ALL SOULS: A Family Story from Southie
'It was all we ever knew, and it was all ours'
By Michael Patrick MacDonald
I was back in Southie, ``the best place in the world,'' as Ma used to say
before the kids died. That's what we call them now, ``the kids.'' Even when
we want to say their names, we sometimes get confused about who's dead and
who's alive in my family. After so many deaths, Ma just started to call my
four brothers ``the kids'' when we talked about going to see them at the
cemetery. But I don't go anymore. They're not at the cemetery; I never could
find them there. When I accepted the fact that I couldn't feel them at the
graves, I figured it must be because they were in heaven, or the spirit world,
or whatever you want to call it. The only things I kept from the funerals
were the mass cards that said, ``Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not
there, I do not sleep. I am the stars that shine through the night,'' and so
on. I figured that was the best way to look at it. There are seven of us
kids still alive, and sometimes I'm not even sure if that's true.
I came back to Southie in the summer of 1994, after everyone in my family
had either died or moved to the mountains of Colorado. I'd stayed in downtown
Boston after Ma left in 1990, and was pulled one night to wander through
Southie. I walked from Columbia Point Project, where I was born, to the Old
Colony Project where I grew up, in the ``Lower End,'' as we called it. On
that August night, after four years of staying away, I walked the streets of
my old neighborhood and finally found the kids. In my memory of that night I
can see them clear as day. They're right here, I thought, and it was an
ecstatic feeling. I cried and felt alive again myself. I passed by the
outskirts of Old Colony and it all came back to me -- the kids were joined in
my mind by so many others I'd last seen in caskets at Jackie O'Brien's funeral
parlor. They were all here now, all of my neighbors and friends who had died
young from violence, drugs, and from the other deadly things we'd been taught
didn't happen in Southie.
We thought we were in the best place in the world in this neighborhood, in
the all-Irish housing projects where everyone claimed to be Irish even if his
name was Spinnoli. We were proud to be from here, as proud as we were to be
Irish. We didn't want to own the problems that took the lives of my brothers
and of so many others like them: poverty, crime, drugs -- those were black
things that happened in the ghettos of Roxbury. Southie was Boston's proud
On this night in Southie, the kids were all here once again -- I could feel
them. The only problem was, no one else in the neighborhood could. My old
neighbors were going on with their nightly business -- wheeling and dealing on
the corners, drinking on the stoops, yelling up to windows, looking for a way
to get by or something to fight for. Just like the old days in this small
world within a world. It was like a family reunion to me. That's what we
considered each other in Southie -- family. There was always this feeling
that we were protected, as if the whole neighborhood was watching our backs
for threats, watching for all the enemies we could never really define. No
``outsiders'' could mess with us. So we had no reason to leave, and nothing
ever to leave for. It was a good feeling to be back in Southie that night,
surrounded by my family and community; and I remember hating having to cross
over the Broadway Bridge again, having to leave the peninsula neighborhood and
go back to my apartment in downtown Boston.
Not long after, I got a call at Citizens for Safety, where I'd been working
on antiviolence efforts across Boston since 1990. It was a reporter from U.S.
News and World Report who was working on an article about what they were
calling ``the white underclass.'' The reporter had found through demographic
studies that Southie showed three census tracts with the highest concentration
of poor whites in America. The part of Southie he was referring to was the
Lower End, my own neighborhood at the bottom of the steep hills of City Point,
which was the more middle-class section with nicer views of the harbor. The
magazine's findings were based on rates of joblessness and single-parent
female-headed households. Nearly three-fourths of the families in the Lower
End had no fathers. Eighty-five percent of Old Colony collected welfare. The
reporter wasn't telling me anything new -- I was just stunned that someone was
taking notice. No one had ever seemed to believe me or to care when I told
them about the amount of poverty and social problems where I grew up.
Liberals were usually the ones working on social problems, and they never
seemed to be able to fit urban poor whites into their worldview, which tended
to see blacks as the persistent dependent and their own white selves as
provider. Whatever race guilt they were holding on to, Southie's poor couldn't
do a thing for their consciences. After our violent response to court-ordered
busing in the 1970s, Southie was labeled as the white racist oppressor. I saw
how that label worked to take the blame away from those able to leave the city
and drive back to all-white suburban towns at the end of the day.
Outsiders were also used to the image, put out by our own politicians, that
we were a working-class and middle-class community with the lowest rates of
social problems anywhere, and that we wanted to keep it that way by not
letting blacks in with all their problems. Growing up, I felt alone in
thinking this attitude was an injustice to all the Southie people I knew who'd
been murdered. Then there were all the suicides that no one wanted to talk
about. And all the bank robberies and truck hijackings, and the number of
addicts walking down Broadway, and the people limping around or in
wheelchairs, victims of violence.
The reporter asked me if I knew anyone in Southie he could talk to. He
wanted to see if the socioeconomic conditions in the neighborhood had some of
the same results evident in the highly concentrated black ghettos of America.
