By Indaia Whitcombe
Coming off the train at the Broadway Station in South Boston, I am greeted by the clamor of large-scale construction- in a fenced lot along the first stretch of sidewalk, men in hard hats and backhoes are working together on the latest redevelopment project here on the lower end. Just yesterday I had been admiring the charming brick building abutting the Catholic church and the old world pub next door. Today they have been replaced by an excavation, soon to be the foundation of a brand new building, likely one of the modern up-scale condominiums that have been popping up all over this town for the past several years. Young professionals and families move to South Boston, attracted to the neighborhood’s strong sense of community, its close proximity to downtown, and its city beaches and parks. Once, a predominately white, Irish-Catholic working-class neighborhood, South Boston today is different place- both ethnically and racially diverse. But while the face and geography of South Boston have changed, the old town spirit remains.
Walking up West Broadway, the main avenue is marked by restaurants, cafes, and convenient stores, all boasting the title of ‘South Boston’ in their name. Shamrock stamped neon signs illuminate the windows of dimly lit bars and the Irish flag hangs faithfully above the door. Three Clovers Pizza and the Gaelic Day Salon are among the many businesses that pay homage to the old country in their name.
Along the side walk there is the occasional ‘I (heart) Southie’ scratched into the once-fresh cement and it seems every third person I pass is wearing a sweatshirt that says the same. At the old South Boston Tribune building, a children’s mural is painted across the boarded up facade. It depicts a pretty neighborhood scene full of happy colorful people with a sweeping banner of words and musical notes rising from their mouths- “I was born down on ‘A’ Street, raised up on ‘B’ Street, Southie is my hometown; There is something about it, permit me to shout it, it’s tops for miles around…” This is the town’s very own anthem; everyone knows the words, and they could sing it for you if you asked. And so within the distance of just half a dozen blocks, one thing becomes very clear: people love Southie. I don’t know if I ever been in a place that exudes so much neighborhood pride, it is one of the many things I am curious about, and I am hoping to discover why.
South Boston exists almost as a self-contained world, bordered by the Boston Harbor on three sides and the expressway to the West. It was built on a grid system- West Broadway begins on the lower end and runs through the center of town, intersected by ‘A’ Street, ‘B’ Street and so on. From ‘C’ Street to ‘D’ Street, a brightly colored strip of uniform apartments line the road and spread to cover most of the block to the South. These are the ‘D’ Street projects. South Boston has more public housing projects than any other neighborhood in Boston, they are some of the oldest in the country. Further South from ‘D’ Street are the Old Colony projects, and further South from there, bordered by the South Eastern expressway, are the Marry Ellen McCormack projects- the first public housing in all of New England. Back on the other side of town, West Broadway runs into East Broadway and continues onto City Point, the East Side. City Point, or ‘the Point’ as it is called, is home to big Victorian houses, handsome old Brownstones, and the lovely Castle Island Park, with its wonderful view of the bay. But before you reach the Bay, all the way back at the beginning of East Broadway, and a few blocks South of the intersection- you will find, sitting up on the hill, the South Boston High School.
It was here on these school grounds, where white Southie parents once gathered in mobs and threw rocks at the yellow buses as they arrived carrying the black school children from Roxbury. The forced desegregation of the Boston school system in the 1970’s came with a court order of busing children from black neighborhoods into the white neighborhoods, and the whites to the black. Parents no longer had a choice of where to send their children, the politicians and the courts were now making those decisions for them. This spiked mass resistance from the South Boston community, who through drawn-out protests and boycotts sought to raise barricades against the ‘outsiders,’ and ultimately change. Many Southie kids stopped going to school and dropping out became almost an act of loyalty to their town and their people. The desegregation of schools soon gave way to the integration of the housing projects, which had until then also been predominantly white. These events became the most determining factor in changing the face of South Boston, as seen by the outside world, as well as for the people who lived there.
“When I was growing up, Southie was all schools, churches, and bars,” one local man told me. “We called ourselves working-class,” he said, “but we weren’t even that- we were poor. We were living in a white ghetto. But we didn’t feel poor.” Many of those churches or schools now stand empty, a few have been turned into condos, or have since been torn down. At one point in time it is true that South Boston was considered one of the poorest white neighborhoods in the country- Still many of the locals who grew up during that ti
me recalled it to me with a clear sense of nostalgia for the way things used to be. It was much more family oriented they would tell me, everyone came from a big family- a big family- six, eight, or maybe twelve kids. All the kids played in the streets, and they had fun, and they were happy. You could leave your door unlocked back then. Folks would sit out on their stoop and say ‘how are ya,’ to the people passing by. Everyone looked out for one another. After busing, a lot of families moved out- South of the city. In some ways there was a feeling of defeat, people didn’t want to stick around to see the inevitable change to come. Many people expressed the feeling that Southie has been given a ‘bad rap,’ and with that still years later, it is grappling with its own tarnished reputation of racism and corruption. But the sentiment of pride is there just the same.
Back on the West side, on the corner of ‘F’ Street and East Sixth, sits the Boys & Girls Club of South Boston, in the same location where it has remained for over half a century. While the neighborhood has changed significantly, this building and its mission have remained constant. On the day of my arrival at the Club, I watched in awe as the director, Harry Duvall stood in the entryway and greeted each child as they came through the big double doors, addressing each by their names with almost no hesitation, as if they were one of his own. With over two hundred and fifty members, the ability to know every one by name is no small feat- it is an organization ideal, one that Harry and the staff live up to, and one that I feel speaks to the very essence of this place. The Boys & Girls Club is an after-school program whose mission is to ‘help young people, especially those who need us most, build strong character and realize their full potential as responsible citizens and leaders.’ This is achieved by ‘providing a safe haven filled with hope and opportunity; ongoing relationships with caring adults; and life-enhancing programs.’ But the respect and attention that is paid to each child is not limited to simply knowing their face. Harry and the staff are just as familiar with their families- their mothers and their brothers and sisters, what their home life is like these days, their daily challenges and triumphs.
