Southie Without Tears

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie
By Michael Patrick MacDonald
Beacon Press, Boston, 1999, 266 pages.

Myths, even as they are unravelling, can be hazardous to your health. Certainly, the varied myths of South Boston–most especially, the Myth of Whitey–have been unravelling for years now, and the damage has been fearsome.

Michael Patrick MacDonald has lived with the myths all his life, and All Souls: A Family Story from Southie is his survivor’s tale. MacDonald, an anti-violence activist who grew up in the Old Colony housing project in South Boston’s Lower End, has produced a contradictory but compelling book–one that condemns the fiercely insular, self-deluding Southie culture that helped ravage a generation of South Boston teenagers, even as it celebrates the spirit of community which that culture sustained.

In unvarnished prose leavened by flashes of dark humor, MacDonald recounts the tale of his neighborhood’s decline and fall: the busing riots of the mid-’70s, the cocaine-fueled frenzy of the early ’80s, and the mounting death toll of the late ’80s and early ’90s, as drugs and depression produced a wave of murder and teen suicide. Yet he remains, in the end, a loyal son–loyal not to Southie’s infamous code of silence, but to the larger ideals of neighborhood and home.

In telling this story, MacDonald also provides a needed counterpoint to the recent barrage of Hollywood films seeking to romanticize Boston’s working-class Irish enclaves. Despite the tough-guy dialogue and the authentic-looking scally caps on display in Good Will Hunting and Southie, those films are still just the movies–still just pap from the Hollywood myth machine. MacDonald’s book is the real deal: more ugly, more truthful, and therefore much more important.

A needed counterpoint to recent Hollywood films romanticizing Boston’s working-class Irish enclaves.

It’s important, too, for another reason: the simple fact that anyone would dare write a book like All Souls is proof that the old world of Irish Boston is dying fast.

Michael Patrick MacDonald was born in 1966 to Helen MacDonald, a divorcee already raising seven other children in Dorchester’s dismal Columbia Point public-housing project. After a relatively brief sojourn with Helen’s parents in Jamaica Plain, the MacDonald brood relocated in 1973 to Old Colony. Helen MacDonald, a Technicolor personality who dominates the grim-gray world of All Souls, did her best to put a shine on the Old Colony sneaker: “She pointed to all the shamrock graffiti and IRA and Irish Power spray painted everywhere, and said it looked just like Belfast and that we were in the best place in the world.”

Well, not exactly. As MacDonald notes, Southie’s Lower End has for generations been home to the sort of grinding poverty and welfare dependency that politicians both left and right blindly associate only with inner-city African-Americans. According to census data, South Boston in recent years still boasted the highest concentration of “white poverty” in the nation.

And life in Old Colony–a project the MacDonald clan saw as vastly preferable to Columbia Point because it was all-white and predominantly Irish–was as hellish as any other dirt-poor project in the country. This was, as MacDonald tells it, a place where the buildings were crawling with rats and roaches, and the courtyards were haunted by ladies in their nightclothes: young welfare mothers like Helen MacDonald, but without Helen’s drive and wit, who spent the day lounging outside in their bathrobes, with nothing more exciting to look forward to than an a fternoon delivery from the nearby package store.

It was a world that Ronald Reagan, with all his indignant invective against “welfare queens,” would have found disconcertingly familiar. The overwhelming majority of families in Old Colony were on public assistance–government-surplus “wellie cheese” was a staple in almost every household–and headed by single mothers who routinely conspired to hide their boyfriends from the Boston Housing Authority’s inspectors. Teen pregnancy, random violence, and substance abuse were the norm in this world, a world where dreams of “getting out” hardly ever came true.

Yet it was also a world that inspired fierce loyalty and a rock-solid sense of community. Old Colony first seemed, to the 7-year-old Michael MacDonald, an almost Hobbesian world of random violence and street fights with kids eager to “offer him out.” But it quickly became home, a place where people instinctively watched each other’s backs and stood up for their own. A major contributor to this sense of shared security was, of course, the overpowering Irishness of the place; in the project, he recalls, shamrock tatoos abounded, and “everyone claimed to be Irish even if his name was Spinnoli.”

