Southie, then and now

"HOW COULD you have ever called that hellhole `the best place in the world?'"

I hear questions like this from people shocked by my love for the old South Boston. When I lived there, the summer streets teemed with children playing in hydrants. Neighbors all knew each other, and loyalty reigned supreme. Then again, that same loyalty reinforced a code of silence that might mean getting killed at Kelly's Cork N' Bull Tavern in front of hundreds of silent witnesses.

Sometimes "the best place in the world," as many of us remember our old neighborhoods, denotes a nostalgic longing for a place we "get," a place that does not change, a place where we don't need a map. But in the reconfigured streets of a new Gilded Age of luxury lofts, doggy parks, play dates for children, and homogenized urban culture, it's easy to get lost.

"I think I liked Southie better the old way!" Studs Terkel shouted at me when I recently described to him the trendy new South Boston. How could the 94-year-old liberal icon endorse the old Southie, a neighborhood wracked by poverty, organized crime, drug overdoses, and racism? He was talking about a most basic human need: a place to call home. An affordable life for all families is as important as anything else that makes a neighborhood - and a city - great.

Of course, the crime and drugs have not gone away. If anything, the stresses of having so little may be worse when wealth is all around. According to the latest Boston Public Health Commission report, fashionable Southie and even tonier Charlestown still lead the city in overdose deaths (by nearly two times the rate for Boston as a whole).

Many in Southie assert that the drug problem is worse than ever - though real estate brokers would rather distract would-be buyers from these facts.

"When I first came out in the mid-1990s to tell the truth about unsolved murders in Charlestown, I figured I'd die in a hail of bullets on Bunker Hill Street," says Sandy King, who lost two sons in the Irish enclave that once had a sky-high unsolved murder rate. "Instead, it was the real estate agents who were out for blood every time I said the word `murder' in the town I was born and raised in."

Today, with aesthetically pleasing window grates, as well as high-tech surveillance systems and alarms, the well-heeled can feel safe from the perils of urban living while enjoying its gritty charm. But even if we live on one of the beautified hills of Dorchester, don't the children who are getting shot at the bottom of the hill belong to all of us? In Boston neighborhoods today, there is a new segregation based on class, indeed a greater divide than race ever was.

As much as it might be fun to call for an all-out class war on yuppies, I can't. I am now one of the artsy settlers in a long-established working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. I "pass" in bourgeois circles, so I overhear conversations about being "pioneers" in once derelict neighborhoods - as if no life existed in these places before. My peers speak of nearby housing projects as "eyesores."

Never mind that, for many families in this economy, those eyesores will have to do. Worst of all, people who talk of "bringing the neighborhood up" often consider themselves progressive, and claim to love the diversity that we settlers are wiping out.

In the old South Boston, a kid living in the project could envision a gradual climb from project to vinyl-sided home to the hills of middle-class City Point. But these days, at the end of the block is a whole different universe. And in most neighborhoods the two worlds of townie and newcomer never meet.

There are steps we can take to maintain the old social fabric. We can work for affordable housing and rent stabilization laws. We can volunteer for programs that promote the social mobility of all children, such as afterschool mentoring and tutoring. In a just city, we would all work to improve public schools, regardless of whether we have children in them.

The "best place in the world" need not be a place of nostalgia for a world frozen in time. If we care about community and justice where we live, we can reinvent what it means to live in the best place in the world - whether our own section of the fast-changing urban landscape is gilded or not.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.