bucket-Democrat neighborhood, a nearly homogeneous community of white Irish-Catholic immigrants.

The violent reaction against busing was one of the first signals that people in Southie liked things the way they were and were prepared to fight against change - certainly any change that was being imposed on them, whether school assignments or urban renewal. And the parade of politicians coming out of South Boston - Raymond Flynn, William Bulger, Joseph Moakley - ensured a degree of power and clout. In the words of the song "Southie Is My Hometown," they'll take you and break you but never forsake you. In the 1990s, Patriots owner Robert Kraft didn't court South Boston sufficiently, and his waterfront football stadium got shot down. Public meetings on development projects held by the Boston Redevelopment Authority have been raucous affairs. A proposal for town houses and condos on vacant lots along D Street came and went; after brutal discussions, the builders simply gave up.

"They are trying to protect the fabric and sense of community here, and it's admirable," says Tim Pappas, whose family-owned and Boston-based Pappas Enterprises redeveloped the Court Square Press building into 130 loft-style condos and plans the new 148-unit MacAllen Building next door, both brimming with sleek wood and tasteful design. "They have family here, and they don't want to see it change. The fear is, at any moment, someone's going to build a high-rise at L and Broadway."

But newcomers wonder why the entire neighborhood doesn't have a resident parking program, just like the South End or Back Bay or Charlestown. Parking, indeed, is a telling indication of the Southie sensibility: What so many want to preserve is a suburban feel, which is tough to do in a dense urban neighborhood. When Mayor Thomas M. Menino suggested that residents couldn't mark their spaces after snowstorms for weeks on end, the ensuing vitriol was directed against not only yuppies but the mayor, who has the luxury of his own driveway. People in South Boston wish they had their own driveway, and slapping a cone down in a space out front is a way to get one, at least for a while. Double-parking outside the CVS is a way of pretending that Broadway is as convenient as a strip mall. For some, it's only a matter of time before the inner suburbanite busts loose, with a move to Milton or Braintree.

Meanwhile, the newcomers do keep streaming in. An executive in an insurance firm says that no fewer than six of her female co-workers have moved into one- and two-bedroom condos in South Boston in the past year. The apartments in the 1866 manufacturer's mansion at 788 East Broadway that were featured last year on the Laboure Center's annual Christmas house tour were rented from the moment the hardwood floors were buffed. Sunlight glimmers off the Sub-Zeros in the lofts at Court Square Press, and every month, it seems, another Victorian is renovated on Telegraph Hill. Dorchester and Jamaica Plain are hot, to be sure, but South Boston remains a neighborhood of choice for anyone looking for reasonable value close to downtown.

"The predominant buyer is a young urban professional, male, female, single or couples. We're getting a few empty nesters, having lived in the suburbs, who are looking for the right situation," says Michael Foley, a real estate broker at Jack Conway & Co. Inc. "You get more for your money here. The differential is 25 percent compared to the South End, 20 percent for Charlestown, and, of course, much more for Back Bay."

Prices depend on the characteristics, conditions, and location of the property, Foley says, but they are being pretty much uniformly kept aloft by steady demand. No-nonsense, 1,000-square foot one- or two-bedroom condos in a converted triple-decker go for $250,000 to $280,000, but anything that's been renovated with any amount of care goes for $300,000 to $600,000. New construction with garage parking, air conditioning, and stainless-steel-and-granite kitchens reliably sells for about $450 a square foot, Foley says. A condo on East Broadway recently sold for just under a million; sales of single-family homes, meanwhile, range from $350,000 to $725,000. By contrast, it's hard to find a single-family home in the South End for under a million.

The Starbucks and the boutiques and the Barbara Lynch bistros will be coming in right behind all of this, one would think, to cater to the new demographic profile. But when it comes to commercial gentrification, the gallop proclaimed by outside writers isn't even a slow trot. If anything, things are going in the opposite direction on West Broadway, where a video store was replaced by a Goodwill outlet and a furniture showroom was supplanted by the block's second dollar store. The Rainbow Dragon got a spiffy interior makeover, but the food is as mediocre as it ever was. Meat and potatoes is still the staple in Southie - it's just served with some chopped parsley sprinkled around the edge of the plate.

Jeremy Dellaria, the F Street resident, says the last straw was when a burrito joint named Fresh Tortillas opened near Dorchester Street and turned out to be Chinese food in Mexican disguise. "I did have to laugh at that," Dellaria says. "Talk about losing something in the translation." Amenities in Southie "are definitely lacking. You want a good sports pub, there are plenty. I've wondered why someone hasn't come in [with an upscale restaurant], because I think it would do well. Although for me, I know where to go, and it's not that far away. Last night, we just went over to Union [in the South End], and we were home in five minutes."

The result is a kind of urban bedroom community, where new residents sleep and hang out at home but venture outside the neighborhood for work, food, and entertainment. Pappas says he's sure that the commercial transformation will happen but that, for now, people just drive over the West Fourth Street bridge or hop on the Red Line.