Southie’s Irish community, of course, extends well beyond the poverty-wracked Lower End; the working- and middle-class sections of City Point have been solidly Irish for more than a century. But it was in the Lower End that the traumatic events of the mid-’70s played themselves out with the greatest ferocity, leaving South Boston’s Irish with a national reputation for bigotry and violence.

MacDonald’s account of the 1974-75 school-busing riots represents the most accomplished piece of writing in this book. His voice remains that of an 8-year-old trying to make sense of cataclysmic events, a kid who sees and takes part in the almost-daily violence but can’t quite get his arms around what it’s all about. He chronicles the shifting nexus of Southie’s boiling anger. What began as outrage against the middle-class white establishment that was taking away “our schools” soon morphed into racist hatred of the poverty-stricken blacks riding the buses.

MacDonald writes of how the banners at the anti-busing rallies began to change, with fewer references to Southie’s “alienated rights” and with more ugly racist slogans. He saw one emblazoned with the letters “KKK”: I was confused about that one. The people in my neighborhood were always going on about being Irish….[a]nd I had always heard stories from Grandpa about a time when the Ku Klux Klan burned Irish Catholics out of their homes…. I told my friend Danny about the Ku Klux Klan burning out the Irish families, and that the guy with the KKK sign was in the wrong town. He laughed. He said he’d never heard that one before. “Shut up,” he said. “They just hate the niggers. What, d’ya wanna be a nigger?” Jesus no, I thought to myself.

MacDonald also offers some vivid capsule descriptions of Southie public figures who made names for themselves during the busing crisis. He describes former mayor Ray Flynn, then a state representative, as having “one of those red faces that looked like it was melting.” And Jimmy Kelly, the loutish bully who was then head of the South Boston Information Center and now fancies himself President-for-Life of the Boston City Council, he dismisses as “a gangster from the Mullen gang, looking more like a politician since the busing started.”

For all that, though, All Souls does not add much that’s important to understanding the busing crisis; the same territory has been covered far more thoroughly by J. Anthony Lukas in Common Ground. MacDonald’s vignettes may be more powerful–his Southie toughs make the Townies in Common Ground look like refugees from The Brady Bunch–but it’s Lukas who provides the historical analysis and perspective.

What’s important about All Souls is what it says about what’s gone down in Southie in the quarter century since busing began–what it says about Whitey, the code of silence, and all those dead kids.

The busing crisis first exposed the myth of South Boston as a stable, working-class enclave untroubled by poverty or crime. Things only got worse when cocaine hit town.

For MacDonald and his family, the late ’70s and early ’80s were a time of serial tragedy. Three of his older brothers died–one a suicide, another murdered by his accomplices in an armored-car robbery, the third found dead in jail under mysterious circumstances. A sister also suffered brain damage after being pushed off the project roof during a drug-fueled argument.

But if the magnitude of the MacDonalds’ tragedy was extraordinary, the epidemic of dead kids was all over the neighborhood. Between the murders, the overdoses, and the suicides, a generation of young people was decimated, and the lines outside Jackie O’Brien’s funeral parlor just kept getting longer. “It was becoming another one of our Southie traditions,” MacDonald writes, “these groups of spiffed-up kids gathering to see their friends in a casket.”

Everyone knew, but no one would say, what the source of the trouble was; indeed, few would admit that there was any trouble at all. For years, the myth endured that South Boston was a low-crime neighborhood, one kept free of drugs by Southie’s benevolent gangster king, James J. “Whitey” Bulger. There was, other Southie natives say, at least some substance to this perception in the more affluent sections of the neighborhood; there was much less havoc in City Point than in the Lower End. But the myth endured throughout the entire neighborhood–despite the rising body count, despite the wave of murders that rarely found their way into the newspapers, despite the tidal wave of cocaine and other drugs that washed over the place.

