90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:

As The Old Colony Projects Come Down, A Look At Southie Then And Now

Black students of South Boston High School climb into the buses drawn right up to the school doors guarded by police, that will take them home after classes, May 30, 1975. (AP)

Black students of South Boston High School climb into the buses drawn right up to the school doors guarded by police, that will take them home after classes, May 30, 1975. (AP)

Michael Patrick MacDonald lives in Brooklyn, but the author and activist keeps returning to the Old Colony housing project in South Boston where he grew up and where construction crews are now transforming his old neighborhood.

The red brick buildings are being torn down and replaced with attractive townhouse apartments for low-income residents. It seems like a big improvement, but MacDonald can’t let go of the past so easily.

In his book “All Souls: A Family Story From Southie,” MacDonald tells the story growing up in Old Colony. He writes that this was the best place in the world to grow up in, even as he laid bare its culture of criminal silence, gangs, drugs and addiction — a world in which three of his brothers died well before their time.

There are powerful memories that draw MacDonald back to this spot, where his childhood home once stood — now a construction site, a pile of dirt and rubble.

Among those memories is the busing crisis that gripped this neighborhood so violently when he was a boy.

“There was a kind of denial that I think has to do with being poor and white.”
– Michael Patrick MacDonald

“This really was where some of the worst busing battles happened between residents and police. We could all come running out of the project, line these streets as the buses were coming,” MacDonald recounted. “To be honest, it was exhilarating to us kids. I don’t want to say fun, but there’s adrenaline involved. You’re 8 years old, and it’s us against the world. What’s more exciting that that for a kid?”

That “us against the world” siege mentality features prominently in MacDonald’s writing.

“The progressive world really targeted this place as the bastion of white supremacy that needs to be broken without really paying much attention to the fact that we were already broken,” MacDonald reflected.

He recalled how his brother Frankie, who was a boxer, got involved in a car heist and ended up fatally shot in the crossfire.

“Before the buildings came down — about a week before they started coming down — I had snuck in and spent some time in our old apartment. And then I went into Frankie’s apartment,” MacDonald said. “They were emptied. The street was a ghost town; there was nobody here. So it was just me alone, on Patterson Way, in our family’s apartment, which was exactly the same. I even found this picture we had on the wall back then of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.”

MacDonald gestured to a building nearby, where his sister Cathy had fallen off the roof during a fight over drugs with her boyfriend. She was in a coma for six months.

“According to the neighbors, she was fighting with him over some pills,” MacDonald said. “But to this day, she’s severely brain damaged and just talks to herself and chain smokes. So she’s a casualty of the ‘Whitey’ Bulger days, really.”

Old Colony was known as the poorest concentration of whites in the nation, but MacDonald said his family didn’t see themselves that way.

“We didn’t think of ourselves as poor. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to realize that. I knew that we were on welfare, and I knew it was a little hard as a kid,” he said. “I would observe that it was odd that we were all on food stamps — and everybody’s making fun of black people on food stamps, and we’re all white and on foods stamps. There was a kind of denial that I think has to do with being poor and white.”

“I think busing created bigger divisions than there were…to pit the poorest whites and the poorest blacks against each other, to pit Roxbury and Southie against each other, rather than giving all of us access to better schools.”
– Michael Patrick MacDonald

MacDonald went on to explain the separation rather than the kinship around the issue of poverty.

“I think busing created bigger divisions than there were,” he said. “The way it was implemented in Boston — and, again, I’m speaking as a progressive, as someone who loves diversity — but the way it was implemented in this city: to pit the poorest whites and the poorest blacks against each other, to pit Roxbury and Southie against each other, rather than giving all of us access to better schools.”

He described how South Boston High School had the lowest percentage of students graduating and attending college.

Those tensions between blacks and whites were only accented by the actual physical structures of Old Colony.

“The way housing projects were — these labyrinthian mazes — made them inward-looking. I think that’s the goal of some of the new development is to make this community more outward looking,” MacDonald compared. “It’s admirable that that’s the direction of building here, but there are a lot of deep problems here still to this day that have to do with poverty, that have to do with addiction and so forth, that can’t be fixed by architecture.”

MacDonald explained how the renovation of Old Colony will be happening at the same time as the James “Whitey” Bulger trial in June.

