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With reality TV, is Southie about to be New Jerseyed?

Hollywood captured and ruined South Boston at the same time. Now a slew of TV shows are going to turn “a Southie” into a symbol. We're about to be New Jerseyed.

Mul’s Diner provides a front-row seat to a changing South Boston. One arrival is the 139-unit apartment complex 50 West Broadway, opened in 2010. Mul’s Diner provides a front-row seat to a changing South Boston. One arrival is the 139-unit apartment complex 50 West Broadway, opened in 2010. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / July 29, 2012
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ONE NIGHT IN 1994, when I was a freshman in college in New Orleans, I was in a bar charging hard at two young ladies. At some point in my game, one of the women stopped me.

“You’re a Southie,” she said.

I was a Southie kid, no question about it, all accent and attitude, me against the world. But I did not understand what she meant by “a Southie.” I had never even mentioned Southie. They just knew I was from Boston.

I tried to educate the ladies, explain to them that Southie was the name for a neighborhood of Boston, a very particular one, but that I was from Southie, not a Southie.

 “Yes,” she said, “but you’re a Southie.”

I knew what she meant, and it was the first time I noticed how the outside world had begun to define a type, what they considered to be the authentic Bostonian. Accent and attitude. And they gave that type a name, put all the credit and blame on one neighborhood: South Boston.

I did not need to be told that the world was fascinated with people from Southie. It was always there, wherever I went, even in Boston. Southie triggers a reaction. Everyone has something to say about it, has his own idea of it.

During my senior year, I thought I’d try to do something with this Southie fascination, and for my senior project I wrote a screenplay about a guy who leaves the neighborhood. And I can tell you exactly when that project died: on Christmas Day, during my winter break in 1997, when I was home in Boston. That night, I went by myself to the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge to see a small indie film I’d read about, written by and starring two young guys from Cambridge. It was called Good Will Hunting. It was excellent. It took that type — all accent and attitude — and used it to create a classic cinema archetype, the charming rogue, and it gave that type a quest outside the neighborhood involving, of all things, math. But it worked. It was endearing, and it focused on the mostly likable qualities of the Southie guy without attempting to define the real neighborhood or bog the characters down in the streets.

I left the theater and made other writing plans. It wasn’t like Hollywood was ever going to make another movie about Southie.

***

THE REAL SOUTHIE. This is the catchphrase of the moment in Hollywood, for Tinseltown is not done with its Southie fascination. Not even close. Since Good Will Hunting, the Boston Irish have replaced the New York Italians as Hollywood’s go-to for bad white guys. Despite their varied Boston neighborhood settings, The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town were all “Southie movies.” And now reality television is coming. Anywhere from two to five shows could be about to drop, each one promising to deliver the real South Boston.

A few months back, I wrote a story for the Globe about this reality-show frenzy. At the time, there was a casting war going on, and when the people of Southie mostly balked at the idea of handing over their story to outsiders — this is a place that has long guarded its own mythology — the producers cast the net outside the neighborhood. That’s because they didn’t need to rely on the 33,688 people who live in South Boston to find “a Southie.”

You can definitely find that type in Southie, even after gentrification and the arrival of condos and the end of the Whitey Bulger era. But you can also find that type elsewhere. I was on a plane not too long ago and the in-flight magazine had a profile of Mark Wahlberg referring to him as “the hard-driving Southie” while making it clear he was from Dorchester. Brandon Kane, a cast member on the current season of MTV’s The Real World, is being billed as a Southie, though he has taken great measures to note that while he spent a good deal of his childhood in Southie with his relatives, he is from Quincy. Kane was attacked all over the Internet for daring to associate himself with Southie; the rule is you have to be born there.

And now we’re going to combine this type — no doubt in its most extreme form — with conflict, because reality television needs friction. Southie has been no stranger to conflict on a grand scale, most famously with busing and Bulger’s Irish mob, but at the moment things are relatively quiet. All except for that low background hum, a sound heard in many Boston neighborhoods, but most vocally fought here: gentrification. Natives vs. the yuppies who have ruined the place. Us against them. Perfect TV.

Timmy Talbot is the most Southie kid I know. The 36-year-old bartender lives in Dorchester now because he’s trying to stay out of trouble, something he’s not usually good at. A couple weeks ago, he was with his girlfriend in The Playwright, on East Broadway, a fine eating and drinking establishment of the new Southie. When he was walking out, a kid, maybe just old enough to drink, hit him with the stiff shoulder.

They turned to each other, as Timmy tells the story, and the kid said, “Watch where you’re going, you [expletive] yuppie.”

“I turned toward him, Baker, and I says, ‘What?’ ”

Timmy Talbot used to be this kid. He still is. “In Southie, you grow up in a tunnel,” he says. “You think you’re the baddest person on the planet. You’re bad because you grew up in South Boston, even though you haven’t done [expletive]. And in a way, that helps you, gives you that edge; you think you can do anything.”

So when the kid replied, “You heard me, you [expletive] yuppie,” Timmy smacked him. “Right in the mouth.” Hard. “Stumbling off to the doctor’s office.” Then Timmy looked the kid in the face, told him his name, and instructed him to go home and ask his father about him. “It brought me to this place where I saw what the kids do to people. They’re jumping people. You just don’t do that. You’re going to jump a yuppie because of the way they talk, because someone gets away and does something with his life?

