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Slaying threatens South Boston gains

Some see progress on race despite brawl

At first, the news from South Boston last Sunday had the feel of tragic history revisited. Two feuding groups of emotion-stoked youths, one white and the other Asian, engaged in a weapon-wielding brawl that left one Vietnamese teenager dead on a blood-spattered basketball court in the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development.

The neighborhood where 16-year-old Bang Mai was killed seemed likely, once again, to face decades-old accusations of being a racist enclave in a racist city.

To outsiders, it might have appeared that South Boston hadn't changed since schoolbuses carrying black children were pelted with rocks in the mid-1970s. But city officials and many residents of the McCormack project saw the melee as an aberration that threatened to tarnish years of quiet, incremental social progress.

''I love it here," said Marjorie Byrd, 32, a black mother of three children who has lived in the McCormack development for 14 years. ''It's been nice and peaceful, and I've never had a problem. I would live here forever."

In the tumultuous summer of 1975, such a statement from a black woman might have seemed incredible. South Boston and the McCormack development were almost entirely white, and nearby Carson Beach, a short walk from the project, was nearly off limits to other races.

On a series of weekends that summer, large groups of blacks came to the beach from the nearby Columbia Point development in Dorchester and other parts of Boston. One August afternoon, police protected dozens of blacks as jeering white teenagers sang, ''Bye Bye Blackbird." They chanted, ''Martin Luther, the king is dead, a white man shot him in the head. Free the white man who shot him dead."

Those memories linger, raw and unforgotten. Members of the New York delegation to the Democratic National Convention showed that such perceptions have a long shelf life when they initially balked at using a South Boston bathhouse for a party.

Even Byrd -- comfortable in a McCormack complex whose racial makeup has vastly changed since 1975 -- said she first used Carson Beach only last summer. For her, concerns about racist behavior at the beach hadn't changed. ''I thought I was going to be run away," she said. ''I heard rumors that the whites didn't want black people over there, that they called it their territory. But everyone treated us nicely."

The McCormack is a far different place than the development that housed generations of predominantly Irish-American families after its construction in 1938. A half-century later, the Boston Housing Authority began to integrate the McCormack in response to a federal lawsuit that said minority candidates had been steered away from mostly white developments in South Boston, Charlestown, and East Boston.

Even as South Boston remained predominantly white, black families began to move into the McCormack, and the complexion changed forever at the sprawling complex of drab, brick apartment buildings and simple townhouses.

The numbers alone tell part of the story. Only 15 blacks lived in South Boston in 1980, according to the US Census. Whites made up 95 percent of South Boston's population in 1990 and 85 percent in 2000.

At the McCormack in 1989, there were 915 white households, 19 Asian households, 14 Native American, 10 black, and seven Spanish, according to BHA data that once broke down race by housing units. Today, the tally is listed by individuals. Of the McCormack's 1,900 residents this year, 39 percent are Hispanic, 26 percent are white, 19 percent are black, 14 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Native American.

Despite a backdrop of relatively peaceful integration, last weekend's killing in the McCormack project startled many. Boston police were not able to immediately provide statistics last week on race-based crimes in the neighborhood, but spokeswoman Beverly Ford said that generally, the level has not increased in recent years.

''What happened last Sunday is not reflective of what life is day in and day out in this community," said William McGonagle, deputy administrator of the BHA, who grew up in the McCormack. ''It's a community that has welcomed newcomers, and it's a community that has become significantly more diverse in the past 10 years with minimal disruption and animosity."

The changes appear to go far beyond numbers. On Carson Beach, the sands are used by an ethnically varied group. On one afternoon last week, a Hispanic couple embraced on the boardwalk, two natives of India chatted near the bathhouse, Vietnamese teenagers used a volleyball net, and a white foursome chatted on their beach blankets.

''There are no hassles," said Angel Diaz, 20, who had just finished work for a Dorchester construction company. When asked if he had heard about the brawl, Diaz lifted his eyebrows in surprise. ''Trouble always finds its way," Diaz said.

James Kelly, the city councilor representing South Boston, opposed the changes that integrated the projects and was among the most vocal critics of black demonstrations at Carson Beach in 1975. Two years later, after a confrontation between whites on the beach and blacks and Hispanics who had walked over from the Columbia Point project, Kelly said, ''There wasn't any trouble here today because of all of the women and children. If the men of Columbia Point have any courage and want to face the men of South Boston, that will be another story."

On Friday, he said the mixed-race use of the beach is a nonissue. ''People can go to the beach where they want to go to the beach," Kelly said as he flipped hamburgers at a cookout for 20 elderly constituents.

Indeed, Michael Kineavy, director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, said Carson Beach might be the most racially diverse recreation space in the city after Arnold Arboretum.

The melee last Sunday appeared to have been rooted in an escalating series of assaults, the first involving a female Asian teenager who allegedly was beaten by white youths three weeks ago near Carson Beach. Then, a white girl allegedly was assaulted by Asian youths. Neighborhood teenagers said a larger fight followed at Moakley Park, located between the beach and the McCormack development, on the day before the melee.

The white youths involved in the fatal brawl are believed to live in South Boston; the Asians, mostly Vietnamese, are from Dorchester, East Boston, and north of the city, youth workers said. The brawl erupted when a prearranged match between two combatants, one white and one Asian, disintegrated into a vicious free-for-all involving as many as 100 youths.

The tragedy has rekindled concerns among many McCormack residents about retaliatory violence. In three adjoining townhouses near the site of Mai's stabbing, a white widow, a Chinese mother, and a Puerto Rican woman all said they are wary of more trouble.

''I feel no safe," said the Chinese woman, a mother of two daughters, 10 and 7.

''Before it was good. Right now, it is not very good. I want to protect my children."

However, many residents said they are more concerned about acquiring quality-of-life services -- such as youth workers, regular police patrols, and more activities for teenagers -- than they are about ethnic tension.

Kate Johnsen, who works with youths at the development, has volunteered dozens of hours at the teen center there since funding for her job expired in May.

She described the mood among McCormack teenagers as ''isolated, depressed, and frustrated."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has moved to expand the youth center's hours, among other measures.

Youth workers have been moved to the McCormack since last week's slaying and the city has temporarily increased police patrols in the development.

''Bias exists everywhere," said Kineavy, a South Boston native. ''It seemed that it was easier collectively for others to think that this is where that ugliness existed solely, and not where they are. It's not a wholly owned subsidiary of South Boston." 

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