“Those trials are also dealing with the past in a very limited way because it’s all been portrayed as one bad guy who killed 19 people rather than there were systemic problems that we don’t want to happen again — not only in this community but in communities across the country,” he said. “So the type of thing we would need is never going to happen — that would be something like truth commissions, something that would deal with the larger conspiracy beyond one bad guy. How can we get to tell the truth about all of that?”

Though cautious, he does have hope for the community’s future.

“A lot of this stuff, whether it’s the ‘Whitey’ Bulger trials or even this renovation, a lot of it’s too late for the population that was never on anyone’s agenda — namely, poor white people in South Boston. The most we can hope for is the kids growing up in this project now — what happened to my family — that that could not possibly happen to them. That’s the greatest thing we could possibly hope for in terms of change rather than just surface changes and a very limited trial.”


Other stories from this show:

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Canuxcup

    Three brothers dead and his sister brain damaged, and he still thinks this is the best place in the world to grow up in?

    • Nancy Muldoon

       The power of Michael’s  writing is the honesty. He doesn’t sugar coat anything.

      • mplo

        I, too read “All Souls: A Family Story from Southie”, and found it an extremely powerful and gripping book that exposes things that really needed to be to be exposed, if one gets the drift.

    • Kozlowskieileen

      Our families grew up there everyone knew everyone. Like they say it takes a community to raise a child it was like that when I was young we all knew who our grandparents and parents were and so on. Southie is not the same as when I grew up. I moved I got out but my heart remains there. Yes it was a small community of families everyones family.

    • MPM

      It’s where we learned what community and connectedness mean. Those were qualities that were stronger there than anywhere else I have ever witnessed. Those are good qualities. But they were thwarted by a small handful of people. Sometimes the best qualities, like loyalty, can be manipulated by a small handful of bad guys on a community of the best people in the world; and “tight-knit” can become a tight knot. That’s what happened in our neighborhood. But it doesn’t take away from what we had, the sense of one big extended family that we had among each other. The “times” people threw to raise $$ for a family in need (especially for all burials, fires etc). 
      But up against gangsters and their colluders in law enforcement and in local politics, the best place in the world and the best people in the world do not stand a chance. 

    • Fed up

      Yes, best place in the world.  My brothers grandson (age 13 months) was discovered roaming the hallway at 3am alone wearing nothing but a diaper.  His drugged up mother was no where to be found. My brother and sister in law have had their grandson for 5 months.  They want full custody so they can give him a fair shot at life. The mother didn’t bother to see him until right before the hearing. She couldn’t even sit up straight and stayed a total of 20 minutes.  She showed up for the hearing – how else will she guarantee child support money so she can use it to buy drugs.  SHAME ON THESE JUDGES WHO DON’T SEND STRONG MESSAGES TO THESE MOTHERS!  No rehab mandated, no testing – nothing.   Disgraceful.

  • lawyergirl

    Mr. MacDonald is failing to acknowledge the probation officers (among so many other people), who spent years working with his family as well as the numerous other South Boston families in similar situations.  Not only was it on their agendas, it was their agenda.  He is truly remiss is forgetting these individuals and one particular angel. 

  • J__o__h__n

    This was interesting when I heard it this morning.  I really hate it when the same story is repeated.  Don’t you want people to  listen to WBUR all day? 

  • Gina

    It was good to hear from someone who lived in this place during such a difficult time. Much of the story surrounding the drug trade in Boston and the way politicians manipulated the busing situation to benefit themselves is yet to be told. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1596806220 Shellie Donovan

    When you live like that and everyone around you is similar it seems normal. If you don’t know – you don’t know. 

  • MPM

    @b95bb091f3ac19895da4554ae27c664b:disqus Jack Leary and others were extremely supportive of All Souls. And Jack Leary and others up there were amazing, as were our Sisters of Notre Dame and a few of the priests, like Fr. Conroy. People like Mike Conroy up at the Health Ctr etc. Those people know they are not who I am talking about when I talk about adults who looked the other way. They know exactly who I am talking about. The social service workers doing the right thing were up against the most extensively corrupt network of politicians and gangsters and law enforcement officials. They knew years ago what is being written about today in books like “Whitey Bulger” by Cullen and Murphy (a great book). I always give props to the good people of South Boston. I don’t control editing. Most of those probation officers came to my readings when the book came out and stood up and gave testimony affirming the book. 