The Myth of Whitey endured for so long because of Southie’s code of silence, which prescribed harsh penalties for anyone who would dare rat out a Southie neighbor to the police. Indeed, for many years South Boston reported one of the lowest crime rates in the city–for the simple reason, MacDonald notes, that “we don’t report crime in Southie.”

Like the similar code in Charlestown, the Southie version mainly benefited criminals who preyed on their own neighbors. The great irony, of course, is that the most spectacular violator of the code was apparently Whitey himself, who we now know spent almost two decades as a secret informant for the FBI.

MacDonald is ferocious in his denunciation of Whitey Bulger, at whose doorstep he lays full blame for the rising tide of drugs that all but destroyed his neighborhood. His fury is also deeply personal: MacDonald implies that Bulger was involved, directly or indirectly, in the deaths of two of his brothers. While those latter implications may be difficult to substantiate, prosecutors have indicted Bulger on an array of charges related to drug-trafficking and racketeering. Just before those indictments were handed up, Bulger fled, and he remains a fugitive still.

Ten or even five years ago, natives say, no one could denounce Whitey Bulger in print and expect ever to show his face in South Boston again. Yet today, Whitey Bulger is on the lam, and Michael MacDonald has moved back to Southie. In that sense, the publication of All Souls marks a truly momentous change in a neighborhood that resisted change for so long.

Today, Whitey Bulger is on the lam, and Michael MacDonald has moved back to Southie–both signs of change.

MacDonald’s book has been greeted by generally positive reviews from the national press, and somewhat less positive feedback from some of his old neighbors. The author has been heckled at a few public appearances and he has received a number of what he has described as “indirect threats”; Whitey Bulger, no doubt, still has many friends in Southie.

But the old neighborhoods are changing too fast for the old vendettas to keep pace. The Columbia Point project on the Dorchester waterfront is gone now, given way to the upscale apartments of Harbor Point; in the Lower End, Old Colony and the D Street projects were integrated in the late 1980s. Out along the peninsula, the yuppies are all over the three-decker condo market like ugly on an ape, and Jimmy Kelly is reduced to grousing about roof-top decks and Starbucks.

A couple of miles up I-93, in Charlestown, the Townies have largely given up their own pitched battle against the yuppies; the “Toonies,” as the arrivistes are known, show no signs of decamping any time soon. And somewhere between these two distant shores lies City Hall, where Boston’s first non-Irish mayor in 70 years holds sway.

There are many reasons that the current mayor of Boston is named “Menino” rather than, say, “Brett” or “Roache.” But chief among these is the simple fact that Boston, the self-styled capital of Irish America, is growing less Irish by the day.

In the late 1980s, the proportion of Irish-Americans among those who cast a ballot in a typical Boston city election ranged from 42 percent to 45 percent. Two years ago, that figure had dropped to about 29 percent. While an analysis of the most recent municipal election returns is not yet available, the recent defeat of Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, poster boy for the Last Hurrah school of Boston politics, suggests that the decline has continued.

Irish-Americans, to be sure, remain the largest single ethnic group in the Boston electorate, and they still vote in greater proportion than members of most other groups; all four of Boston’s at-large city councilors still boast Irish surnames. But today’s Irish-Americans are, on average, older than the average voter, and less likely to have children in the Boston public schools. As time passes, they are more likely to die off or move to Milton, which, at least from a demographic standpoint, is the same thing.

Many will, of course, be replaced by other Irish-American voters, especially as the city becomes an ever more-inviting place for young professionals. But a lot of these new Irish are not like their parents or grandparents; a generation further away from the old country, a generation more assimilated, most do not share the same grudges or see the same need for ethnic bloc-voting that their parents did. There are few shamrock tattoos on these new Irish, and little resentment of the yuppies, largely because so many of them are yuppies.

Meet the Author
Slowly but surely, the melting pot is claiming the Boston Irish. Southie may be the last part of the city to succumb, but it is already well on its way.

Francis J. Connolly is a senior analyst at Kiley & Co., a public-opinion research firm based in Boston.