Irish Slums

December 5, 2013 § 4 Comments

Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island.  He was the keynote speaker.  I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s.  I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family.  But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification.  He was eloquent and fierce at the same time.  He is, of course, an ageing punk.  He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.

I finally got around to reading All Souls last week.  I’m glad I did.  I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence.  One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs.  And another brother falsely accused of murder.  It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point.  I know how the story ends, obviously.

It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston.  The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974.  And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence.  But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate).  And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).

But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie.  I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up.  Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods.  And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.

MacDonald writes:

I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place.  All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project.  Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories.  Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh.  Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it.  And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.

This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie.  Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns.  Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.

The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty.  Doyle Driedger didn’t.  But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do.  It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do.  Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.

But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them.  There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back.  I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood.  Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.

I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not.  But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times),  I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism.  But there is something about this view of Irish slums.

Wither the Working Classes?

April 7, 2013 § 3 Comments

South Boston is undergoing massive redevelopment these days, something I’ve already noted on this blog.  Every North American city has a Southie, a former industrial working-class neighbourhood that is undergoing redevelopment in the wake of deindustrialisation and the gentrification of inner cities across the continent.  In Montréal, the sud-ouest is ground zero of this process, something I got to watch from front-row seats.  In Vancouver, it was Yaletown.  Cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have done brilliant jobs in re-claiming these post-industrial sites.  In Boston, however, Southie’s redevelopment has attracted the usual controversy and digging in by those working-class folk who remain there.  It’s even the locale of a “reality” TV show that is more like working-class porn than anything else.

The same discourse always emerges around these post-industrial neighbourhoods under redevelopment, something I first noticed in my work on Griffintown in Montréal.  Today, in the Boston Globe there is a big spread ostensibly about a sweet deal given to a Boston developer by City Hall, but is really more an examination of the redevelopment of Southie’s waterfront.  In in, James Doolin, the chief development officer of the Port Authority of Massachusetts, one of the players in this redevelopment, reflects on the ‘new buzz’ surrounding the area, going to to talk about how this ‘speaks to a demographic that is young, employed, and looking for social spaces.”  

Right. Because the Irish who lived and worked in Southie during its life as an industrial neighbourhood were really just bums, always unemployed and so on.  And, of course, those unemployed yobs would never look for social spaces, all those little cretins hung out in back alleys and under expressways.  This attitude is unfortunate and is part and parcel when it comes to the redevelopment of these neighbourhoods: the belief that the working classes never had jobs, had no social lives and were just drones.  I’ve seen it in literature from developers in Griffintown and other parts of Montréal’s sud-ouest, so it’s no surprise to find this attitude in Boston.  But it doesn’t make it right.  In one sweeping, gross over-generalisation, Doolin (and the Boston Globe) sweep away centuries of history, of life in Southie, and the day-to-day struggles of the working classes in the neighbourhood to survive and live their lives on their terms.

The “Curation” of Southie and the General Over Use of the Term

December 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

We were in Southie yesterday, the former Irish-Catholic working-class neighbourhood of Boston.  Southie is undergoing massive yuppification these days.  The working classes are being squeezed out, and the yuppies are moving in.  This was clear as we took the #9 Broadway bus from Copley Square into Southie.  The bus is the great equaliser of Boston society; in some parts of the city, it’s the only time one sees large numbers of minorities.  We got off the bus at the corner of West Broadway and A Street, on our way to a yuppified Christmas foodie craft fair at Artists for Humanity on West 2nd Street.  In a lot of ways, Southie looked to me like a combination of parts of the Plateau Mont-Royal and Pointe-Saint-Charles back home in Montréal.  The architecture was Plateau-like in terms of post-industrial spaces and housing, but the people looked like they could be in the Pointe.  There was a curious mixture of the down and out, the working-classes, hipsters, and yuppies of every skin colour.

Gentrification is a creeping problem in pretty much every North American and European city, and much has been written about this, including on this very blog (like, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).  But what struck me the most was Social Wines, a wine and beer emporium in a spanking new building on West Broadway at A Street.  Social Wines offers its clientele “Curated Craft Beer and Spirits.”  Now, I must confess, this is my kind of store: it focuses on smaller, indie breweries and vineyards.  I like giving my money to these kinds of companies, rather than the Molsons, Budweisers, and massive vineyard conglomerates of the world.  But curated?  What the hell does that mean?

According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary on-line, a “curator” is “one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.  To “curate” is: “to act as curator of a museum or exhibit curated by the museum’s director.”

Of late, hipsters and academics have abused the term “curate” like it’s nobody’s business.  It is one thing, in the field of Public History and its corollaries, to write of the ways in which museums and the like have “curated” items.  That is the proper use of the term.  But when editors of edited collections of academic papers start referring to themselves as “curators” and not “editors,” well, then we have a problem.  Meanwhile.  Hipsters.  On any given day, one can go to PitchforkMedia and see articles about this or that music festival that has been “curated” by someone.  The most egregious example of this is the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which takes place in merry olde England, with branches occurring in the US, too.  Each year, ATP is “curated” by a guest musician, one of stature and great fame.  What that means is that someone is in charge of deciding who should play, and the list of artists reflects the curator’s tastes.  Yup, deciding who should play a music festival is curation.

And so now we have a hipster beer and wine store in Southie that offers us “curated” booze.  What, exactly is curated?  The collection of booze on sale.  See, the old ma and pop liquor store down the street just orders in booze that they figure their clientele will enjoy.  But, not hipsters, they lovingly and carefully “curate” the collection of booze on sale at Social Wines.  I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better knowing that rather than having some old geezer just randomly order wines and beers that may or may not be any good, we have the fine folk at Social Wines to very carefully curate their collection.

My problem with the use of this term?  It’s very simple.  It’s pretentious.  And nothing quite says “I’m a wanker” like declaring that you curated your liquor store.  I applaud Social Wines’ mission.  Hell, next time I’m in Southie, I may even stop in and peruse their collection of wines.  But the use of this term by book editors, musicians, and liquor store owners also seriously devalues the meaning of the word in its true professional sense.

Professional curators, those who work in museums and art galleries, do not just collect stuff they like to display.  They are responsible for the content of exhibits, and they are required to carefully make decisions on what is appropriate and what is not, to carefully arrange the displays, to negotiate with sponsors, and so on and so forth.  There is a reason why curators go to school to learn how to properly curate.  Musicians and liquor store owners do not.

 

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