Each Monday, our weekly staff meeting is a time where updates, issues and concerns are shared among the group. A large portion of the time is used to talk about our members- whether it’s that ‘Billy had a great time at the dance on Friday, and it was really good to see him having fun,’ or that, ‘Brendon’s father is no longer in the picture, so let’s try to give him some extra support.’ These discussions are always marked with such sincere respect and care. Each meeting is adjourned with Harry’s positive and up-beat reminder that ‘it’s our job to make sure the kids have a good day- whether they’re already having a good day, or a bad day-we could make it better.’
Many of the staff explained to me how most of the kids spend more time at the Club than they do at home. And for many, it is the closest thing to what a home maybe should feel like- a safe, stable and supportive place- this is not always easy to find in their lives. The majority of our kids come from low-income, single mother homes, most live in the nearby housing projects. Drug use and alcohol abuse are particularly bad in the projects, though the whole community suffers from the effects at large. In the time that I have been here alone, there have been four drug-related deaths and one suicide. Alumni of the South Boston Club, are in no way exaggerating when they say that the Boys & Girls Club saved their lives. They faced many of the same challenges these kids do today, and it’s easy for them imagine who or what they might have fallen into, if they did not have this place to got to. For a lot of kids, the club is the one place that’s always there for them- the one place where “the doors are always open.”
Inside those doors the brightly colored walls are filled with drawings and pictures, schedules and outreach flyers. The three-story building was constructed in 1940 and has always been the Boys & Girls Club. Many of the staff are from the neighborhood and grew up coming to the club themselves, so they have a sincere perspective of what the Club meant to them when they were kids, and how it serves kids today. Through six core programs- the arts, education, leadership and character development, life skills, technology, and sports and fitness- the Club works to foster positive youth development. Their key elements for success in this process lie in providing a safe, positive environment; supportive relationships; opportunity and expectations; recognition; and most importantly- fun.
When Harry and I sat down together and talked about what my time here might look like- his foremost hope was for me to document ‘the Club experience.’ Since my arrival two months ago, I have spent a lot of time observing, listening, and making an effort to understand what that experience is. For the first few weeks I moved about the Club, spending time in each different area, getting to know the staff and the kids. Whether it was working with a kid one on one in the homework room, or watching a hockey game from the sidelines- I have tried to get to know the Club and help the people here get to know me. Once I began to feel a bit more acclimated, I took out my camera and have since begun the process of documenting.
In addition to documenting the Club experience, I am focusing on specific aspects and programs within the Club. Inclusion is an initiative that works to create a culture of acceptance- one in which members feel welcomed and embraced as an important part of the club. Being an inclusive Club means supporting all of the Clubs’ members, and giving a bit of extra support to those who need it. While the Inclusion Initiative does put a focus on kids and people with disabilities, issues concerning inclusivity are not limited to that group alone. In the past few weeks I have been working alongside the Inclusion staff, learning just what Inclusion is all about. The best way I have come to understand it is in the phrase ‘recognizing strengths and supporting needs.’ Inclusion aims to teach kids that everyone is different: people have different needs, look different and communicate in different ways; everyone has things they can do well, and things they might need help with; it is ok to be curious about someone with a disability, and there is a respectful and appropriate way to ask them about it. I have been using my documentary skills to construct a story about Inclusion- what it is, how it works and why it’s important. Through pictures and words, I hope to capture this unique part of the South Boston Club which is very much deserving in recognition.
In the coming months I will begin a multimedia storytelling workshop that aims to elevate kids’ voices and allow them to reflect on the world around them. In working closely with a small group of youth over the course of several months, I will train them how to use images, sounds, and words to tell stories about their lives. The goal of the workshop is to give kids the training and skill set needed to create a polished documentary piece of their own- and in doing so, empowering them to tell what they as young people are truly facing, thinking and saying.
In terms of developing my own documentary project, I am drawn to the South Boston community- the history of the place, what it used to be, and what it is today. I am interested in exploring issues of change and identity. From the old timers and baby boomers, to the younger generations, I am curious about the people who call Southie their home. For those who grew up in Southie, I wonder what it is like to see such changes- the elementary schools and the churches they attended have been torn down, the world they knew is being turned over into something else almost on daily basis.
Walking the other day on the East side, I came upon a stunning old church where a wrecking ball and a backhoe sat parked in a nearby. I had been photographing the neighborhood, the streets, and storefronts and anything that caught my eye. When I saw this, I stood and watched for a long time, imagining what was to come. Two men passing by confirmed it for me- they were tearing the old place down- half of it at least, the wing that had been a convent back in the day. I made a few pictures of it and went on my way. And sure enough, when I passed by a week later, the convent was no longer there, a pile of bricks stood in its wake. I would like to document this community that is rapidly changing. There is a sense of immediacy in this work, what is here today may not be tomorrow. On the same block as the church, there is a school where the boarded up windows are giving way. I wonder who came here, and how long it’s been empty like this, and how much longer it will stand.