“They should just change the name to preserve it, put it away somewhere. That was South Boston. They’re fighting to protect something that ain’t even there no more. That’s a place people have memories of. And it’s not what it was.”

The real South Boston is the new South Boston, and it is a work in progress. Gentrification brought a very specific shift in the population: The size of the 25- to 29-year-old demographic jumped dramatically in the decade after the 2000 Census, from about 3,800 to almost 6,600. And South Boston changed because of them. Small homes became smaller condos. Three-bedrooms were priced not for a family, but three roommates. The waterfront, mostly overgrown parking lots and old warehouses, was redeveloped into an entirely new place. There was money to be had in the housing stock, and Southie people took it, cashed out, left. What remained was a different place. There’s no going back. Unless — turn the cameras on, please — we fight them. That’s what “a Southie” would do.

“The press releases [from one reality show] say, ‘Can they fight off the yuppie invasion?’ ” notes Heather Foley, a lifelong resident who writes a humor column for local website Caught in Southie. “Why would you sign up for that?”

***

NICK COLLINS, a 29-year-old state representative, is the first of the younger generation to get elected in South Boston. He’s a native; that requirement for pols hasn’t changed. But his present and future will involve dealing with this new and evolving neighborhood. Collins actually believes most newcomers and old-timers get along in Southie, and he’s worried the television shows will “try to highlight the negatives.” He says: “People who make TV like people who fall on their face. And they’re going to put these two sides on TV, and it will look like a longstanding battle royale that has to have a victor.”

David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1970s and ’80s and now lives in Brooklyn, thinks portraying the battle over gentrification is false, because the battle is over. “Now you’re just pointing at people who are complaining,” he says, and he worries the shows are “just going to make those people look stupid and close-minded, that there are still people in Southie who are fighting the wrong fight.” This authentic Southie, this thing Hollywood seems to want it to be, feels like a stereotype from another era. “The world,” says Lindsay-Abaire, “seems to think Southie stopped forming the day Whitey Bulger first walked into [the bar] Triple O’s.”

Still, for some residents, the fight will never be over. And sometimes the newcomers make it hard to move on. Recently, a 10-year resident wrote an open letter to the neighborhood on Caught in Southie, complaining of hearing the “yuppie” taunt “at least 20 times a week,” despite owning a home and small business there and being active in community organizations. “When will I be accepted as part of the Southie community?” the person asked. Naturally, a war broke out in the comments section and on Facebook. Bringing it up doesn’t help.

I understand the longing for what is gone. Southie is my hometown, and as such my reality is rooted in my childhood. I believe all people are this way. And your hometown is never like it was, can never be like it was, because you are not who you were. But childhood, oh, my childhood . . .   there was nothing quite like it. It was the ’80s and early ’90s. There were kids everywhere, streaming out of the triple-deckers, and the streets were a stage for acting up. I ran with a crew that hung around the Tynan Elementary School — there could easily be 50 of us in a pack — and we wreaked havoc because that was really all there was to do. We were kids with no money and a thirst for adventure, so we created stories to live inside of, to see what we could get away with.

What’s that you say? You did the same thing? Impossible. You’re not from Southie. Beat it, before you get dope-slapped upside your head.

And that old gang of mine. Well, that’s 50 different stories. They were all “a Southie,” and they were all different. Some got into drugs, yes. It’s a big problem. And, sure, some of that gang got into knucklehead stuff.

Here’s the sad truth about most of my old gang: They’re now kind of boring, like me. They have kids and jobs and mortgages. They are cops and firemen and municipal workers. Some go to work in a white collar. Quite a few of them have a raging addiction to golf and scratch tickets. None of them are as handsome as Matt and Ben. A lot of them left Southie, as did I. Sure, they still like to go out with the gang and act up — who doesn’t? — but, as a firefighter buddy of mine likes to say, “If you stay out late with the boys, you’ve got to get up with the men.”

Every happy family is alike, Tolstoy wrote, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Reality television does not like happy families; it simply doesn’t work, because there is no conflict. I know a few nice families that sat down with the reality show producers; none of them was cast.

One of the reality shows is being developed by 495 Productions. It made The Jersey Shore, a show that features eight young troublemakers. Only two are from New Jersey. Doesn’t matter. They helped define the Garden State to the outside world, and now the same thing is in store for Southie. A colorful minority will define the majority. We’re about to be New Jerseyed.

 

***

GOOD WILL HUNTING has turned out to be a double-edged sword. It captured something great about Southie and at the same time ruined it forever. Because what I saw after that was unbelievable: Young women would get out of college and choose to move to Southie. Sure, it’s close to downtown, but the real reason they were moving was because they were subconsciously thinking they were going to find “a Southie” like Matt and Ben. Everything else followed them, namely young guys. That’s how everything changed. That’s how the old Southie reality ended. These reality shows will be part of creating the new one.

I’ll probably watch them and probably hate them, for their reality will not be my own. But I don’t doubt they will make for good TV. I’m surprised it took reality this long to come to the neighborhood. It almost feels like they’re too late.

 

SOUTHIE BY THE NUMBERS

Total population: 33,688

Median age: 32.4

Percentage white: 82.5

Percentage living in family households: 54.8

Median price of single-family home in 2011: $400,000

Median price of condo in 2011: $370,000

Source: 2010 Census, Summary File 1, Boston Redevelopment Authority Research Division Analysis; The Warren Group

Billy Baker is a Globe reporter. E-mail him at billybaker@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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