Southie memories

Susan Orleans has an article on changes in South Boston in this week’s New Yorker. As usual, she captures the place with exquisite detail. I know Southie well, having spent a lot of time in and around the Old Colony development as a kid. And yet, her observations brought out things I’d forgotten. Something as simple as Southie’s profusion of nicknames becomes emblematic.

Everyone was on a nickname basis; nicknames being a Southie tradition, an inside joke that distinguishes someone who was raised in the Town from someone who just stumbled in the other day. A few years ago, Wallace compiled a list of several hundred local nicknames for a huge neighborhood celebration, the 2000 Great Southie Reunion: Wing Nut Coyne, Mousey Feeney, Pinhead Richardson, Squarehead Lydon, Beefy Boyle, Porky Welch.

It reminded me of a guy my mom knew: Lefty. They called him Lefty because he only had a right arm, the left having been congenitally malformed.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Southie my whole life. I’ve often felt envious of my cousins who grew up in the row houses of Fifth and Sixth Street. They had a sense of belonging, shared commitment to place, and a safety net. Quincy was bland by comparison.
But, then I remember the projects — a minor ring of hell — dirty, cramped, full of addiction, racist ignorance, and pathetic hopelessness. Almost all of my cousins who stayed there into their teen years wrestled with coke or heroin. Several spent time in jail. A couple attempted suicide — one successfully four years ago.
On balance, I think the opening up this neighborhood to more diversity, both economic and cultural, is improving life in South Boston. Incidents like the recent murder of Bang Mai remind us of how much more progress needs to be made.

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