What's happening on the commercial front may reflect the conservatism of restaurants and retail, but it may also reflect something more contrarian: The onslaught of newcomers hasn't reached critical mass. State Senator Jack Hart, a G Street resident, thinks the old and the new in the neighborhood fabric are staying intact - though the fabric is increasingly strained. "Families would love to stay, but they can't afford to, paying the taxes and tuition for private school," he says, noting a friend who sold his two-family house on 8th Street and bought a house in Milton outright while immediately saving tens of thousands in tuition. "It's economics."

For all the yuppie yearning for a Starbucks on Broadway, there's plenty to like about the slow pace of change. Southie's sense of community and its traditional neighborhood setting are things developers are trying to replicate across the country. The 75-year-old retiree next door shovels your walk, the Red Sox get deconstructed every Saturday at Ottavio's or Skip's over a $15 haircut, the Guinness is expertly poured anyplace on Broadway, and you can actually walk a couple of blocks and get a key made.

"What people want ideally is the perfect balance," says Tim Love, founding principal of the architecture firm Utile Inc. and a professor at Northeastern University who renovated a row house on F Street in 1999. "That means everyday retail, takeout food, moderately priced restaurants and a couple of fancier restaurants, smaller groceries for good produce and cheese, a butcher. It means old-timers and new residents."

Michael Vaughan, a public relations consultant who moved from South Boston to West Roxbury (because of his wife, he says) but who still owns property off M Street, says if any place can pull it off, it's here. The evolving diversity of the neighborhood should be the real source of "Southie pride," Vaughan says. "You've got Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Hispanic, Asian - and don't forget, you've got the working waterfront, Boston Freight Terminals, Boston Ship Repair," he says. "There's a blue-collar base, and there's the artist community in Fort Point. I think it makes for a very balanced community."

A loss of the neighborhood fabric, says Ken DeMoura, a lawyer who recently sold his four-story row house and is moving to West Roxbury, would be tragic. "Even though the demographics have changed, I can't say the character of the neighborhood changed. People watch out for each other. We got to know the neighbors across the street, down on the corner, all native South Boston residents. It's one of the things that attracted us - the feeling of neighborhood, of security," says DeMoura, who moved to South Boston in 1989. At the time, his friends considered him a real pioneer. "You get out of it what you put in. If you roll up your sleeves and become part of the neighborhood, and you don't stand off and be aloof, everyone is more than generous with their time and neighborliness," he says. "You do wonder if the demographics are changing so much that there isn't going to be a real neighborhood where kids are growing up, playing sports. I know the South Boston Youth Hockey has seen a decrease. There just aren't as many kids around."

However Southie changes over the next 10 years, residents, real estate agents, and developers agree that there is one area in particular to watch: lower Broadway between Dorchester Avenue and A Street, including the Court Square Press building and the soon-to-be-built MacAllen Building; the former Albany radiator, Sunoco gas station, and Linehan's pub redevelopment sites; and the Notre Dame academy complex, all clustered around the Broadway T station. The old St. Peter and Paul's Church has already been converted into condos.

Industrial and commercial buildings and sites are also likely to be converted to residential, on A Street from Broadway toward the already renovated loft buildings and the Channel Center in the Fort Point Channel district, and along First, Second, and Third streets from A Street all the way to Dorchester Street. Imagine an "L" starting around the Broadway T station and running from the Fort Point Channel up to and behind the new convention center - that's likely to be the vanguard of the most radical change. If a bistro opens in Southie in the next decade, it will probably be closer in proximity to the venerable Amrhein's - or in Amrhein's - than the L Street Tavern.

The standards are going to be relentlessly cosmopolitan. Multicolored lights from Pottery Barn won't do the trick. Residents from new nearby condos recently met with the management at Teriyaki House, demanding an improvement in the quality of the spicy tuna rolls. But even this soon-to-be-trendy section is bucking change. Inside the Quiet Man Pub, regulars dine on steak tips and drink $2.75 Budweisers; on the front window is the phrase "America: Love It or Leave It." It could be 1968. And if you're foolish enough to pull to the curb outside the Dunkin' Donuts across the street, within seconds, a double-parker will block you in. Remember that the neighborhood custom is never to honk; while that driver of the Ford F-150 gets his extra large and finishes a Patriots analysis, you shouldn't plan on getting anywhere quickly. You just have to wait.

Anthony Flint, a member of the Globe staff, is writing a book on smart growth, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He can be reached at flint@globe.com.

 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 1: The Sound of Silence in the North End (By Will Kilburn, Boston Globe, 1/23/05) Photo Gallery North End photos
 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 2: Same Old Southie (By Anthony Flint, Boston Globe, 5/29/05) Photo Gallery Southie photos
 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 3: Born Again in the West End (By Monica Collins, Boston Globe, 8/7/05) Photo Gallery West End photos
 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 4: Dot. Dot. Dot. (By Emily Sweeney, Boston Globe, 9/18/05) Photo Gallery Dorchester photos