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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.”

Excerpt


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