When Hollywood studios start circling your town like sharks, it’s almost always time go on a deathwatch. New York’s Little Italy was already on its last legs when Martin Scorsese chronicled its neighborhood ethic in the 1974 film Mean Streets. Now the ethnic enclave is little more than a lifeless Potemkin village filled with mediocre restaurants. Something like that’s been happening in South Boston in recent months. Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of the gritty memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie (Beacon, 1999), is now hobnobbing in Hollywood getting his book made into a movie. The inspiration for CBS’s new drama Big Apple is taken from the exploits of South Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger. The signs abound: Southie risks becoming another Little Italy — famous in the movies, but moribund in real life.
That colorless future will seem a long way off on Sunday, when State Senator Stephen Lynch of South Boston hosts the official St. Patrick’s Day breakfast — the sort of event that old-timers cherish and Hollywood producers consider good local color. Lynch and neighborhood political cronies, including Councilor Jimmy Kelly and State Representative Jack Hart, will sing “Southie Is My Hometown” and “The Wild Colonial Boy.” They’ll spin tales and spread blarney. Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift, House Speaker Tom Finneran, and Senate president Tom Birmingham will probably attend. John Hume, who won the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process, will be on hand. And Governor Paul Cellucci might even persuade his pal George W. Bush to call.
But South Boston’s character is changing, and the changes had already started by the time South Boston first made it into the bright lights with 1997’s smash movie hit Good Will Hunting. Two years ago — before the current real-estate boom intensified — a neighborhood survey by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies found that 37 percent of respondents had moved to South Boston since 1990, according to the Boston Globe, and half had not lived there before 1980. According to several accounts, newcomers outnumbered long-time residents at polling places three to one during the recent presidential election. South Boston hosts three times the number of open houses each weekend that you’ll find in the Back Bay or Beacon Hill. According to statistics posted in South Boston Online, the average condo price increased from $159,264 to $294,640 between January and October 2000 — and the number of sales per month rose from 18 to 43.
As dramatic as Southie’s demographic upheaval may be, though, it seems to have had little impact on the neighborhood’s politics. South Boston is still represented by three traditional politicians — Kelly, Lynch, and Hart, whose uncle served as a state legislator before him. In customary fashion, they fought their way up the food chain (and, more recently, they supported the linkage deal for South Boston waterfront development agreed to by Mayor Thomas Menino). But all that may be about to change.
The political landscape in the neighborhood is poised to shift faster than a City Point three-decker changes hands. First, US Representative Joe Moakley, the closest thing to a political institution in the city of Boston, has announced his retirement at term’s end because he has terminal cancer. Second, Lynch himself has indicated that he intends to seek higher office, most likely the lieutenant governor’s seat soon to be vacated by Jane Swift. Third, Hart will throw his hat into the ring to take Lynch’s place. He could face a challenge from Michael Kineavy, the director of the Mayor’s Office for Neighborhood Services, and his own job is attracting interest from a number of potential candidates in South Boston. Meanwhile, another Southie race could be even more explosive: Kelly could face an electoral challenge as early as this fall from former state representative Paul Gannon. (Lynch defeated the incumbent Gannon in a bitter race for state representative before being elected to the Senate when former Senate president William Bulger retired in 1996.)
Excluding the race to replace Moakley, which will also involve inner-ring suburbs such as Milton and Canton, each of these contests will focus on one issue: preserving Southie. South Boston “is at a crossroads,” says former Boston mayor Ray Flynn. “Whether or not South Boston is going to be a livable community for working-class people is really the issue here.” (Flynn declines to discuss whether he plans to seek Moakley’s seat.)
Bob O’Shea, a 38-year-old community liaison with the Big Dig and a potential candidate for state representative, paints a dark picture for the neighborhood should the community and its leaders fail to come up with a plan. “How many families are going to be able to live in South Boston?” he says. Southie, he fears, could meet the fate of the North End: “There are no families over there anymore. The restaurants are there and that’s all they have.”
That South Boston should retain its traditional character might be the consensus, but how to achieve that goal — especially in view of the current political and demographic sea change — is very much in question. That was the aim of 1998’s so-called Memorandum of Understanding between the city and Kelly, Lynch, and Hart, who represented the interests of the neighborhood in negotiations with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Under that agreement, Menino agreed to let some 51 percent of linkage benefits paid to the city by private developers flow to a neighborhood nonprofit called the South Boston Betterment Trust. (Generally, a neighborhood gets to keep only between 10 and 20 percent of such money.) The agreement also required private developers to negotiate the payment of mitigation funds for other inconveniences directly with the neighborhood group. Though the outline of the deal had been public for some time, controversy ensued when community leaders decried it in a 3000-word front-page Boston Globe story on May 24, 2000. And when community groups from other neighborhoods sued — arguing that the deal violated federal housing laws — Menino settled the case. South Boston community groups filed a suit of their own, and the matter is still in the courts. The fate of the deal, and the community’s anger toward the mayor, will dominate the political season.
One sure way to challenge the established order, in fact, is to challenge the wisdom of the linkage deal, and Gannon has done just that. Gannon, a 40-year-old South Boston lawyer who has opposed the commercial development encroaching on his neighborhood, served as a state representative from 1990 to 1994, when Lynch beat him — with the assistance of the South Boston Tribune. He argues that the deal actually made things worse for South Boston. “Kelly overlooked the issues that affected the neighborhoods because of the money he was going to control,” says Gannon, who has continued to remain active in community groups since leaving the legislature. “We’ve been hurt by the whole thing. We’re not getting the funds and the housing money we were supposed to get because of his greed. That’s one of the reasons I’m considering it [running against him].”
Kelly, of course, sees it differently: he says that the South Boston Betterment Trust was a conventional nonprofit controlled by trustees named by himself, Moakley, Menino, and others, and that it was required to file annual reports and provide public accounting of its finances. “Everything would clearly be open and aboveboard,” he says. Still, he claims to welcome a challenge come fall. “I have no problem with somebody running against me,” he says. “I know my political supporters will want to send a clear message to whoever runs against me and give me a convincing victory. I’m going to be around for a long time for no other reason than to make the Globe’s life miserable.”