  • Frank pedersen

    Hello Michael !
    Mike this is Frank Pedersen writing and  “Lawyergirl” is my daughter. I’m sure you can appreciate her sticking up for family as I have always told my kids family above all else, I beleive she wantwed to hear the family name in your interview. 
    Enough of that, how’s Ma and your sister doing? Well I hope.

    Good luck and keep calling them as you see them,

  • Eileen Kozlowski

    Love the book Michael, You and I know what it was like to grow up in Southie years ago. We lived and went through the same things in our families. I have lost a brother and sister also to those streets and times.  I have also lost a son that was a victim of the times we grew up in. We know that the changes coming are all to late for our families as most of them are gone and most moved away. I hope the changes can help the people that come from Southie and have struggled to remain there in our home town that we loved so much, but couldn’t handle it anymore.  I am happy to call you a friend as I was to also call you Stevies adopted big brother.  Stay strong you fellow Southie people.

  • Kaywalsh13

    Hi Michael , Cannot imagine what it must have felt like stand in the rubble of all that history… kay walsh

  • JoJo

    Michael…it was so brave for you to relive all those memories in writing this book. Thank you for sharing with us.  It definitely stirred up some  memories for me and brought tears as well as smiles.  Would love to meet your Mother.  All the best to you, Jo Jo (Maire’s pal)

  • http://www.facebook.com/thomas.plagemann Thomas Plagemann

    Michael- good to hear you doing this. Regarding busing and  class bias, I couldn’t have said it half as well.

  • MPM

    @ Frank Pedersen She’s absolutely right, though. And it’s just hard
    with these news clips. It’s what they are: clips. I would actually love to write about your work in those years. I thought maybe she was from Jack Leary’s family, and if she were she’d be equally right in pointing out the same thing. As you know, I was never before a probation officer in my life (except later as an advocate for kids like Kevin, as Eileen Kozlowski in this thread can attest with her Steven, R.I.P. SK). So I don’t have probation stories where I’m in the room as a client. But one refrain I know all too well from childhood is Ma’s “Go see Pedersen!” screamed at Kevin as he was being sought by the nuns and later by the cops for this and that. My mother referred to you all the time, like some dependable uncle (the rare responsible adult male in the neighborhood) that Kevin could count on to have his best interest.I’m glad your daughter piped in. It was a really important issue to call attention to. Of course, not something intentionally neglected or ignored — just not part of the story that someone else constructed from a quick interview with me. 

    Ma is good and living in a small quiet town in Colorado. 78 years old and still playing the accordion for the odd visitor. Other than that, I called her tonight and she had to hang up because, “I’m watching about Biggie and Tupac!” Her latest obsession is every documentary made about the Tupac’s life and death, and she only wants to talk if I can back her up about “What a no good son of of bitch of a bastard that Sug Knight is.” 

    Contact me at 
    at mac dot com. 
    And stay in touch!

    And Hi @1f0a68dac2fa125b2a5ea23ea7f9be34:disqus ! I have to see you soon.Teaching in LA, but I am in Boston next week. 

  • Kaywalsh13

    How do you capture that inate goodness and help it untie the knot?  Real question, any clue to an answer?  Kaykay Walsh

  • Anthony_Brooks

    It was great to spend some time with you last week in your old neighborhood. As I mentioned, prior to our interview, I started to re-read All Souls, and I haven’t been able to put it down. I have been reminded again about what a powerfully written book it is. It tells such an important story about this city, its recent history, Southie, and the promise and strength of community. So many thanks for that – and for time the other day.
    Be well, Anthony

  • Denkeane1962

    Grew up on Gold St  in 60′s and 70′s until my Pop got a real job in a steel mill in Bpt Ct…….stll miss it

Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

  • Listen: Weekdays, 3 p.m. on 90.9 FM
  • Live Call-In: (800) 423-TALK
  • Listener Voicemail: (617) 358-0607
Most Popular
This site is best viewed with: Firefox | Internet Explorer 9 | Chrome | Safari