I called some people but most of them didn't want to talk. We were all used
to the media writing about us only when something racial happened, ever since
the neighborhood had erupted in antibusing riots during the '70s. Senator
Billy Bulger, president of the Massachusetts Senate, had always reminded us of
how unfair the media were with their attacks on South Boston. He told us
never to trust them again. No news was good news. His brother, neighborhood
drug lord James ``Whitey'' Bulger, had liked it better that way. Whitey
probably figured that all the shootings in the nearby black neighborhoods of
Roxbury, and all the activists willing to talk over there, would keep the
media busy. They wouldn't meddle in Southie as long as we weren't as stupid
and disorganized as Roxbury's drug dealers. And by the late '80s, murders in
Southie had started to be less visible even to us in the community. Word
around town was that Whitey didn't allow bodies to be left on the streets
anymore; instead, people went missing and were sometimes found hogtied out in
the suburbs, or washed up on the shores of Dorchester Bay. The ability of our
clean-cut gangsters to keep up appearances complemented our own need to deny
the truth. Bad-guy stuff seemed to happen less often within the protected
turf of South Boston.
I agreed to take the reporter on a tour through Southie. We stayed in the
car because I was too nervous to walk around with an ``outsider'' in a suit.
It was bad enough that I was driving his rented sports car. People in Southie
usually drove big Chevys, or when they were in with ``the boys,'' as we called
our revered gangsters, they'd upgrade to an even bigger Caddy or Lincoln
Continental. I wore sunglasses and a scally cap, the traditional local cap
once favored by hard-working Irish immigrants and longshoremen, and more
recently made popular by tough guys and wannabes. I disguised myself so I
wouldn't be identified collaborating with an outsider. Everyone knew I was an
activist working to reduce violence and crime. But when they saw me on the
news, I was usually organizing things over in Roxbury or Dorchester, the black
places that my neighbors thanked God they didn't live in.
When I rode around the Lower End with the reporter, I pointed to the
landmarks of my childhood: St. Augustine's grammar school, where Ma struggled
to keep up with tuition payments so we wouldn't be bused to black
neighborhoods; the Boys and Girls Club, where I was on the swim team with my
brother Kevin; Darius Court, where I played and watched the busing riots; the
liquor store with a giant green shamrock painted on it, where Whitey Bulger
ran the Southie drug trade; the sidewalk where my sister had crashed from a
project rooftop after a fight over drugs; and St. Augustine's Church, down
whose front steps I'd helped carry my brothers' heavy caskets. ``I miss this
place,'' I said to him. He looked horrified, but kept scribbling notes as I
went on about this being the best place in the world. ``I always had a sense
of security here, a sense of belonging that I've never felt anywhere else,'' I
explained. ``There was always a feeling that someone would watch your back.
Sure, bad things happened to my family, and to so many of my neighbors and
friends, but there was never a sense that we were victims. This place was
ours, it was all we ever knew, and it was all ours.''
Talking to this stranger, driving through the streets of Southie, and
saying these things confused me. I thought about how much I'd hated this
place when I'd learned that everything I'd just heard myself say about Southie
loyalty and pride was a big myth, one that fit well into the schemes of career
politicians and their gangster relatives. I thought about how I'd felt
betrayed when my brothers ended up among all the other ghosts in our town who
were looked up to when they were alive, and shrugged off when they were dead,
as punks only asking for trouble.
I didn't know now if I loved or hated this place. All those beautiful
dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered
streets of Old Colony Project. Over there, on my old front stoop at 8
Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and
telling wild stories. Standing on the corners were the natural-born comedians
making everyone laugh. Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy
clothes, ``pimp'' gear, as we called it. And little kids running in packs,
having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs. But I also saw
the junkies, the depressed and lonely mothers of people who'd died, the
wounded, the drug dealers, and a known murderer accepted by everyone as warmly
as they accepted anything else in the familiar landscape. ``I'm thinking of
moving back,'' I told the reporter.
I moved back to Southie after four years of working with activists and
victims of violence, mostly in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, Boston's
largely black and Latino neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods I made some of
the closest friends of my life, among the people who too often knew the pain
of losing their loved ones to the injustices of the streets. There were many
families that had experienced the same things as many of my Southie neighbors.
The only difference was that in the black and Latino neighborhoods, people
were saying the words: poverty, drugs, guns, crime, race, class, corruption.
Two weeks after I moved back home, every newsstand in town had copies of
U.S. News and World Report with a picture of me, poster boy for the white
underclass, leading the article, and demographic evidence telling just a few
of Southie's dirty little secrets. South Boston's Lower End was called the
white underclass capital of America, with a report showing all the obvious
social problems that usually attend concentrated poverty in urban areas. The
two daily papers in Boston wrote stories about the article's findings, with
their own interviews of housing project residents, politicians, and a local
priest, mostly refuting the findings.
When I first moved back to Southie, I was always looking over my back. I
wasn't sure if anyone minded all the stuff I'd been saying to the press.
Instead, people I didn't even know started coming up to me, telling me their
own stories. It was as if they knew it was safe to come out, and they wanted
to take the tape off their mouths. Before this, I would walk around the main
streets of Southie and see so many people who had experienced drug- and
crime-related catastrophes, but who didn't connect with others who'd suffered
in similar ways, the way I'd been doing with people in Roxbury. It seemed
that people wanted to talk after years of silence.
Reprinted from "All Souls: A Family Story from Southie" by Michael Patrick MacDonald. Copyright 1999 by Michael Patrick MacDonald. By permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
Michael Patrick MacDonald, 33, who lost a brother to suicide and two others to crime-related violence, helped launch Boston's gun buyback program and is founder of the South Boston Vigil Group. He lives in South Boston.
This story ran on page B4 of the Boston Globe on 08/29/1999.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.