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No, Seriously: South Boston

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 1998


Tell people from Boston that you're visiting South Boston, and you'll probably get a one-word reaction: "Why?"

This working-class neighborhood--consisting of a few dozen square blocks across the Fort Point Channel from Boston proper, and effectively walled off by highways, railroads and its own persistent blight--is a historic district entirely devoid of Historic District pretensions. Most tourist guidebooks hardly mention it, and, aside from one hit movie ("Good Will Hunting") and the occasional dubious sitcom ("Costello"), it's utterly invisible in popular culture. It's the way large parts of Boston were, or might have been, before rampant affluenza set in. And that's what makes it a worthy place to check out during your next errand in Beantown.

But no sentimentality, please; poverty isn't picturesque for the people who have to live in it, and Southie has more than its fair share of urban problems--youth gangs, drug use and alcohol abuse, decaying public housing and so on. Organized crime is alive and well too: Reputed crime boss (and brother of the University of Massachusetts's president) James J. "Whitey" Bulger, on the lam since a 1995 racketeering indictment, is something of a living local legend.

You can't miss this urban-but-not-urbane reality as you trek into the place. Depending on whether you come in from the airport via the Ted Williams Tunnel or from downtown along West Broadway, you'll pass either several sprawling, rubble-filled blocks near the waterfront, or a grim succession of boarded-up housing projects, weedy vacant lots and a faded mural that proclaims "Ireland Unfree Will Never Be at Peace." It is instantly clear that South Boston may be the single worst place in America to be caught wearing orange on St. Patrick's Day.

Southie's main drags, East and West Broadway and Dorchester Street, are lined with old-school, Main Street establishments that cater to the neighborhood people: barbershops, hardware stores with their selection of rakes lined up on the sidewalk, Teamsters halls, pizza joints, churches and bars. You've probably already seen one of the bars: the L Street Tavern (195 L St., 617-268-4335). Thanks to its appearance in the movie "Good Will Hunting," this dive bar sports a set of photos of the movie's stars, plus two enormous "Home of Good Will Hunting" posters. They share space over the bar with the Irish and American flags and "No Liberals" and "Forced Busing? Never!" bumper stickers. Despite the flick's appeal to young viewers, there were no under-30 people (aside from me and my brother) in attendance when we stopped by on a recent Friday evening. But a Guinness is only $3, and the bartender takes the right amount of time to pour it, so who am I to complain?

Southie's Irish bars--really just bars, since referring to "Irish bars" here is like talking about "Chinese restaurants" in Beijing--are near the top of the entertainment ecosystem. If the weather is being typically atrocious, you can count on finding at least one or two places within five minutes' walk where you can sit down with a beer (this isn't martini territory) and watch a game of soccer or whatever.

Step back out on L Street--like Washington, Southie has lettered streets, though no J Street--and look both ways. East lies the more upscale end of Southie, where houses begin to sprout a little Victorian gingerbread and Saabs replace Cavaliers--in short, a decent approximation of TourBook New England Village, except for the mammoth smokestack of a nearby Boston Edison power plant looming in the background.

Most of the shops, bars and restaurants, by contrast, lie west of L, along with stretches of decidedly ungentrified row houses with vinyl clapboard siding and, instead of cute pastel bunny flags, tidy signs reading "Failte," Gaelic for "Welcome." In the restaurants and bars you can keenly feel the neighborhood identity--for instance, while waiting in line for Sunday brunch at Amrhein's Restaurant (80 W. Broadway, 617-268-6189), where it seems most of Southie's Irish Catholic families (which, again, is to say all of Southie's families) have shown up. Given that Amrhein's (pronounced "Ahm-rhines") has been here since 1890, that's not a bad assumption. I gorged myself drowsy on the buffet, heaping plates with roast beef, leg of lamb and more while checking out the painted tin ceiling and the almost Victorian curlicues carved behind the bar. It's about as traditional as you can get in Southie.

Untraditional Southie, meanwhile, awaits at the Boston Beer Garden (732-734 E. Broadway, 617-269-0990). The architectural lighting out front, the plentiful selection of microbrews on tap and (most telling) Patsy Cline on the jukebox are a dead giveaway of this place's status as proto-yuppie magnet. And then there's the Zydeco Grille (77-79 Dorchester St., 617-464-2500); just look for the alligator head sticking out of a purple wall). A Cajun restaurant in this thoroughly Irish neighborhood may not make much sense but, some salty fried-alligator appetizers aside, the food's actually pretty good.

And, if you're so inclined, there are two "tourist" sites to visit in Southie. The better pick is the Dorchester Heights National Historic Site--a steeple-like stone monument that commemorates the cannon emplacement there that forced the British to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776. It sits at the top of the highest hill in Southie, overlooking Boston's financial district, yielding a row-houses-before-skyscrapers view right out of a San Francisco postcard. (Take G Street uphill from Broadway and look for the tower.) Next door sits South Boston High School, the locus of the busing controversy that divided the city of Boston in the '70s and gave Southie an unfortunate moment in the national media spotlight; today the student body is a little more than 20 percent white.

At the very eastern end of Southie (take East Broadway until your toes are wet, then head north and east on William J. Day Boulevard) lies Castle Island; the fort here dates to 1634. Tours run from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but it's also a great place to stretch your legs and watch planes landing at Logan International Airport, just across an inlet to the north.

Those views--and you were about to guess this--may not last. The city of Boston has enormous plans for the South Boston waterfront, including a just-built federal courthouse and imminent luxury hotel, plus a planned convention center and millions of square feet of shopping, offices and high-end housing. And early in the next decade the "Big Dig," Boston's multibillion-dollar road and tunnel-building project, will wind down, allowing the acres of construction pits that crater the waterfront area to be replaced with largely underground highway connections to downtown. In anticipation, housing is already getting more expensive in Southie, with rents ratcheting up an estimated 40 percent from 1996 to 1998.

For now, though, Southie doesn't feel much like Boston. When a good fog settles in, the city fades completely away.

Getting there: By car, from downtown Boston, head south on Broadway across the Fort Point Channel. By train, take the red line of the T to the Broadway station, which will deposit you a few blocks into South Boston on West Broadway; the Dorchester-Broadway intersection is a 15- to 20-minute walk to the east. The 7, 9, 10 and 11 buses shuttle from downtown to Southie as well.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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