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Michael Patrick MacDonald grew up in the Old Colony housing projects of South Boston, on 8 Patterson Way. My apartment's exterior, on 490 Pilsudski Way, is identical to his and the other two dozen or so squat brick buildings that make up the Old Colony projects. As I sit on the futon, squinting in the dim light to make out the words of his best-selling memoir All Souls, the familiar street names and locations seem to jump out at me. Outside, I can hear the children playing and adults chatting on stoops, just as they have done for decades.
From the outside, very little has changed in Southie since MacDonald's childhood in the late 1970s. The corner stores, bars on Broadway and Catholic schools he mentions still occupy the same spots, do the same business. But the neighborhood infamous for its racist tendencies, ethnic uniformity and hatred of outsiders that MacDonald so vividly describes is no more. Our most helpful neighbor is a young Puerto Rican father. He lives next door to an elderly Irish-American man. In the concrete courtyard, black and white children giggle together over games of tag. I feel secure walking through the tunnels connecting the buildings, formerly the site of countless drug deals, late at night. Southie has come a long way from its days of anti-bussing riots and hate crimes.
Still, the teenagers loitering on the street corners are segregated by race. The problems of teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and hopelessness that plagued Southie in the 1970s have not left. Instead, they now affect youth of all races, not just Irish Americans. Most of my campers come from single parent families, many with a history of abuse and addiction. However, their behavior reveals little about their troubled backgrounds. My seven- and eight-year olds are as rambunctious and aggravating, amazing and innocent, as those from any suburban YMCA camp. Yet most of our junior counselors, teens from the community, struggle in school and have regular meetings with their probation officers.
While the population of Southie has diversified, the collective mentality has stagnated. There are third and fourth generation Old Colony families, raising children who know almost nothing of the world that lies outside the boundaries of South Boston. Many kids and teens in Southie see all roads out as dead ends or circular paths eventually leading them right back to where they started. So they don't even try, instead accepting the inevitability of their futures, slipping almost mindlessly into lives filled with drugs, violence and poverty.
Realistically speaking, my work this summer will not transform the demographics of Southie. These problems grow from deeply buried, tangled roots. Yet, I can show my ten kids a little more of the world outside South Boston. I take them on the swan boats in the Public Gardens, to the Museum of Afro-American Art, to Harvard. I hope they will understand that a whole world lies just a short T ride away. The realization that different life paths exist, besides corner-loitering or stoop-sitting, is the only way that the next generation of Southie kids will be able to move out. Leaving the close-knit Southie community, where everybody is related in some way to everybody else and gossip quickly spreads from stoop to stoop, means breaking the protective ties of familiarity, of entrenched tradition and overcoming the fear of the unknown. Only faith in a better life elsewhere will provide enough spark to fuel their departure.
Michael Patrick MacDonald writes about the violence, drugs and poverty but also about the unity, sense of community and tenacity of Southie. He captured its allure in All Souls--the feeling of a small town within a big city, an intact remainder of a bygone era. For better or for worse, Southie is changing. And as a biased observer, I hope that it will shed the few remaining vestiges of its close-mindedness while still retaining its small-town flavor. Only then will Southie be able to leave behind its reputation for intolerance and crime. Only then will Southie's children be able to pursue a better life within its boundaries.
Lorrayne S. Ward '03, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. This summer she is a counselor for a Phillips Brooks House Association day camp in South Boston, where she lives with five other counselors in a two-bedroom apartment in the Old Colony housing projects.
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