More than any other neighborhood in the city, South Boston has a reputation for producing politicians and wiseguys. And in some cases it was hard to tell the difference.
Where else but Southie could the city's preeminent Irish gangster, Whitey Bulger, and the most powerful Irish pol, William Bulger, hail from the same family. But Whitey's been on the lam these past 10 years, and Billy officially retired from public life last year, marking the end of an era in a neighborhood of 30,000 that locals call "the town."
State Representatives Brian P. Wallace of South Boston knows both sides of the town, and both sides of the street. He grew up in the Lower End, the poorer, grittier side of town compared to City Point, where the lace-curtain Irish lived. Some of those he grew up with became gangsters. Others, including his brother Ed, became cops. Brian Wallace, meanwhile, was destined for public service. He was a longtime aide to Ray Flynn, the only Southie native elected mayor. Wallace won his state rep seat last year, and has a budding career as a writer: "Final Confession," a book he coauthored about career criminal Phil Cresta, is being made into a film, and he has just finished a memoir.
Southie, long the Boston neighborhood most resistant to change, is in flux. Sushi joints are opening and Catholic churches are closing. Real estate prices are soaring, forcing longtime residents out. But it remains a place where blue collars are worn with pride, everybody has a nickname, Republicans can't get elected (yet "liberal" is a pejorative), and where politics remains an honorable profession. On a wide-ranging trek that starts at the Red Line station at West Broadway, he has a story about each bar and storefront, and just about everyone he passes.
Wallace shakes hands with Paul O'Neill, who owns The Quiet Man pub, one of the few remaining traditional Southie barrooms. Once upon a time, Southie bars were only for cops and firefighters, Edison workers, and gas company guys. Now trendy pubs with French doors and polished wood are ubiquitous. The most remarkable makeover is the newly opened The Sixth House, across the street. It used to be the Triple O's tavern, where Whitey Bulger held court, allegedly plotting murder and mayhem. Now it's all mahogany and chrome, taking its name from the police station up the street.
"Whitey used to sit with his back to the wall, so he could check out whoever came in," Wallace recalls.
A block away, at the corner of West Broadway and A Street, Wallace's spirits lift when he walks into Amrhein's. The oldest restaurant in Southie, with a hand-carved bar, it dates back to 1890. The bar is peopled by cops, lawyers, and political insiders. The restaurant serves up a mean plate of scrod and other New England favorites. The main dining room is named after James Michael Curley, the consummate Irish pol who served one term as Massachusetts governor, four terms as Boston mayor, and one term in the slammer for mail fraud. As they used to say in Southie, "Vote Often and Early for Curley." If the Brahmins remember Curley as a crook, the working classes remember a mayor who built Boston City Hospital for the poor.
"Curley did a lot of good," Wallace says.
We pass Shenannigans, which along with The Playwright and the Boston Beer Garden on East Broadway, is a typical upscale Irish pub with good food. We continue up West Broadway to Perkins Square, where West and East Broadway meet, then take a left onto Dorchester Street to St. Augustine's Cemetery, the city's first Roman Catholic graveyard. (The small Gothic Revival chapel there is the oldest Catholic church in the city.) Legend has it that some of the names that voted often and early for Curley and other Irish pols over the years were taken from gravestones at St. Augustine's. Billy Bulger once recalled telling longtime Boston mayor Kevin White that he wanted to be buried in St. Augustine's. When White asked why, Bulger joked, "I want to remain politically active."
Back to East Broadway, we turn right onto G Street, and pass the homes of local Congressman Stephen Lynch and state Senator Jack Hart. Thirty years ago, black kids had to ride buses here past angry crowds. The Boston School Department got rid of the name South Boston High recently, and the building now houses three alternative high schools. Wallace opposes racism, but he also opposed efforts to erase the South Boston High name, saying it smacked of "running away from history."
Behind the school we climb the steep stairs to the Dorchester Heights memorial, which affords what Wallace calls the city's most underappreciated view. When dawn broke on St. Patrick's Day in 1776, it dawned on British commanders to get out of town, because George Washington had somehow managed to haul cannons to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking Dorchester Bay. The British fleet sailed out and never came back.
We stroll down G Street to the waterfront. Southie has three miles of seafront, one of the few places in America where public housing projects have ocean views. We walk all the way down Day Boulevard to Castle Island. Dominating the horizon is Fort Independence, the first fortification in the city. Folks from all over the city "walk the island" to enjoy the sea air and people-watch. The Sugar Bowl is a 2-mile causeway that loops Pleasure Bay. Nothing like ice cream cones at Sullivan's to end a long walk.
"Look at this place," Wallace says, taking in three-deckers, church steeples, and a shimmering ocean. "I couldn't imagine living anywhere else."
Kevin Cullen can be reached at email@example.com.